Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Regarding Henry

Two weeks ago my wife and I headed for Florida to take our daughter to college. As if 863 miles of driving weren’t enough, we got to travel through tropical storm Fay. After moving Anna into the dorm, we headed north just in time to navigate through Fay again. Ah, the women in my life ….

This blog isn’t really about a Fay, however, but a Flagler. Henry Morrison Flagler. American entrepreneur. Partner with John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil. Perhaps the most important figure in the development of Florida’s east coast for tourism. Owner of the Florida East Coast Railway which, in an amazing feat of railroad engineering, he extended all the way to Key West.

In Florida you find Flagler’s name everywhere: schools, streets, buildings, museums, hospitals, even a county and a beach. The main address for our daughter’s school is 901 S. Flagler Dr., which her dorm room overlooks. With her roommate she has already gone “hot-tubbing” nearby at The Breakers, the renowned beachfront hotel the man built at Palm Beach in 1896.

(When I tell Anna how proud I am that she picked a school with a railroad man’s name in the address, she just rolls her eyes.)

It’s no wonder Floridians toast Henry Flagler’s name. He built resort hotels and provided the means for northern tourists to reach them. He constructed roads, bridges, canals, public utilities and newspapers. He encouraged fruit farming and settlement along the railway line. His gifts helped build schools, churches and hospitals.

Even after a hurricane put the “over-the-seas” railroad out of business in 1935, Its bridges and roadbed became the foundation for car and truck traffic through the Keys.

Driving back toward Virginia, I thought about Henry Flagler (when the weather didn’t demand my full interest). I also thought about Roanoke. Florida before Flagler and Big Lick before the N&W were similar: largely unknown, undeveloped, and unappreciated. (Miami wasn’t even incorporated until Henry got his hand on it.)

And I thought about the differences today in the two areas’ attitudes. In Florida, Flagler is celebrated ubiquitously. In Roanoke, the railroad heritage is seen by so many as a quaint and insignificant factor, a historical footnote with little relevance for the present.

When the news broke several months ago of VMT’s financial troubles, much of the public reaction was not “We must do something” but “They ought to do something” or—worse—“Who cares whether they do anything.”

The Roanoke Times’ coverage epitomized the view that museum leadership needs to get its act together before expecting anyone else to lend a hand. Largely ignored in articles and editorials were courageous efforts VMT personnel already had put forth or the significant extenuating circumstances. And little was said of the need for the community as a whole to own this rail heritage as a core part of our identity.

Public and private donors will give tens of millions of dollars to build and promote an art museum that, regardless of its real or imagined benefits, is still a generic attraction that would seem as much at home in dozens of other cities. On the other hand, much of our community seems unconcerned about an organization which preserves and interprets Roanoke’s historic legacy and which is intrinsically linked to a group of other attractions (Norfolk Southern operations, the East End Shops, Hotel Roanoke, the O. Winston Link Museum, the Rail Walk, restored N&W buildings, etc.)

No community can live in the past. Few places thrive, however, when they ignore it.

Someone recently wrote to criticize VMT’s apparent lack of interest in salvaging the remaining Virginia Scrap Iron & Metal yard locomotives. The comments reminded me that even some of the wonderful people who do care about the museum’s future are unaware of how difficult our situation remains. Saving those locos is a wonderful goal and we appreciate so much those who leading the charge. It’s hard for us to raise money ourselves for new acquisitions, however, when we are struggling to meet an operating budget that has been cut to the bone.

Citizens of this region have a choice. We can own and celebrate our rich transportation heritage or we can treat it with apathy and neglect. Florida and Henry Flagler show us which path is the wise one.

A footnote: I collect songs about trains. I recommend three songs for you who like music and are interested in Flagler’s achievements. Last Train to Paradise by Chris Foster and Oh Henry! by Chris Kahl cover the building of the FEC Railway across the Florida Keys, and Hurricane by Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen describes the railroad’s destruction by the category five Labor Day hurricane of 1935. All three songs are available at various download sites.

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At September 3, 2008 at 5:19 PM , Blogger Scott said...

Thanks for sharing the nice bit of railroad history on your blog.
Classic Railroads


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