Last Train to Paradise

Les Standiford

Read May 2003

I visited St. Augustine, Florida, in late 1998, and was immediately intrigued by Henry Morrison Flagler, whose presence dominates the city even today. I was vaguely aware that he'd done more than build up that city; something about railway lines? This was just the book, perhaps, to satisfy my curiosity.

The story is a remarkable one. Flagler makes a small packet as a grain broker in Cleveland, where he befriends one John Rockefeller. Flagler loses the money, but then joins Rockefeller to found a company called Standard Oil. He becomes the Paul Allen to Rockefeller's Bill Gates, eventually growing unimaginably rich. In a life full of personal tragedy, he falls in love with Florida. While at Standard Oil, he masters the intricacies of, amongst other things, the railways. He senses opportunity along Florida's east coast, and extends rail service all the way down to Miami (then a hamlet), building luxuy hotels all along the way (so that's who Spring Breakers must thank). This coincides with the height of the Gilded Age, though it's not clear he profits from all this. But in the end he is driven by ambition more than profit: he is resolved to take rail all the way to Key West, which includes powering locomotives right over the ocean.

Standiford works this wealth of material, but just barely. The book reads a bit like a history written for teens. Standard Oil was one of the more vicious companies in all of corporate history, but we learn little about their practices (and, more to the point, about Flagler's role in them). Often the author wonders about a character's motive, posits tantalizing, plausible and intriguingly different options, but concludes that we will never know the truth. (In this respect, the book is a case study in why successful history works: all that research into diaries, letters and other minutiae, which too often ruin the flow of a good story, is sorely missed here. At least the index is excellent.) And money! So much of Flagler's life revolved around money, and so does the book's understated premise: that to Flagler, the rail to Key West was more than just a commercial venture—it was a calling. Yet we never learn of Flagler's concrete financial plans for the rail (which surely he knew to make and must have made), and even more frustratingly, of what it actually cost him. We learn of soaring costs, of the huge expenses wrought by hurricanes, of the unlikelihood of commercial success, of spendthrifty wives, and even of a loan... and yet never get a balance sheet. How much more remarkable Flagler's monomania would be if he were rapidly running dry (so to speak) and knew it! Yet Standiford entirely deprives us of this insight.

For all that, this isn't an awful book. The lead supporting actor, the railway itself, is presented well; we learn of its fate and what it has spawned. Standiford writes with a light touch, so this is pleasant airplane reading, say. If only he'd bothered to dig into some details, this could have been a terrific book.