Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford was published by Crown Publishers in 2002 and is 259 pages. I did not intend to review a research book for my Hemingway novel for this blog, but it was so fascinating that I have to recommend it.
The book is an account of entrepreneur, Henry Flagler, and his dream to create a railroad that reached the southernmost point of the United States, connecting vacationers and residents to the sandy beaches and palm dotted islands he found to be paradise. Flagler grew up poor, but grew in business and ended up a partner with John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Rather than reinvest his fortune to grow his wealth, he embarked upon the nearly impossible railroad project that would meet much criticism, drain his wealth, and consume his time and energy for the conclusion of his life. The book provides a brief biography of Flagler, but moves on to detail the literal rise and fall of the railroad to Key West. It also shows how Flagler’s railroad–which brought people to places in Florida untouched by settlers–made the state the vacationers’ paradise it is today. Cities like St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami rose solely because of Flagler’s vision and investment.
Though the book looks favorably on Flagler, consistent throughout it is the judgment on him and other’s who push the limits of what humans can achieve, and the devastating results of Nature’s fury. Much of the book explains the hazardous working conditions of the men who built the railroad, the string of hurricanes that resulted in so much damage and loss of life and property, and the final devastating blow of the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 that destroyed the railroad and hundreds of WW1 vets working on the Overseas Highway.
I found myself thinking of Babel and the Titanic while reading this book. Those who take on these projects have an “at any cost” attitude toward them. They lose all sense of reason to achieve their dreams. It seems that whenever Man thinks he has created the unsinkable, the indestructible, and the all-reaching, Nature reminds him of the Truth of impermanence. When men try to be like gods, they find that they are so much less.
I read an article recently that Bill Gates thinks he has found a way to prevent hurricanes. Hurricanes gain strength by passing over warm water. His idea is to pump thousands of gallons of cold water from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico up to the surface whenever hurricanes threaten the gulf coast. At first read I thought it sounded brilliant. There would never be another Katrina. People’s homes and lives would be preserved. Man will have conquered Nature.
But then it dawned on me that Man cannot conquer Nature. We can have no understanding of the effects of so dramatically altering currents and weather patterns. It would have implications we can’t even begin to comprehend.
To me, the bridge to Key West, the Titanic, Babel, hurricane prevention, space travel, cloning, fertility (hello, Octomom), and even the current economic conditions we face in America all represent areas of dangerous ground for human beings. Most of us believe in God (or gods, or an “Other”), and over and over it is seems that when humans try to be gods, we suffer great consequences for it. It seems we will never learn that all of this is temporary. All of this is impermanent.
I don’t know that Mr. Standiford meant to incite these feelings in readers of Last Train to Paradise, but it certainly did in me. It showed that we have a lot to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past, and it shed light on a fascinating piece of American history. I highly recommend this book.