NOTE: The Old Seven Mile Bridge closed for repairs in 2016 and will not reopen until 2021. The project to restore the bridge’s structural capacity includes repairs to concrete and steel, a new pedestrian railing, signs and pavement markings. It’s a $77 million project.
MARATHON — The history of the Old Seven Mile Bridge is closely tied with Florida’s history — Henry Flagler’s railroad down the east coast of Florida is what opened the state to the world. For better or worse, Florida is what it is because of Henry Flagler.
His overseas railroad, the first land route ever from Miami to Key West, never was a financial success and then it became a downright disaster. A devastating 1935 hurricane brought 200 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge, washing away miles of railroad. Flagler’s bankrupt Florida East Coast railway sold the whole right-of-way to the state for one-seventh what it cost Flagler to build the railroad.
The Seven Mile Bridge was easily converted by the state of Florida to an automotive bridge — that’s the surface you bike or walk today. Until 1982, when the adjoining new bridge opened, it was the only road cars could take to Key West. (I vividly remember it as a white-knuckle ride, and when you experience how narrow it is first-hand, you will know what I mean.)
Folks in the Keys treasure the Old Seven Mile Bridge and, before it closed for repairs, used it daily. In season, it would fill up each night with people savoring the famous Florida Keys sunset.
In recent years, though, the bridge had deteriorated to the point that no vehicles are now allowed on it except the Pigeon Key golf cart. Pigeon Key used to run a tram out to the island, but now visitors come by boat.
The main issue with the bridge, according to Kelly McKinnon, executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, is that the unsupported sections that were added in 1935 to widen the structure for vehicle traffic are starting to sag.
In December, 2013, however, local, county and state governments came together to save the Old Seven Mile Bridge with a $77 million restoration plan.
The other 5.8 mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge south of Pigeon Key cannot be accessed– a section was removed south of the island to prevent that — and today the remaining expanse rusts in the sun and solitude, with an occasional tree finding enough dirt in a crack to sprout from it.
With no maintenance, why didn’t the old bridge just blow down in a hurricane?
McKinnon laughs at the thought. “The new bridge will go down before the old one does. It’s been there for 100 years; it was made to last. The new one was just built by the lowest bidder.”
Fans of the bridge have organized into Friends of Old Seven who are working to focus more attention on the bridge.
When you visit the Old Seven Mile Bridge, it may look familiar. It has appeared in several films, most famously the 1994 True Lies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, when the old bridge is shown being destroyed by missile strikes. (The explosion was done on an 80-foot model.)
More about the Old Seven Mile Bridge:
- Note the bridge is closed until 2021.
- There is parking just north of the bridge gulfside at Mile Marker 47 in Marathon. To visit Pigeon Key by boat, go to the visitor center on the ocean side.
- Jerry Wilkinson’s detailed history of the Overseas Railroad.
- Friends of Old Seven, a non-profit committed to preserving the bridge. Here folks shared their memories of the historic bridge.
Visiting Pigeon Key: Where the Old Seven Mile Bridge started
Few history lessons are as beautiful as this one: A visit to Pigeon Key, a picturesque little island surrounded by dazzling blue water in the middle of the Old Seven Mile Bridge.
There are lots of places I love in the Florida Keys, but Pigeon Key is at the top of the list.
Here’s what I love: spectacular views, its isolation from the outside world, an amazing human story, charming historic buildings, snorkeling off the dock and the fact that the island gets 95% of its energy from solar power.
Pigeon Key visitors pay $12 (kids 5-13 are $8.50) and are whisked by speed boat from Marathon to the island — a delightful two-mile ride under both the new Seven Mile Bridge and the old one.
A tour guide walks you through many of its 11 historic buildings. Pigeon Key housed the workers who built the Seven Mile Bridge from 1908 to 1912 for railroad magnate Henry Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller.
The Seven Mile Bridge and Pigeon Key’s fascinating history are told through displays and artifacts in its museum.
There’s more than history on Pigeon Key. Visitors can bring their lunch and relax under the shade created by the solar array built on the island’s east side. Picnic tables are available and you are encouraged to stay after the tour and snorkel in the clear waters off Pigeon Key’s dock.
Tours of Pigeon Key are at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. The $12 tours last about two hours and includes a 2-mile boat ride ferrying you to the island. (There is no access of the Old Seven Mile Bridge from Pigeon Key.)
Get tickets at the Pigeon Key Foundation’s gift shop in Marathon, in an old railroad car at 1 Knight’s Key Blvd. or by calling (305) 743-5999. Additional information is available at the foundation’s website.
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail: The best sections to bike
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
- Bicycling the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail
Other nearby things to do in the Upper and Middle Keys
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Islamorada emerging as hub with new museum, brewery
- Indian Key: Kayak into history
- Feed the tarpon at Robbie’s Marina
- Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon
Many readers have written to ask: Can you bicycle across the Seven Mile Bridge?
You could only do this on the new bridge, I wouldn’t do it — but, then, I’m a recreational bicyclist who is looking for stress-free, safe trails. It is not recommended for that kind of ride!
Many bicyclists do it. There’s about a five-foot lane for bikes and the bridge is mostly flat, with about one-mile at the center elevated, according to a bicyclist who has written about it. Here’s a section of her account on pedaling the length of the Keys.
Here’s more about the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail. If your are bicycling in the Keys and want to skip crossing the Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon taxis now have bike racks and can shuttle your across the bridge.