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Florida Keys: The Old Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon


The old 7 Mile Bridge is a great walk or short bike ride.

a Keys: Old Seven Mile Bridge with rusting railroad tracks as guard rails

Rusting railroad tracks serve as guard rails. Pigeon Key is in the distance.

Florida Keys: Old Seven Mile Bridge gap

This gap in the Old Seven Mile Bridge, just south of Pigeon Key, prevents folks from reaching the other 5.8 mile section.

Florida Keys: Old Seven Mile Bridge is a great bike trail

Shades of blue on the Old Seven Mile Bridge?

MARATHON — This is a bike trail with a story to tell.

The Old Seven Mile Bridge is not only spectacularly scenic, it also brings you as close as you can to experiencing Henry Flagler’s historic “railroad that went to sea.” The bridge, an engineering marvel of its day, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, it makes a memorable bike ride or walk when you’re visiting the Florida Keys. Peering over the rusting guardrails — the actual rails that carried trains during its run from 1912 to 1935 — you gaze into the translucent waters and may spot sharks or sea turtles or other marine life. Magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans soar overhead.

You’ll travel far before you find another bike trip with this combination of history and postcard moments.

It is 2.2 miles to Pigeon Key (a great visit and subject of another post here.) If you want more biking after your roundtrip on the bridge, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail extends north for 11 miles to Mile Marker 58.

The bridge’s history 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 bridge and use it daily. In season, it fills 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. Recently, fishing, once a most popular pastime, was banned on the bridge to reduce stress.

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.

Postcard of Old Seven Mile Bridge at night

Postcard of Old Seven Mile Bridge as seen from Pigeon Key, postmarked 1950. (Courtesy Florida Memory Project)

With no maintenance, will the old bridge just blow down in the next big 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.)

If you plan to bike or walk the Old Seven Mile Bridge:

Other nearby things to do in the Florida Keys and Marathon:

 

Note:

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!

Some people 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 to bicyclist who has written about it. Here’s a section of her account on pedaling the length of the Keys.

This is a bike trail with a story to tell.The Old Seven Mile Bridge is not only spectacularly scenic, it also brings you as close as you can to experiencing HenryFlagler’s historic “railroad that went to sea.” The bridge, an engineering marvel of its day, is listed on the NationalRegister of Historic Places.

Today, it makes a memorable bike ride or walk when you’re visiting the Florida Keys. Peering over the rusting guardrails —
the actual rail tracks that carried trains during its brief run from 1912 to 1935 — you gaze into the translucent waters and

may spot sharks or other marine life. Magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans soar overhead.

It is 2.2 miles to Pigeon Key (a great visit and subject of another post here.) If you want more biking after your roundtrip

on the bridge, the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail extends north for 11 miles to MM 58.

The bridge’s history 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 Highway, the first land route ever from Miamit to Key west, was a more complicated story. It never was a a

financial success and then it became a downright disaster — a devastating 1935 hurricane brought 200 mph Winds and a 17-foot

tidal wave, washing away miles of railroad. Flagler’s bankrupt  F.E.C. 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 sleek 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 bridge and use it daily. In season, it fills up each night with people lined up to watch the

famous Florida Keys sunset.

If you’re interested in the old bridge, you better come see it while you can.

It is deteriorating and Monroe County and the State of Florida can’t find the money to maintain it.

Maintenance was in the budget for 2015 and has been pushed back to 2025, according to Kelly McKinnon, the executive director

of the Pigeon Key Foundation.

To help preserve the bridge, 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. Recently, fishing, once a most popular pastime, was banned on the bridge to

reduce stress.

The main issue with the bridge, McKinnon says, is that the unsupported sections that were added in 1935 to widen the

structure for vehicle traffic are starting to sag.

The other 5.8 mile section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge south of Pigeon Key isn’t reachable — a section was removed south of

the island to prevent access– and today that section rusts in solitude, with an occasional tree finding enough dirt in a

crack to sprout from it.

With no maintenanca, will the odl bridge just blow down in the next 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 builty by the lowest bidder.”

If you plan to bike or walk the Old Seven Mile Bridge:

— There is parking just north of the bridge gulfside at Mile Marker 47. To visit Pigeon Key by boat, go to the visitor

center on the oceanside.

— Pigeon Key Foundation site, with good historic information. http://www.pigeonkey.net

— Jerry Wilkinson’s detailed history of the Overseas Railroad. http://www.keyshistory.org/osh.html

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20 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Overseas Highway

  2. FASCINATING. LOVED THE ARTICLE. THE COLOR OF THE WATER THERE IS FABULOUS.

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