In February, I led a 10-day trip through the Florida Keys and one of our stops included a short boat ride to the Pigeon Key historic district, one of Henry Flagler’s work camps as his crews built the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. We took a docent-led tour there, and the docent started talking about the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
In the Keys and in hurricane history circles, this hurricane is legendary. Awful things happened, many to WWI veterans who had found work in the Keys. There was one bright spot for veterans, though: Those who boarded the train intended to bring them back to the mainland survived. Oh, the hurricane swept the train off its tracks, yes, but the vets in the train survived. It’s pretty much the only survival story people tell.
Except this docent. She told our group that the men on the train got swept to sea and died. I found this somewhat curious, because the photo of the train – off its tracks, but definitely not “swept out to sea” is fairly well-known (again, in hurricane history and Florida history circles… it’s a relative term).
I asked this docent how she knew about the train, and she told me that a man named Seth Bramson told her. Four-plus years ago, I met Seth at a Florida conference, and while I find him a bit of a curmudgeon, I find him delightfully curmudgeonly – and also wildly knowledgeable about the FEC and Henry Flagler. I emailed him and asked about this; he replied almost immediately and – reader, I shit thee not – actually used the world “folderol” in his response. After the tour, I let the group know that the docent may have gotten her information from somewhere, but it wasn’t from Seth.
And if she did send him some orange blossoms (she didn’t) how did she do so, by FedEX overnight? By U S P S next day delivery?
So when I sat down to write my much-delayed February March April newsletter, I wanted to let readers know about his massive collection and how they could, if they so desired, learn more about Seth, the FEC, and other bits of South Florida history. Seth sent an effusive thank you for the shout out, and I want to share it here, because it’s delightful and also filled with righteous indignation over the way some folks have perhaps misrepresented South Florida history.
“But in addition to being ‘Mr. F. E. C.’ and ‘Mr. Miami Memorabilia,’ I am also known at ‘the great debunker,’ because as Cathy noted, so much of the tripe, the hooey, the silliness spewed out by so many of the know-nothings who think they know everything is nothing short of shameful.
“For you information, edification and enlightenment (not to mention, which I am doing, your amusement!), just a few debunkings of the nonsense:
“The railroad car that was on Knight’s Key and is now at the preserve a few miles up the road is not and never was FEC. The story is nonsense. It was a circus car and was brought to Knight’s Key by the brothers from Coral Gables who had a land scam going and thought the car would attract potential buyers, but they never, ever said it was from the FEC, which it wasn’t (it was actually a New York Central Railroad car which had been sold to one of the circuses.) That silliness started after the late, great Dan Gallagher died and the new people came up with that fable.”
I love Crane Point, the nature attraction behind the train car, but never knew this about the train car itself. I always assumed it had something to do with the FEC, but when I next travel to the Keys, I’m definitely taking a closer look. Seth continues…
“Julia Tuttle never sent any orange blossoms or any other fruit to Mr. Flagler to get him to extend the railroad to Biscayne Bay. He did it because she, the Brickells, the state of Florida and private land owners gave Mr. Flagler alternate sections of land on either side of the track to induce him to extend the railroad. (A section is 640 acres) And if she did send him some orange blossoms (she didn’t) how did she do so, by FedEX overnight? By U S P S next day delivery? The story was debunked as early as 1913 in a promotional booklet issued by the then-incorporated Village of Coconut Grove (which we have here in The Bramson Archive) which stated that, while the story is very romantic, no such thing occurred.”
I always wondered about how the alleged orange blossom arrived in such great shape that it tempted Henry Flagler to make such a grand business decision. Seth’s explanation makes a lot more sense. No disrespect, of course, to the “Mother of Miami.” And about that…
“Julia Tuttle was not, contrary to the nonsense bandied about the late queen bee and Miami’s walking fountain of MISinformation (no names, please, we’re British!) ‘the mother of Miami’, as there were at least four ‘mothers of Miami’: Mary Brickell, Mrs. John Sewell, Mrs. Tuttle and Ida Cohen, wife of Miami’s first permanent Jewish settler, Isidor Cohen, who arrived on the shores of Biscayne Bay on Feb. 6, 1896. (The Brickells were here by the mid-1870s; Mrs. Tuttle did not arrive here until 1888, although her parents were here at least by 1878.)”
“Jews were not allowed to buy property north of Fifth Street on Miami Beach until after 1920.” Even as a young person I asked, ‘how do you know that; where is it written?’ They didn’t know and it wasn’t written, and when I wrote L’Chaim! The History of the Jewish Community of Greater Miami, the Cohen family turned over all of the family’s historic records to me, and sure enough, therein, were the two letters from Lummus Brothers Investment Company dated February and March, 1917, selling Mr. Cohen land north of Fifth Street on Miami Beach.”
I’d never heard such a thing, but I can tell – with equal passion and outrage – all about the “fake history” that abounds in my town, so I share his angst about debunking myths like this.
Seth has 15 different talks on South Florida, local, and Florida transportation history, seven of which he calls his “adult show and tell” talks (doesn’t that sound luscious?) where he brings memorabilia for people to see. He’s a fascinating guy. You can email him if you want to learn more about his collection (or fake South Florida history).