Flagler historian recounts lifelong love

In the wee hours of the morning, Miami author Seth Bramson took a phone call that still gives him shivers nearly 25 years later.

The avowed railroad fanatic and historian was appearing on a Miami radio talk show; the subject was Miami history, and a caller phoned in and asked to speak to Bramson.

“In that soft, sweet Florida cracker accent, a voice said: ‘Hello Mr. Bramson, my name is Margaret Grutzbach, and we came to Miami in 1906 when I was 6 years old.’”

Thus began an odyssey recounted in Bramson’s latest book, “The Greatest Railroad Story Ever Told: Henry Flagler & the Florida East Coast Railway’s Key West Extension.”

As Bramson discovered live while on the air with Grutzbach, she was the daughter of Frank Rogers -- Henry Flagler’s chief steward on the construction of the Key West Extension. Her father was the first railroad official to greet Flagler when the first train arrived in Key West on Jan. 22, 1912.

And then, on that radio show, Grutzbach delivered the stunner: She had kept her father’s journals and his photos taken during construction.

Recalling that moment more than 25 years later, Bramson’s voice takes on a hurried and excited pace, recreating the excitement he felt at the “stunning news” delivered in the wee hours of that 11 p.m.-5 a.m. call-in radio program.

Some of those photos along with other memorabilia from the Florida East Coast Railway’s early history are on loan from Bramson and part of an exhibit at the Key West Art and Historical Society at the Custom House, 281 Front St.

The exhibit opens Jan. 22 -- marking the 100th anniversary of Flagler’s arrival on the first train to reach the Southernmost City.

Bramson will deliver a lecture on the remarkable story of Flagler and the railroad he took to the sea in a talk Jan. 23 at The Studios of Key West. The talk is sponsored by the Friends of the Key West Library.

Bramson, a college professor and author (he teaches history at Florida International University and Barry University), confesses a lifelong love of railroads.

He came to Miami in 1947 and remembers accompanying his father to the Buena Vista Yard, which was the main railroad’s hub near downtown Miami.

“For three years, every Sunday my father and I would visit the yard and climb all over the steam locomotives. And not once did anyone ever chase us away or ask what we were doing there,” he said. Bramson never forgot that early fascination with railroads and “in May 1957 walked into the F.E.C. ticket office in downtown Miami and asked for timetables. That’s how it all started.”

Big collection

Fifty-six years later, he describes himself as the “senior collector of F.E.C. railways, Florida transportation memorabilia, Miami memorabilia and Floridiana in America.”

Among his prized possessions: The only bridge builder’s plate from the old Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon. He also has nearly a dozen railroad uniforms complete with the original buttons and insignia, along with two dozen passenger train hats worn by the various crew members.

He also has thousands of other historic artifacts and memorabilia -- a private collection larger than the holdings kept by the state museum or even those owned by the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach.