Jan 15, 2016

Ventura Takes the Oversea Railroad Home

Between 1912 and 1935, you could buy a train ticket from any American town to any Cuban town that was served by a railroad. By 1912 Henry Flagler had extended his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. He built 38 bridges, including one 7 miles long, connecting the islands of the Florida Keys. Passengers reported that from their seats they would see tall ocean waves on both sides of their train as it crossed the longer bridges, just like as if they were at sea. They called it the Oversea Railroad and in its time it was widely known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”A hurricane in 1935 destroyed the railroad and his bridges were reused to build the first highway to Key West.

So yes, during those 23 years, you could walk into any travel agent or railroad station, big or small, and buy a train ticket to Camaguey if you wanted. And Cubans could buy a train ticket to any American or Canadian town. The ticket agent would staple together a book of tickets that would get you there, with one coupon for each transportation company on the route. One of the tickets in the book was for the P&O steamer that met the train in Key West and took you 90 miles by sea to Havana, where you could board the Cuba Railroad’s Express Train No. 1 to Camaguey.

In 1920, 22 year old Ventura Martínez did just that; he bought a ticket from New York City to Cuba, probably to his home town of Camaguey. There are stamps in his passport to prove it. How did he get to New York?  Did he go for business or pleasure?  Did someone else accompany him?  That we don’t know.  But stamps on his passport make it highly likely that he took the train back to Cuba.
Joaquín Ventura Martínez y Martínez

His passport was freshly issued, dated August 12, 1920. In those days a passport was a single large sheet of heavy watermarked paper, folded numerous times to fit a pocket. One side was the passport itself and the other side was for visa stamps and entry and exit stamps. The next day he got a visa from the American Consulate in Havana good for two years. Then on September 15, he checked in with the Cuban Consulate in New York. The final stamp is an exit stamp from U.S. Customs in Key West dated the 21st. There is nothing else on the passport.


The passport has a photo of him pasted on the back fold, and this description on its face: Parents Joaquin and Mariana, born in Havana, Cuba, Age 22 years, status  single, Profession lawyer, Height normal, skin color wheat-colored, eyes dark, hair brown, beard and mustache shaved.  His trip to New York is not documented on this passport, just his return. He was probably just waved through on his arrival.

Using a copy of the December 1925 The Official Guide to the Railways I got on eBay — a 1665 page book with timetables for all North American and Caribbean railroads and steamships — it is easy to reconstruct his itinerary. The ticket agent that sold him his ticket would have consulted the September 1920 edition of the same book to figure out what combination of tickets to sell him. I’m assuming my 1925 book is not much different, so he would have gotten a ticket book with coupons for transportation all the way from New York City to Camaguey. 

His Passport, Folded Shut
Most trains heading south left New York City from the original awe-inspiring iron-and-glass-ceilinged Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan and Ventura could have taken any number of trains. The fastest and most direct train to Cuba was Train 75, the daily Havana Special operated by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. It was advertised at “51½ hours New York to Havana” and it left New York at 12:30 p.m.

Four four different railroads hauled his train south from New York City to Key West. After an electric locomotive pulled his train through tunnels under the Hudson River to Manhattan Transfer, New Jersey, Pennsylvania Railroad steam locomotives got his train to Washington. At 6:20 p.m. a RF&P locomotive pulled it to Richmond, where at 9:30 p.m. it entered its home railroad, the Atlantic Coast Line, for the overnight leg to Jacksonville. At 2:20 p.m. the next day in Jacksonville the Florida East Coast railroad took over and got his train all the way to Key West, shedding cars along the way. Sleepers destined for West Palm Beach and Miami, each manned with an attendant, would be cut from the rear of the train at each station and its passengers left to sleep in their berths until morning. Ventura would have spent his second night on the Havana Special traveling through Florida, passing Miami at 3 a.m., and arriving at Key West at 8:30 a.m. The train was taken right to the pier where the P&O steam ship was waiting to take him on the 90-mile 7-hour trip to Havana.
Exit Stamp at Key West

The ship was scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. but would wait for the train if it was late. If it left on time and seas were calm it would arrive at Havana at 4 p.m. After clearing Cuban customs, a coupon in his ticket book would have paid for a transfer to Central Station where he would have had plenty of time for dinner before boarding Express Train No. 1 for Camaguey. It left Havana at 9:02 pm behind a United Railroads of Havana locomotive. While he slept on his last night on the road, his train’s locomotive would be replaced in Santa Clara with a Cuba Railroad locomotive that would take the train the rest of the way to Camaguey.  He probably sent a telegram home from the station before he boarded the train letting them know he would be arriving in Camaguey the next day. A three-word telegram would not cost that much: “Arrive tomorrow (signed) Ventura” and they would know to be at the station to meet him.


So to match the stamp in his passport, unless he broke his trip en route for sight-seeing or business he would have boarded the Havana Special in New York on Sunday the 19th and would have arrived in Camaguey Wednesday at 11:45 a.m.  It would have been a first class trip all the way. The Havana Special was “All-Pullman,” code for a first-class only extra-fare train. He would have a seat on a couch that converted into a bed at night, and comfortable arm chairs to choose from in the Club car, where the bartender would be sure to keep his glass full and iced, with a tray of snacks nearby. He would have eaten three hot-cooked meals a day in the dining car, seated at a two or four-top table with other passengers if he was indeed traveling alone. On the ship, P&O’s first-class salons and sitting rooms were sumptuous and the luncheon buffet legendary. Cuba Railroad’s Express had Pullman-built sleepers for their first class passengers and a parlor car with a full bar. Too bad Ventura was not much of a drinker, but he did love iced drinks.

Still, that trip is a long time to be traveling almost non-stop.  The alternative was taking a steamship from New York to Havana, but that was around 85 hours at sea (four nights) plus the overnight train to Camaguey.  Same-day travel from New York City to Cuba had to wait for the airplane to be perfected. Until then, the Havana Special across the Oversea Railway, just two overnights to Havana, was the fastest way. 

The Cuba Railroad – “The heavy black lines are owned and operated by the Company”
This 1912 map shows the connection from Key West to Havana. Click to zoom in.
The less-heavy black line from Havana to Santa Clara is the United RR of Havana main line.

Abbreviated Schedule for ACL’s Havana Special
December 1925 The Official Guide of the Railways

Havana Special Consist
December 1925 The Official Guide of the Railways

What were those eight coupons in his ticket book?
  1. Train 75 on the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York City to Washington
  2. Train 75 on the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad to Richmond
  3. Train 75 on the Atlantic Coast Line Railway to Jacksonville
  4. Train 113 on the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West*
  5. Passage on the Peninsular and Occidental Steamship Company to Havana
  6. Transfer from passenger docks to Havana Central Station
  7. Train 1 on the United Railways of Havana to Santa Clara
  8. Train 1 on The Cuba Railroad to Camaguey
Stubs from a ticket book after the coupons were removed
These are not his tickets.
* The train split in Jacksonville, with some cars continuing to Tampa as Train 75 and others to Key West as Train 113.

He paid his total fare to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The conductors or other officials from the other transportation companies “lifted” the coupons from his coupon book so their transportation company could forward them to the Pennsylvania RR for reimbursement. Remember, no computers back then; everything was paper and ink. Those coupons were the only evidence of payment, worth their value as cash.

How did the ticket clerk know there were available seats on the trains and ships before he issued the tickets?  He telegraphed reservations centers at each company and got almost instant replies. Then they wrote the car and seat numbers they were given in the replies on each coupon.

How much did he pay?  Maybe $60 one way, or around $750 in today's dollars. Meals and drinks on board, and tips, not included. How much did you pay for your last airplane trip to the Caribbean? Was it first class?

Pennsylvania Station, New York City
Club Car of the Era

Dining Car of the Era

1902 FEC Train on one of the many bridges to Key West

FEC Train Traveling in a Storm in 1912
Artist conception published in Russian magazine Nature and People, 1915
There were no serious storms reported for the Florida Keys in 1920
S.S. Governor Cobb at P&O Dock in Key West
An FEC passenger train can be seen on the left, meeting the ship
Written on back of postcard: “This is the boat we went to Cuba on.”

Peninsular and Occidental Lines Arcadia
First Class Observation Lounge

One of Havana’s 1914 Passenger Ship Piers, recently rehabilitated


Central Railway Station, Havana
Four floors and a mezzanine, 150,000 square feet.
Kenneth Mckenzie Murchison, architect
Cuba Railroad Station, Camaguey, Trackside
This photo is circa 1912