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A Late in Life Burst of Creativity for Florida’s Most Published History Author

Over the past several years I have noted that it is time for me to stop worrying about who might be insulted by and/or with the facts and the truth about Florida, especially South Florida history.

Following my collaboration with Professor Gregg Turner, in writing and captioning The Plant System of Railroads, Steamships and Hotels I had what I smilingly refer to as “a late in life burst of creativity.”  By now I’m certain (well, at least I’m thinking) that you are all breathlessly waiting to find out what that means. And because I want to allay your anxiety, I’m going to tell you!

After the publication of  my first book, Speedway to Sunshine:  The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway in December of 1984, and the re-writing of The Story of a Pioneer the corporate, in-house history of that famous railroad, I did not write another book until the publisher of Speedway suggested, in 2000, that it really was time for the revised and enlarged edition of that book to be put together and published.

I got to work immediately but the reader should know that I was, at that time, using that machine with a keyboard which required the user to, at the end of each line, pull the handle to get to the next line.  In addition, if I—or anyone using that machine—made an error, he or she had to use some kind of paper eraser to remove said error and then go back for a “do-over.” Now what was the name of that piece of equipment?  Oh, right!  A typewriter! But with my converting to the computer shortly after the Revised and Enlarged Edition came out, life changed dramatically.

Long story short, I worked on the revised and enlarged edition for almost two years, bringing the story of America’s most exciting railroad up-to-date. As noted through the years, when the publisher announced, in October of 2002, that the Revised and Enlarged edition of Speedway to Sunshine would be published in December, the book would become—now notice the disclaimer words—the single best selling regional railroad history book ever published, with copies going on ebay—even then—for $380 a copy and Myrna asking me why we didn’t keep more copies!

As I have written previously, not only did all 4,000 hard cover copies sell out in thirteen days but the next edition of 4,000 hard cover copies also sold out, although taking a bit longer than thirteen days.  Still, when the soft cover (heavy stock, high gloss) edition was published now 21 years ago Speedway to Sunshine was (disclaimer words!) the single best-selling regional railroad history ever published in America with 11,000 copies sold, and that before the soft-cover edition came out!

I often get asked, “Seth, aren’t you proud of that?”  And the answer, and not with false modesty, is that it is not for me to be “proud,” but, rather that the entire state should be proud of the fact that the history of our fabled railroad is, simply put, the number one selling regional railroad history book in the country, and that is almost hard to believe.

Now only 366 miles from Bowden Yard, Jacksonville, to Hialeah Yard, Miami, and with one branch line from Ft. Pierce to Lake Okeechobee, which is leased to another railroad, the FEC is the best run, best maintained, best operated, most exciting railroad in the country, with a history which is beyond glorious and which includes the building and later destruction of the Key West Extension along with all of the other achievements of the man whose name is truly legendary in Florida and who is considered the single greatest name in the history of the state, Henry Morrison Flagler. That story is so rich and deep in Florida history and is so entwined with exciting events and accomplishments that it can be easily understood why Speedway to Sunshine is number one.

But what about the Plant System book which, as noted above, I wrote with Professor Turner?

In 1899 Reverend William Smyth wrote a biography of Florida’s second most important person, Henry Bradley Plant, whose system of railroads, steamships and hotels, with only the exception of a few of the hotels, was sold by his wife and son after his death in 1899 to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Unlike the FEC, which is a vibrant, living entity, the Plant System was and had been essentially deceased for (at the time our book on that entity was published) 102 years. You can imagine, therefore, what it would take to rebuild the corporate history, as railroads and other companies do not seem to be interested in doing very much to maintain the histories of their predecessors, much less their own, at that time.

At any rate, Professor Turner contacted me and asked me to co-author the book with him, which I did, providing the majority of photos and memorabilia, writing the captions, and working with the Professor on the chapters and the research.  Published by Garrigues Press in Pennsylvania, that book also has sold out and copies are now on both ebay and (when you can find them) for generally more than $100.00 each.

Book number three was a great success, as the first two had been, and it was at that point that Myrna said to me, “you know, with your incredible collection you really should start writing about local history” and a few weeks later, almost as if by fate or magic, the phone rang and the voice on the other end of the line announced himself as being an acquisitions editor with Arcadia Publishing, the largest publisher of local histories in the country. It was 2004 and my life was ready for a dramatic change, which you will learn about in our next column, as we roared out of the starting gate writing local and FEC histories and haven’t stopped yet and don’t plan to, either.

It is my great honor, pleasure and privilege to now be America’s single most published Florida history book author. Number 33 is titled Lost Restaurants of Miami (which actually covers all of today’s Miami-Dade County) and I am working on numbers 34 and 35, the histories of North Lauderdale and North Miami, respectively, as well as number 36, Jewels in the Sunshine: The Flagler System Hotels simultaneously, with proposals out to publishers for four more.

We’ll be back shortness and I think you’ll enjoy learning about what happened next, the “next” being the proposal to write the first history of Florida textbook in twenty years!  “See you in a few,” and, as always, with all good wishes to all the Jitney’s readers.

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