On Aug. 22, at 1:30 p.m., the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce transferred the Keys of ownership to the red Caboose to the Matecumbe Historical Trust, which officially took possession of and responsibility for the beloved historic railcar.
“We are excited to take over the Caboose property, as it gives us a prominent location to continue our mission of preserving, promoting and educating everyone about the rich history of the Florida Keys,” said Barbara Edgar, president of the Trust. “We are now in a position to continue following the path set out by the late historian Irving R. Eyster to establish a permanent home for his vast collection of artifacts.”
The chamber decided the Caboose should be open to the public again and sent a call for proposals to restore and reopen the historic rail car. Both the Keys History and Discovery Center and the Matecumbe Historical Trust submitted proposals.
Judy Hull, the Chamber’s executive director, did extensive research on the history of the Caboose. After due consideration, the trust won the bid, in large part because it seemed fitting to return the Caboose to its original caretaker. It was the trust that initially placed the historic plaques at the FDOT property. The site has been part of the Monument Heritage Trail, which spans the Keys from MM 106 in Key Largo to MM 0 in Key West.
In 1998, Irving and Jeanne Eyster, members of the trust, unveiled the first Heritage Monument Trail Exhibit during a dedication ceremony at the Visitor Center. At the time, Henry Rosenthal was the Islamorada Chamber president and Ron Levy was the Village of Islands mayor. Both Rosenthal and Levy honored Keys Historian Irving Eyster for being instrumental in the success of the four-year-long joint project between the trust and the chamber. Local businesses and private citizens contributed much of the necessary funding.
The history of the property itself goes further back. FDOT leased the plot, at 82616 Overseas Highway, to Monroe County in 1977. At the time, the Monroe County Historic Preservation Committee worked to establish the location as a historical place. Historical markers were erected on site with information about the 1935 hurricane.
In 1995 FDOT renewed the lease for the property to Monroe County and Monroe County, in turn, renewed the sub-lease for the property to the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce until 2024. According to chamber President Joel Young, the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners recently awarded the lease to the trust, ensuring a seamless transition and allowing the Caboose to remain in place.
Henry Rosenthal was already involved with the trust in 1983 and instrumental in procuring and moving the Caboose to the Florida Keys after Edison Archer, an Islamorada resident, found it in Kentucky.
In 1985, almost two years and many fundraising drives later, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce announced the official opening of the Monroe County Historical Railroad Museum and Islamorada Chamber of Commerce office on U.S. 1 at MM 82.5 bayside in downtown Islamorada.
The red Caboose was placed on its own Florida East Coast Railway spur at the site of the old Flagler Railway section foreman’s house. The hope was that one day the Chamber would build a new building on the site and the Caboose would become a historical museum.
In 2012, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce officially opened for business in a new building, four miles north of the original site, at MM 87. This necessitated a decision on the future of the red Caboose.
“The Matecumbe Historical Trust placed historic plaques on this property many years ago as part of the Monument Heritage Trail approved by the State of Florida,” said Young. “To add to their telling of history at this site the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce is happy to transfer ownership of the Islamorada Caboose to the Matecumbe Historical Trust.”
According to Rosenthal, “The trust has made numerous contributions toward historical preservation and education in the Florida Keys and will cultivate the necessary resources to bring the project to success.”
The four historical plaques that the trust previously installed will be replaced with similar-sized, full-color panels. “We’ll improve the property, make nice displays, and add more and newer story boards that will last 99 years. The trust won’t use the fiberglass ones again but new, novel materials,” said Rosenthal.
In addition to information on the history of the Florida Keys, the new panels will have explanations of the importance of the railroad to the Florida Keys and to Islamorada.
As Irving R. Eyster once said, “The past belongs to the future but only the present can preserve it.”