FLORIDA KEYS -- The Florida Keys Overseas Highway, from north of Key Largo to Key West, is now an All-American Road.
The designation was announced Friday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a plaque was presented by Victor Mendez, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The Keys highway is the only All-American Road in Florida. It's the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program established by the U.S. Congress in 1991. Only 30 other roadways in the nation have earned the prestigious title.
The designation is to be celebrated with a Whistle Stop Tour throughout the Keys set for Saturday, Oct. 24.
Originally completed in 1938, the Overseas Highway incorporates 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They include the Seven Mile Bridge at Marathon, which stretches 6.79 miles across open water and was referred to on its completion as "the eighth wonder of the world."
Under the National Scenic Byways program, roads can be recognized as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads based on their archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.
To earn All-American Road status, a thoroughfare must possess characteristics of national significance and features that don't exist elsewhere, making it a visitor destination in itself.
"The All-American Road designation will bring status to us with international travelers and domestic visitors, so that they know driving U.S. 1 from Key Largo to Key West is a one-of-a-kind driving experience," said Judy Hull, president of the Florida Keys Scenic Corridor Alliance that spearheaded a multi-year effort to achieve the distinction, who was in Washington for the ceremony. "It will help us with tourism and future highway grant funding."
The Overseas Highway follows a trail originally blazed in 1912 when Standard Oil millionaire Henry Flagler completed the extension of his Florida East Coast Railroad from Miami to Key West. Construction of the highway began after the railroad ceased operation because of damage from a 1935 hurricane. Its foundation incorporated some of the original railway spans.
In 1982, 37 of the original bridges including the Seven Mile Bridge were replaced with wider spans. Many of the old bridges can still be seen running alongside the newer ones.
In 2001, the roadway was named a Florida Scenic Highway, laying the foundation for its national designation.
Next Saturday's Whistle Stop celebrations are to feature re-enactors portraying Flagler, literary icon Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West throughout the 1930s, former President Harry Truman, who spent nearly six months of his 1945-1953 presidency in Key West, and his wife Bess Truman.
The Whistle Stop tour is scheduled to kick off at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center on Key West's Truman Waterfront.
Additional celebrations are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at Big Pine Key Park, noon at Marathon's Crane Point Hammock, 1 p.m. at Layton City Hall, 2 p.m. at the Hurricane Monument in Islamorada, and 3:30 p.m. at the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce. The public is invited to attend.