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 recently 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.
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.
Rudy Nichols, a Florida Department of Transportation sign crew leader, positions a placard designating the Florida Keys Overseas Highway as an All-American Road, the highest national recognition a roadway can receive.
The highway's centerpiece is the Seven Mile Bridge, stretching 6.79 miles over open water. The Old Seven Mile Bridge, at right, parallels the wider span completed in 1982. Photos by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
The first major span on the Overseas Highway going south from the Florida mainland is the new Jewfish Creek Bridge.
Motorists drive on the "18-Mile Stretch" connecting the Florida mainland to the Keys.