During a recent visit to the The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, I learned a great deal more about the history of Florida and just how significant the oil tycoon, Henry Flagler, was to all of it. He definitely left an impact that is still seen today throughout Florida. His contributions can be seen through Florida’s historical architecture or transportation system, with one of the most significant being the Florida East Coast Railway.
Along with triumph and prosperity, his life was also filled with tragedy, which he steadfastly overcame.
The Amazing and Important History of Florida’s Railroad
In Florida’s history, there was once a time when Florida’s east coast from Jacksonville to Key West was not connected – yes, there was a time in Florida’s history when the only way to get to Key West was by boat. This was all changed thanks to the ingenuity and innovation of a man called Henry Flagler. The Flagler Museum dives deep into this important and foundational piece of Florida’s history.
The Early Life of The Man Behind It All: Henry Flagler
Henry Flagler was born on January 2, 1830, in Hopewell, New York. Eventually, he moved to Bellevue, Ohio in 1844, where Flagler was only 14 years old and just got his first job at the grain store of L.G. Harkness and Company.
This job was the starting point to eventually becoming a partner of the newly organized D.M. Harkness and Company in 1852.
Marriage and Tragedy
Then, in 1853, he married Mary Harkness, and by 1855, he had welcomed his first child, Jennie Louise. Three years later, in 1858, he was blessed with his second child, Carrie. Unfortunately, this blessing was short-lived and tragedy struck the family when Carrie died at age 3.
Despite everything, Henry Flagler remained a steadfast businessman and, by 1862, founded the Flager and York Salt Company in Saginaw, Michigan with his brother-in-law Barney York. Though, as fate would have it, it seemed that with every success, Henry was also forced to face misfortune.
Due to the end of the Civil War, the demand for salt dropped, and just 3 years after its founding, the Flager and York Salt Company collapsed in 1865. Never one to stay down for long, Henry Flagler then moved to Cleveland, Ohio a year later. He decided to go back to his roots and reentered the grain business again.
Oil Tycoon Henry Flagler is Born
Eventually, in 1867, Henry connected with his long-time acquaintance J.D. Rockefeller, who at the time was looking for capital for his nascent oil business. Fortunately, Flagler was able to obtain $100,000 from Steven Harkness, his stepbrother. John D. Rockefeller, Henry M. Flagler, and Samuel Andrews co-founded the joint-stock corporation, Standard Oil in 1870 . Standard Oil quickly became the leader of the American oil refining industry.
Misfortune and Inspiration Strike Again
In 1881, Henry Flagler’s wife, having been plagued by health issues throughout her life, Mary Harkness Flagler died at the age of 47. Eventually, Henry remarried in 1883, and it was during this time that he visited St. Augustine, Florida. Here he observed a key issue that would lead to his greatest contributions to Florida.
He noticed just how inadequate Florida’s hotel and transportation systems were.
The Start of the Florida East Coast Railway
It is this period of Henry’s life that the Flagler Museum highlights the most, and for good reason. This is the start of Henry Flagler’s leaving his mark on both Florida’s architecture and transportation system.
In 1885, Flagler returned to St. Augustine, Florida, and purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroads. With this purchase of the railroads, Henry noticed some key issues that were hindering Florida’s transportation. Each of Florida’s railway systems operated on a different gauge system, which made interconnections infeasible.
Henry Flagler converted these systems to a standard gauge. Doing this allowed the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroads to serve the northern part of the state. This would eventually lead to it becoming the first part of the Florida Each Coast Railway Company.
At the same time, Henry Flagler was also putting down more roots in Florida by beginning construction on a 540-room hotel called Hotel Ponce de Leon. Though Henry had instant success with the grand opening of his hotel, he was once again dealt another blow one year later when his daughter Jennie Louise died due to complications of childbirth.
The Cycle Continues
Henry Flager nevertheless persevered through adversity and in 1889 continued on his quest to expand the railroad system with the purchase of 3 more additional railways:
- St. John’s Railway
- St. Augustine and Palatka Railway
- St. John’s and Halifax River Railway
In 1890, Flagler built the railroad bridge across the St. John River to gain access to the southern half of the state. This same year, he purchased the Hotel Ormond in Ormond Beach, Florida. This continued pattern of extending transportation through the railroad system and building hotels near their paths helped to establish tourism as one of Florida’s major industries. An industry that is still thriving to this day. Talk about leaving a lasting legacy!
A Break in the Cycle
In 1892, Henry Flagler deviated from his traditional cycle of purchasing railways and hotels. Instead he began laying new railroad tracks that would merge with his existing rail system. It was also during this time that he began to head southward. Building along the Indian River named Miama, later renaming the area into Miami. With this new development, new cities began to appear near these railways, further developing Florida and its cities as a whole.
In Palm Beach, Henry Flagler constructed and completed the Hotel Royal Poinciana, The Palm Beach Inn (currently known as The Breakers), and Whitehall- his private winter home – in 1894. Whitehall would eventually become known as The Flagler Museum located at 1 Whitehall Way, Palm Beach, FL 33480. With these new developments also came the extension of train services to West Palm Beach and eventually Biscayne Bay.
In 1895, Flagler’s railway system officially became known as the Florida East Coast Railway Company. At this point, you would think that Henry Flagler would be satisfied with all his major accomplishments, but for him, his job was never done.
He continued to on and further developed the area surrounding Biscayne Bay, known as Miami. Here he built streets and established the first water and power systems.
With all the new developments in the area, the town was incorporated in 1896.
Because of all that Henry Flagler had done to develop the town, the citizens wanted to name the town after him. Henry Flagler humbly declined this massive honor and instead convinced the town to use the Native American Indian name for the river flows into Biscayne Bay, “Miama” hence “Miami”.
If you are in the Miami area visiting the Flagler Museum and need more ideas on where to go, check out my list of the best 15 Miami Florida Parks here.
Linking the Key West
Never one to rest, Henry Flagler continued to his next project. Linking the mainland through the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West. His main purpose and drive for this project were to take advantage of Cuban and Latin American trade. He wanted to further develop Florida. Thus, construction began on the Over-sea Railroad soon after.
The Over-Sea Railroad was one of the most massive undertaking Henry Flagler had taken on to date. Building this railway would not only require great manpower, time, and financial resources but also immense ingenuity and creativity to engineer this structure that would be going over the sea connecting Key West to the mainland.
Up to 4,000 men had been hired to work on the construction of this railway. With the amount of time and resources going into this project many believed it was doomed to fail from the start. But Henry Flagler was never one to give up! Rhe railway was completed in 1912, just a year before Henry Flagler’s death. It went from being called “Flagler’s Folly” to the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
A Tragic and Fatal Hurricane
Unfortunately, as is true with many things in Henry’s life, with great fortune also comes massive misfortune. A tragic and fatal hurricane in 1935 struck Florida. It destroyed a section of the completed Over-Sea Railroad, killing more than 400 workers during the storm.
Because of the massive amount of damage, no one was willing to pay the expenses it would take to repair the damage done to the bridge. Eventually, a new railroad was built right next to Flagler’s deteriorating and abandoned Over-Sea Railroad.
Though Henry Flagler did not live to see the destruction of his Over-Sea Railway, it was still a considerable loss to a massive part of his legacy. Fortunately, his legacy still lives on and is seen throughout all of modern Florida. He was a man with an innovative spirit. He was the epitome of one step at a time, leading to many massive successes in his life.
If you are thinking of heading to Key West after visiting the Flagler Museum, then you are in luck. These restaurants in Key West are delicious, and the best part is that they are also dog-friendly in case you are traveling with your favorite pup!
“The Last Train to Paradise” Book
If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating tale and an important part of Florida’s history, then the book titled “The Last Train to Paradise” has to be on your must-read book list. This book clearly and entertainingly grabs your attention. It details the incredible story of the rise and fall of the Over-Sea Railroad. You will think you are reading a fiction novel with how fast-paced and gripping this story is. Once again, I highly recommend this book!
If the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach isn’t at the top of your list for Florida, it needs to be – It’s a one-of-a-kind experience for the US.
A Special Thanks
To Mr. Carson, the museum’s Public Affair Director, I extend my gratitude for taking time out of his day to meet with me and provide further information – it was an honor to talk to someone who’s so caring about history and our heritage here in Florida.
Alex Cleland, who focuses on the tours and coordination of visitors at the entrance, also deserves a shout-out for his generosity in sharing his knowledge of Flagler’s past as well as that of the palace with me. The time I had with him was priceless, and I am grateful for every second of it. When you come to visit, don’t be afraid to say hello and greet him on my behalf – we need more passionate people like him in our world.
Final Thoughts . .
Some only dream of leaving a legacy as impactful and compelling as the legacy Henry Flagler left behind. If you are ever in Florida, then the Flagler Museum is a definite must-visit. You will not only get to visit the house he resided in during the later part of his life, but you will learn so much more about Florida’s amazing past.
After visiting don’t be surprised by the new perspective and appreciation you’ll gain while exploring Florida. Whether you are riding the train or staying in one of the many hotels constructed by Henry Flagler, you will see Florida with new eyes and feel like you have been instantly transported to the past. A time of great innovation and perseverance!
P.S. Though not a hotel built by Henry Flagler, if you are staying in Key West and need a hotel to stay at, I highly recommend The Hyatt Resort. Here is an article I wrote about my experience there.