Meet Florida’s (Railroad) Founding Father, Henry Flagler

Photo Credit: https://alchetron.com/Henry-Flagler

Driving down Flagler Street in Miami may be something most Miamians do every day. It is a latitudinal baseline that divides all the streets on the Miami-Dade County grid plan and provides a way for people to get to their destinations somewhere in the city. But one has to wonder if the Miami residents of Florida ever stop to think about where the street’s name came from. 

In the following paragraphs, we explore who the busy, often-congested road was named for, and why this person was so important to the development of Florida as a top southern destination state in the United States.

Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle (the mother of Miami) helped establish Miami way back in 1896. Legend has it Tuttle convinced her friend the railroad tycoon to bring his fellow wealthy Northern businessmen friends down to the city by sending him the only crop she had planted on her farm- an orange – that had survived the Great Freeze in the winter of 1894-1895. But Flagler already knew there was much wealth and prosperity to be had in Florida before Tuttle had made her move.

Henry Flagler had visited Florida before and even had a winter home here.

Flagler’s visionary mindset saw Florida as a State with tremendous potential. At the time, Florida was an area hampered by underdevelopment and the hospitality industry was severely limited as a result. The transportation system was impaired as well.

Flagler set out to improve it any way he could. But his journey on making this a reality took some time as Flagler took up different jobs in several different industries before he began developing hotels, which led him to developing railroads and coming down to Florida to start his transformation of Florida.

Henry Morrison Flagler was born on January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New York. His father, Isaac Flagler, was a Presbyterian minister. His mother, the widowed Elizabeth Caldwell (Morrison) Harkness, had brought two sons to the marriage with Flagler from her previous marriage to widower Dr. David Harkness of Milan, Ohio. Flagler was of German descent from the Palatinate region. His immigrant ancestor was Zacharra Flegler who first settled in Walworth, England and then left for America, arriving in New York in 1710. Flegler’s grandson, Solomon Flagler, was the first to use the different spelling of the surname, and had eleven children, including Isaac Flagler, Henry’s father.

At age 14, after he finished the eight grade (and with the convincing of his half-brother Daniel), Flagler moved to Bellevue, Ohio, where he went to work with his cousins in the grain store of Lamon G. Harkness (Daniel’s uncle) and Company at a salary of $5 per month plus room and board. By 1849, he was promoted to sales staff with a salary of $40 per month. He later joined Daniel and Lamon as a partner in the newly organized D.M. Harkness and Company.

In 1853, on November 9, Flagler married Mary Harkness. They had three children, Jennie Louise, Carrie and Henry Harkness. Unfortunately, only Henry Harkness would survive to have children, one of which would later establish the Flagler Museum.

Flagler and his brother-in-law Barney York founded the Flagler and York Salt Company in Saginaw, Michigan in 1862. After the Civil War, salt was no longer in high demand even after it had previously been used by the Union Army as a preservative. This led to the collapse of the salt business, and, by this point heavily in debt, Flagler returned to Bellevue, Ohio, where his investment of $50,000 and an additional $50,000 he had borrowed from his father-in-law and Dan Harkness were lost.

The following year in 1863 however Flagler re-entered the grain business as a commision merchant and paid back the money he borrowed for the salt business. During this time he met John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was also working as a commission agent with Hewitt and Tuttle for the Harkness Grain Company. Cleveland was fast becoming a center for oil refinery in the mid-1860s, so Rockelfeller wanted to capitalize on it by approaching Flagler, whom he had many business dealings with in the past, to obtain capital for his new venture. Flagler was able to secure $100,000 from a relative on the condition that said relative be made a partner in the new company of Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler with a 25% share ownership.

The Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler partnership was organized on January 10,1870 as a joint-stock corporation named Standard Oil. It became the leader of American oil refining in just two years, selling over 10,000 barrels a day. The company moved its headquarters to New York City five years later, and the Flaglers also moved into their new home at 509 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Flagler’s wife Mary became very ill at this time and was advised by his physician to go to a warmer climate to help with her illness. The couple visited Jacksonville, Florida in 1878 for the winter. Mary unfortunately did not recover from her illness and died on May 18, 1881 at age 47. Flagler was left to care for his only surviving child -son Henry, Jr.- alone. 

Two years after her death, Flagler married Ida Alice (nee Shourds) Flagler, who had been a caregiver for Mary. After their wedding, the couple spent their honeymoon in St. Augustine, FL. While there, Flagler and his new bride were charmed by the city but found there were no adequate hotel facilities nor transportation systems. Flagler thought Florida had the potential to become a huge market for tourism. 

Flagler soon turned his interests to Florida after he gave up his day-to-day involvement in the corporation (he still remained on the Board of Directors of Standard Oil). He sought out Franklin W. Smith , an eccentric Boston billionaire who had just built his 12th-century Moorish, Alhambra Palace-inspired home of Villa Zorayda in St. Augustine as his winter home. Flagler offered to buy it for his honeymoon.Smith refused to sell, but this refusal only made Flagler pursue it further. Flagler made Smith an offer: if Smith could raise $50,000, Flagler would invest $150,000 and they would build a hotel together. Smith was not able to come up with the funds, so Flagler started to build the hotel with his own money instead, going over his original estimate several times. Smith helped train the masons on his techniques that he used to mix and pour with Villa Zorayda. 

While construction began in 1885 on the 540-room Hotel Ponce De Leon, Flagler realized the importance of a transportation system to support his hotel ventures. Flagler purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what will eventually become the Florida East Coast Railway System.

The Hotel Ponce De Leon opened January 10, 1888 and became an instant success.

Historic image of Hotel Ponce De Leon. Photo Credit: https://www.floridasmart.com/@oldlives on Instagram

Two years later, Flagler began expanding his Florida holdings further by building a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River to gain access to the southern half of the state. From here Flagler just kept making a fortune by purchasing hotel after hotel and building them as well. Flagler built the Hotel Royal Poinciana on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach in 1894. He took this opportunity to expand his railroad and hotel system further down south all the way to Key West. The Hotel Royal Poinciana soon became the largest resort in the world.

Drawing of Royal Poinciana Hotel. Photo Credit: https://www.floridasmart.com/@estatesofpalmbeach on Instagram

Flagler’s railroad, renamed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895, reached Biscayne Bay by 1896. Flagler dredged a channel, built streets, instituted the first water and power systems, and financed the town’s first newspaper, the Metropolis. When the town incorporated in 1896, its citizens wanted to honor the man responsible for its growth by naming it “Flagler.” He declined the honor, persuading them instead to use an old Indian name for the river the settlement was built around, Miama or Miami. A year later, Flagler opened the exclusive Hotel Royal Palm in Miami.

Florida East Coast Railway, Key West Extension express train at sea, crossing Long Key Viaduct, Florida. Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Florida State Archives

During this time, Flagler’s second wife Ida Alice had to be institutionalized in 1895. She had suffered from mental illness for many years. On August 24, 1901, Flagler married his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. 

Flagler’s third wife Mary Lily Kenan Flagler with their dog Delos, c. 1900. Photo Credit: https://digitalarchives.flagler.edu/

In 1902, as a wedding present to Mary Lily, Flagler built Whitehall, the Flagler’s winter home in Palm Beach, FL, which would later become The Flagler Museum. Designed by architects John Cerrere and Thomas Hastings, Whitehall has more than 100,000 square feet and 75-plus rooms. It was described in 1902 by the New York Herald as “…more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”

The former Flagler winter home (now The Flagler Museum) in Palm Beach, FL.  Photo Credit: https://flaglermuseum.us/.

After the United States took on the Panama Canal Project in 1905, Flagler decided it was time to extend the railroad down to Key West. He added 156 miles of track, mostly over water. He named the extension Key West Over-the-Sea Railroad. Thanks to Key West’s close proximity to the Panama Canal, Flagler hoped to take advantage of additional trade with Cuba and Latin America. In 1912, the Over-the-Sea Railroad to Key West was completed. Henry Flagler arrived in Key West on January 22nd to be greeted by thousands of grateful citizens and a week of celebrations. His accomplishment was the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen.

A little over a year later Flagler fell down a flight of marble stairs at Whitehall. He never recovered from the fall, and died of his injuries on May 20, 1913, at 83 years of age. He was entombed in the Flagler family mausoleum at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine alongside his daughters, Jennie Louise and Carrie, and his first wife, Mary Harkness. His son Henry Jr. was the only one of his three children from his marriage to Mary Harkness in 1853 to survive. At 3 p.m. on the day of the funeral, May 23, 1913, every engine on the Florida East Coast Railway stopped wherever it was for ten minutes as a tribute to Flagler.

Statue of Henry Morrison Flagler that stands in front of Flagler College. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

A large portion of Flagler’s estate was designated for a “niece” who was said to actually be a child born out of wedlock. After his wife’s death, control of the Flagler fortune passed mainly into the hands of Mary Lily Kenan’s family of sisters and brother. 

Flagler has several monuments and places named after him throughout Florida, such as Flagler County, Florida, Flagler Beach, Florida, Flagler College and Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine. The town of Flagler, Colorado is also named after him. There is a monument dedicated to him on Flagler Monument Island in Biscayne Bay in Miami.

There is no doubt this remarkable man left his legacy in the State of Florida. Many residents and visitors alike will see and experience the fruits of his labor for many more years to come. He very well may be called the father of Florida.