Henry Flagler Biography

No other person had so much to do with the economic development of a state as Henry Flagler did with Florida. Learn more in this biography.

In 1885, Florida south of St. Augustine was a largely uninhabited swampland. Yet a quarter of a century later the eastern coast of Florida was flourishing with hotels, tourists, cities, agriculture, and a railroad system that extended all the way down the state to Key West. All this was the result of the will of just one man---Henry Morrison Flagler.

Flagler, born in 1830, was a partner with John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company. After pretty much retiring from the oil business, Flagler made his first visit to Florida in 1878 with his ailing first wife, Mary, so that she could recuperate in the mild Florida winter. His wife's health continued to fail, however, and she died in 1881.

In 1883 Flagler married his second wife, Ida Alice Shourds, and the couple visited St. Augustine. Although Flagler saw the potential of St. Augustine for attracting tourists, the hotel and transportation facilities there were poor. Flagler returned in 1885 and began construction of the 540 room Hotel Ponce de Leon. In order to ensure proper transportation, Flagler also purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad. This was the first of several railroad purchases Flagler was to make. The problem with Florida railroads at that time was that they used different rail gauges to run their railroads on. Flagler solved this problem by buying up a series of railroads in Northeast Florida and standardizing their gauges.

Following the opening of the Hotel de Leon in 1888, Flagler built a railroad bridge across the St. John's River and began the long progression south which would consume the next 24 years and would not end until his Florida East Coast Railroad reached Key West in 1912. The next step after St. Augustine was the building of the Hotel Ormond north of Daytona Beach. In keeping with his policy of providing adequate transportation for the visitors, Flager extended the Florida East Coast Railroad south in such a rapid manner that it reached Daytona Beach in 1889.

This became the blueprint for Flagler's philosophy in developing Florida. Build the railroad, depots, hotels, hospitals, schools, and other facilities almost simultaneously. The result was the almost overnight development of Florida's East Coast. Flagler also almost single-handedly built Palm Beach, Miami, and the towns in between in the same manner.

In 1896, Flagler's Florida East Coast railroad reached Miami, just a little over 10 years since his odyssey began in St. Augustine in 1885. During this period Florida had practically grown up overnight. It seemed to all, including Flagler, that this was the culmination of his career in developing Florida and yet the biggest challenge was yet to come.

In 1905, the United States announced its plan to build the Panama Canal. Flagler immediately realized the importance of Key West, the closest deep water port in the United States to the proposed canal. Under Flagler's guidance, construction soon began to extend the Florida East Coast Railroad down to Key West. This meant building railroad bridges out into the ocean to cross the 128 mile island chain to reach Key West. It was a daunting engineering task. Despite this challenge and the fact that the 4000 man construction project was hit by 5 hurricanes, the final link of the railroad to Key West was completed in 1912, seven years after it began.

In 1912, Henry Flagler rode the final link of his railroad into Key West. He had only a year left to live but could be rightly proud of his role as the Man Who Invented Florida. No other person ever had such a central role in the development of an entire state.

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