Henry Morrison Flagler

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Henry Morrison Flagler
Born January 2, 1830
Hopewell, New York
Died May 20, 1913
Palm Beach, Florida

Henry Morrison Flagler ( January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was a United States tycoon, real estate promoter, railroad developer and Rockefeller partner in Standard Oil. He was a key figure in the development of the eastern coast of Florida along the Atlantic Ocean and was founder of what became the Florida East Coast Railway. He is known as the father of Miami, Florida.

Childhood, education

Henry Flagler was born in Hopewell, New York and was the son of a poor minister. He received an eighth grade education before leaving home at 14 to work in his cousin's store in Ohio.

Business, Standard Oil

Through the grain and distillery business, he met John D. Rockefeller, in Bellevue, Ohio. After Flagler's business of salt manufacturing in Saginaw, Michigan collapsed following the end of the Civil War, he moved to Cleveland and soon joined Rockefeller and chemist and inventor Samuel Andrews in forming Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler in 1867, which they were soon to develop into Standard Oil. By 1872, it led the American oil refining industry, producing 10,000 barrels per day.

In 1877, Standard Oil moved its headquarters to New York City, and Flagler and his family moved there as well. He was joined by Henry H. Rogers, another leader of Standard Oil who also became involved in the development of America's railroads, including those on nearby Staten Island, the Union Pacific Railroad, and later in West Virginia, where he eventually built the remarkable Virginian Railway to transport coal to Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Florida: resort hotels and railroads

Florida East Coast Railway, Key West Extension, express train at sea, crossing Long Key Viaduct, Florida. photo from Florida Photographic Collection
Florida East Coast Railway, Key West Extension, express train at sea, crossing Long Key Viaduct, Florida. photo from Florida Photographic Collection

Henry Flagler's non-Standard Oil interests went in a different direction than Henry Rogers', however, when in 1878, on the advice of his physician, Flagler traveled to Jacksonville, Florida for the winter with his first wife, Mary (née Harkness) Flagler, who was quite ill. Two years after she died in 1881, he married again. Ida Alice (née Shourds) Flagler had been a caregiver for Mary Flagler. After their wedding, the couple traveled to St. Augustine, Florida. Flagler found the city charming, but the hotel facilities and transportation systems inadequate. He recognized Florida's potential to attract out-of-state visitors.

Though Flagler remained on the Board of Directors of Standard Oil, he gave up his day-to-day involvement in the corporation in order to pursue his interests in Florida. He returned to St. Augustine in 1885 and began construction on the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel. Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what would become known as the "Flagler System" or the Florida East Coast Railway.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon, now part of Flagler College, opened on January 10, 1888 and was an instant success. Two years later, Flagler expanded his Florida holdings. He built a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River to gain access to the southern half of the state and purchased the Hotel Ormond, just north of Daytona. His personal dedication to the state of Florida was demonstrated when he began construction on his private residence, Kirkside, in St. Augustine.

Henry Flagler's private railcar "Rambler" is located on the grounds of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. photo from Florida Photographic Collection
Henry Flagler's private railcar "Rambler" is located on the grounds of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. photo from Florida Photographic Collection

Flagler completed the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach and extended his railroad to its service town, West Palm Beach, by 1894. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was at the time the largest wooden structure in the world. Two years later, Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers Hotel in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.

Flagler originally intended for West Palm Beach to be the terminus of his railroad system, but during 1894 and 1895, severe freezes hit the area, causing Flagler to rethink his original decision. Sixty miles south, the town today known as Miami was reportedly unharmed by the freeze. To further convince Flagler to continue the railroad to Miami, he was offered land in exchange for laying rail tracks from private landowners, including Julia Tuttle, who ran a trading post on the Miami River, the Florida East Coast Canal and Transportation Company, and the Boston and Florida Atlantic Coast Land Company.

This led to the development of Miami, which was only an unincorporated area at the time. Flagler encouraged fruit farming and settlement along his railway line and made many gifts to build hospitals, churches and schools in Florida.

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 city's first newspaper, The Metropolis. When the city was incorporated in 1896, its citizens wanted to honor the man responsible for its growth by naming it "Flagler". He declined the honour, persuading them to use an old Indian name, " Miama". In 1897, Flagler opened the exclusive Royal Palm Hotel there. He became known as the Father of Miami, Florida.

Flagler's second wife, the former Ida Alice Shourds, had been institutionalized for mental illness since 1895. In 1901, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce, opening the way for Flagler to remarry. Judge Minor S. Jones of Florida's 7th Judicial Circuit presided over the divorce. On August 24 of that year, Flagler married his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, and the couple soon moved into their new Palm Beach estate, Whitehall, a 55-room Beaux Arts home designed by the New York-based firm of Carrère and Hastings, who had designed the New York Public Library and the Pan American Exposition, which were built in the same year as Whitehall. Built in 1902,as a wedding present to Mary Lily, and Florida's first Museum, Whitehall was the 60,000 square foot (5,600 m²), winter retreat that established the Palm Beach "Season" for the wealthy of America's Gilded Age.

By 1905, Flagler decided that his Florida East Coast Railway should be extended from Biscayne Bay to Key West, a point 128 miles past the end of the Florida peninsula. At the time, Key West was Florida's most populous city and it was also the United States' closest deep water port to the canal that the U.S. government proposed to build in Panama. Flagler wanted to take advantage of additional trade with Cuba and Latin America as well as the increased trade with the west that the Panama Canal would bring. In 1912, the Florida Over-Sea Railroad was completed to Key West.

Death, heritage

Statue of Henry Flagler that stands in front of Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. photo by Mike Horn
Statue of Henry Flagler that stands in front of Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL. photo by Mike Horn

In 1913, Flagler fell down a flight of stairs at Whitehall. He never recovered from the fall and died in Palm Beach. of his injuries on May 20 at 83 years of age. He was buried in St. Augustine alongside his daughter, Jenny Louise and first wife, Mary Harkness. Only his son Harry survived of the three children by his first marriage in 1853 to Mary Harkness.

There is a monument to him on Flagler Monument Island in Biscayne Bay, and Flagler College is named after him in St. Augustine. Flagler County, Florida and Flagler Beach, Florida are also named for him. Whitehall, Palm Beach, is open to the public as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum; his private railcar No. 91 is preserved inside a Beaux Arts pavilion built to look like a 19th Century railway palace.

On February 24, 2006, a statue of Henry Flagler was unveiled in Key West near where the Over-Sea Railroad once terminated. Also, on July 28, 2006, a statue of Henry Flagler was unveiled on the southeast steps of Miami's Dade County Courthouse, appropriately located on Miami's Flager Street, the thoroughfare that divides South and North Miami.

The Over-Sea Railroad, also known as the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, was heavily damaged and partially destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The Florida East Coast Railway was financially unable to rebuild the destroyed sections, so the roadbed and remaining bridges were sold to the State of Florida, who built the Overseas Highway to Key West, using much of the remaining railway infrastructure.


Henry is distantly related to Nobel Prize winner Sir Frederick Grant Banting. They are 3rd cousins 3 times removed.

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