Henry Morrison Flagler

Toward the end of the 19th century, the exploits of entrepreneur Henry Morrison Flagler dazzled America. Not only was his Florida East Coast Railroad pushing south from St. Augustine to Miami, he already had built the 450-room Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, where de Leon planted the Spanish flag in 1513. Who was this multimillionaire?

Born in Medina, NY in 1830, Henry left home at 14 to join his half-brother, Daniel M. Harkness, in Ohio in search of fortune. His father, Isaac Flagler, was a poor preacher-farmer who had served several Presbyterian congregations in western New York and northern Ohio. Once Henry reached the Sandusky area, he went to work for L.G. Harkness and Company under the watchful eye of Dan Harkness, whose uncle Lamont owned the general store business. After five years, Henry joined the firm of Chapman, Harkness and Company in Bellevue, OH, where he met and married Mary Harkness in November 1853.

As Chapman, Harkness expanded into grain distillery and liquor, Henry was able to buy out the Chapman interest. Meanwhile, a commission merchant in Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller, handled most of the company's shipments and got to know Henry fairly well.

During the late 1860s, oil discoveries in western Pennsylvania created a boom, attracting thousands of Civil War veterans eager to make a quick fortune. Cleveland became the leading petroleum center, with 30 refineries. In 1867, Rockefeller and Flagler became partners. Two years later, they incorporated the Standard Oil Company. When asked if this was his idea, Rockefeller said, “No, sir, I wish I'd had the brains to think of it. It was Henry M. Flagler.”

When Flagler relocated to New York City in 1877, he separated himself from the leadership of Standard Oil. After his wife died in 1881, Flagler's influence over the company diminished, yet he remained the second-largest stockholder after Rockefeller. By the time Standard Oil was dissolved in 1911, Henry Flagler was an extraordinarily wealthy man whose interests in Florida had replaced his attachments to Standard Oil.

In 1883, Flagler married 35-year-old Ida Alice Shourds in New York City. Because Flagler hated cold weather, he planned a belated honeymoon in Florida for that December. Their trip from New York to Jacksonville took 90 hours because of the different gauges of railroad tracks along the way. In 1870, Harper's Weekly reported:

“There are two ways of getting to Jacksonville (from Savannah) and whichever you choose you will be sorry to have not taken the other. There is the night train by railroad, which brings you to Jacksonville in about 16 hours; and there is the steamboat line, which goes inland nearly all the way, and which may land you in a day, or you may run aground and remain on board for a week.”

Florida's population in 1880 was 270,000, with 40,000 living in the northwest coast between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Although invalids had used the area in efforts to improve their health since before the Civil War, wealthy northerners were just beginning to discover its balmy weather. Flagler was surprised by the lack of large hotels and other real estate development. During a stay at the new, six-story San Marco Hotel, Flagler spoke with owner James A. McGuire and manager Osborn D. Seavey and decided to build a new hotel.

“Here was St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States,” Flagler recalled. “How to build a hotel to meet the requirements of 19th-century America and have it in keeping with the character of the place — that was my hardest problem.”

Flagler hired John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings at McKim, Meade and White of New York, the leading architectural firm in the U.S., to design the hotel. The 450-room Ponce de Leon Hotel opened in 1888 on a five-acre lot. It was designed in Spanish Renaissance style, had electric lights, steam heat, private parlors, reading and game rooms, exquisite draperies, imported rosewood, walnut and mahogany furniture and Brussels carpet. Since the standards of the day deemed public bathrooms sufficient, it originally had only one private bathroom — in Flagler's suite. Almost immediately it became necessary to add private bathrooms. It also became necessary to build a companion hotel, so Flagler built the Spanish Renaissance Alcazar Hotel across the street, complete with sulfur and saltwater baths, steam rooms and a complex of game courts. Flagler said that the Alcazar was every bit as good as the Ponce de Leon.


After he built the Ponce and the Alcazar, Flagler bought a small hotel north of Daytona, enlarged it, beautified the grounds and named it the Ormond Beach Hotel. He built an 18-hole golf course and provided for bicycle and automobile racing.

Flagler soon obtained a state charter authorizing him to build a railroad along the Indian River as far south as Miami. Awarded 8,000 acres for each mile of railroad built south of Dayton Beach, he eventually owned two million acres of Florida land.

Flagler then created the Model Land Company, which probably did more to build up Florida's east coast than any of his other undertakings. The company hired agriculturists, horticulturists and stockmen well versed in soils, crops and farm production. Flagler's land policies resulted in the settling of Delray, Deerfield, Dania, Ojus, Peerine, Homestead, Kenansville and Okeechobee, as well as Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach.

At Lake Worth, nearly 250 miles south of St. Augustine, Flagler laid out West Palm Beach on the mainland, Palm Beach on the snake-like stretch of sand and palm trees on the edge of the Atlantic. There he built the Royal Poinciana Hotel and the Palm Beach Inn (the latter is now known as The Breakers).

Unlike his hotels in St. Augustine, which were built of stone and coquina, the Royal Poinciana is built of wood. When it opened its 1,150 rooms on Feb. 11, 1894, nine months after construction began, it was the largest resort hotel in the world. In season, the Royal Poinciana employed 400 waiters and 287 chambermaids; it had separate dining rooms for various staff levels, as well as for children. The head housekeeper had a three-room suite. At the height of the season, more than 100 private railroad cars arrived at the hotel, and golf, tennis, boating and fishing were very popular.

In an unfortunate manifestation of the racism of the day, African-American bicyclists pedaled guests seated in attached wicker chairs, or “Afrimobiles.”

The unpretentious Palm Beach Inn, about a quarter mile east of the Royal Poinciana, was built as an annex for bathers and swimmers. Twice destroyed by fire, it ultimately was rebuilt in 1925 for $7 million and renamed The Breakers.

Then, as now, northern Florida was subject to periods of wintry weather. After an intense cold snap in 1894, Flagler turned his attention farther south and acquired a substantial parcel near the junction of the Miami River and Biscayne Bay. After acquiring yet more land on Biscayne Bay, Flagler extended his railroad in April 1896 to Miami, where he built a railway terminal, street, and municipal water system. Soon thereafter, Flagler built a new inn, the five-story Royal Palm.

He also found time to build himself a mansion. At age 70, Flagler constructed the Palm Beach landmark, Whitehall, at a reputed cost of $2.5 million.

Stanley Turkel, MHS, ISHC, is a New York-based hotel consultant representing hotel franchisees and providing litigation support services. A member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants, Turkel can be reached at stanturkel@aol.com and 917-628-8549. This article is excerpted from Turkel's Great Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry, due out in 2006 from McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.


Still ambitious, Flagler turned his attention to the string of coral islands that extended in a graceful, 150-mile arc from Biscayne Bay to Key West, aiming to connect the keys with a rail line. The vast Overseas Railroad project required construction of causeways, bridges, roads, and trestles across the open sea from island to island. Seven years and millions of dollars later, the railroad opened with a special train of the Florida East Coast Railway, which arrived in Key West on Jan. 22, 1912. The proud Flagler waved from his observation car. He died 14 months later.

The Overseas Railroad operated until Labor Day 1935, when a hurricane damaged the line irreparably, toppling bridges and causeways, twisting rails and smashing trestles. When the railroad's directors refused to rebuild the ruined line, the state of Florida acquired the right of way and reengineered it to open in 1938 as the spectacular overseas highway to Key West that is still in use today.

In St. Augustine, the Alcazar and Cordova hotels became city and county office buildings. The Ponce de Leon now bears the name of Flagler College. Other signs of his legacy: Flagler County, and the village of Flagler Beach south of St. Augustine. The Ormond Beach Hotel is a retirement home. Whitehall was converted to a hotel in 1925 with the addition of a 300-room tower. When that tower was removed in 1959, the restored mansion was dedicated as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum.

Other landmarks, however, are gone. The Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach and the Royal Palm in Miami were demolished to make room for other developments. At the same time, the magnificent Breakers Hotel and the nearby Flagler Museum remain as fitting tributes to Henry Morrison Flagler, the tycoon who invented Florida.

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