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Henry M. Flagler

the man who made Florida a tourist destination

Henry M. Flagler

Henry Morrison Flagler was born in Hopewell, New Jersey, on January 2, 1830, the son of a Presbyterian minister. At age 14, having completed his basic education, he moved to Bellevue, Ohio, where he worked with his cousins in the grain store of L.G. Harkness and Company. Starting as a general worker with a salary of $5 a month plus room and board, Flagler soon moved into the sales ranks and before long was earning $400 a month. His business career began in 1852, when he and his half-brother Dan Harkness became partners in the newly organized D.M. Harkness and Company.

On November 9, 1853, Flagler married Mary Harkness. The couple's first daughter, Jennie Louise, was born in 1855. Their second daughter, Carrie, was born in 1855, but died at the age of three. Their last child, son Henry, was born in 1870.

In 1861, Flagler and his brother-in-law, Barney York, founded Flagler and York Salt Company in Saginaw, Michigan. The company enjoyed great sales during the Civil War, but demand for salt decreased dramatically upon the war's end and it closed deeply in debt in 1865. Returning to Ohio, Flagler became a commissioned grain merchant in Cleveland in 1866, and was soon able to satisfy all of the outstanding debts left by his salt company. It was while working in this position that he became friends with John D. Rockefeller, who was at that time an agent with Hewitt and Tuttle for the Harkness Grain Company.

In 1867, Rockefeller approached Flagler with a business proposition. Rockefeller wanted to get in on the oil boom that was just beginning to take hold in Ohio, but he needed capital. He was able to convince Flagler to secure a $100,000 loan from his cousin Stephen Harkness, in exchange for which he got a 25 percent share in the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Company. The company prospered quickly, and Flagler repaid his loan easily. On January 10, 1870, the partnership was reorganized into a joint stock corporation as Standard Oil, which soon held a monopoly on oil production and distribution throughout much of the country. Flagler moved his family to New York City in 1875, the same year Standard Oil moved its headquarters there.

In 1878, Mary Flagler, whose health had long been frail, became seriously ill. Her physician suggested that the couple spend the winter in Jacksonville, Florida, which they did. Although Henry and Mary enjoyed their stay in Jacksonville, Mary's health never improved, and she died on May 18, 1881.

In 1883, Flagler married Ida Alice Shourds. The couple honeymooned in St. Augustine, which they found charming but seriously lacking in hotel facilities and transportation systems. Believing that St. Augustine could become a major tourist center if proper improvements were made, he gave up his day-to-day involvement in Standard Oil to focus his energies on developing Florida (he retained his seat on Standard Oil's board of directors, however). His first project was construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, which began in 1885. While the hotel was under construction, he also bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad and extended its line into St. Augustine. The hotel opened on January 10, 1888, and was an immediate success. He bought the Hotel Casa Monica and renamed it Hotel Cordova that same year, and opened the Alcazar Hotel in 1889. In 1890, he built the first railroad bridge across the St. Johns River, and then opened the Ormond Hotel, just north of present-day Daytona. In 1893, Henry and Ida moved into Kirkside, a mansion he had built in St. Augustine.

Having successfully built the St. Augustine area into a tourist mecca, Flagler now began looking further south. By 1894 he had extended his railroad to what is now West Palm Beach, where he built the Hotel Royal Poinciana. Having now extended his railroad halfway down the coast of Florida, Flagler renamed it the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895. In 1896, he opened the Palm Beach Inn (which became The Breakers in 1905).

Exactly when Flagler began acquiring land around Biscayne Bay is unclear, but his railroad reached the bay in 1896, after which he dredged a channel, built streets, established water and power systems, and financed the area's first newspaper, the Metropolis. Residents wanted to name the new city Flagler in his honor, but he persuaded them to use an old Indian name for the river along which the city was laid out, and it was incorporated as Miami instead. Flagler opened the Hotel Royal Palm there in 1897.

While Henry Flagler was expanding his empire, Ida Flagler's mental health was deteriorating, and in 1895 Henry had her institutionalized. He filed for, and was granted, a divorce in 1901, after Florida passed a law allowing divorces in cases where a spouse had been deemed mentally unstable. He married for a third time on August 24, 1901, this time to Mary Lily Kenan. The following year the couple moved into Whitehall, a mansion in Palm Beach he had had built as a wedding present for his new wife.

Having long dreamt of extending his railroad all the way to Key West, Flagler finally decided the time was right in 1905, after the United States took over the Panama Canal construction project. Still the largest private engineering project ever undertaken, the laying of 156 miles of track, including a total of seven miles over open water, was constantly plagued by cost overruns and weather-related delays, but, on January 22, 1912, Henry Flagler rode the first train into Key West.

On May 20, 1913, Henry Flagler died from injuries suffered in a fall down a flight of stairs at Whitehall. His body was carried by one of his trains to St. Augustine, where he was buried in the mausoleum at Memorial Presbyterian Church, alongside his daughters and his first wife.


American Experience: Mr. Miami Beach
The Flagler Museum

See Also

January 2
Civil War
St. Augustine
West Palm Beach
Panama Canal
May 20

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This page was last updated on January 02, 2019.