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Flagler's Florida: "A New American Riviera"

January 18, 2012 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler, Uncategorized

The former Ponce de León Hotel is now the centerpiece of Flagler College's main campus.

When we last left Henry Flagler’s story, he had just become a full partner in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Despite the fledgling company’s youth, Standard Oil was on top of the industry within 5 years of its founding. Producing more than 10,000 barrels of refined oil per day, the business made Flagler a millionaire many times over. At just 42 years old, Henry Flagler had reached the peak of the business world. Despite his extraordinary success, Flagler was not a man to rest on his laurels and in 1876 a chance visit to Florida changed the course of his career forever.

Flagler first traveled to Florida not on business, but on doctor’s orders. His wife, Mary, was stricken with tuberculosis and the couple’s physician hoped a winter in warmer climes would help her ailing lungs. Tragically, the mild weather did nothing to ease Mary’s recovery and she died soon after. Flagler’s first visit to Florida, though marred by death, did not deter him from returning many times and when he remarried in 1881, he insisted that he and his new wife honeymoon in St. Augustine. During his stay in St. Augustine, Flagler was charmed by the quaint seaside town, but found its hotel accommodations and transportation options to be outdated and woefully insufficient. But in the little town’s deficiencies, Flagler saw a business opportunity. While still on his honeymoon, he attempted to buy a recently built hotel called the Villa Zorayda. The owner refused to sell but Flagler would later credit this failed deal with motivating his interest in the development of St. Augustine and, ultimately, of Florida itself.

After returning home to New York, Flagler’s desire to go back to Florida and leave his mark upon its Atlantic coast became the driving force of his life. Although he agreed to remain on the board of directors at Standard Oil, Flagler stepped away from his day-to-day executive responsibilities in favor if his interests in Florida. In 1885, Henry Flagler returned to Florida and never really left. His business pursuits kept him there year round and he soon became one of the state’s greatest patrons. Flagler first set up shop in St. Augustine, the city he had fallen in love with years before, with intentions of building a grand, 540-room hotel named for Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León. The hotel, inspired by Spanish Renaissance architecture, became Flagler’s passion project and he spent lavishly to make it a reality. As the new hotel’s construction approached completion, Flagler turned his attention to the town’s need for a reliable, modern transportation system that could accommodate future guests. He quickly bought up several short, local rail lines and combined them into what would eventually become the Florida East Railway.

The rail was such an immediate, smashing success that it encouraged Flagler to draw up plans for similar hotels spanning Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He called his vision “a new American Riviera.” Flagler knew that with the right combination of access and marketing, Florida’s coast would grow into the premier luxury destination of the East Coast elite. By the early 1890s, Flagler was working feverishly to achieve his vision, expanding his Floridian holdings with a missionary-like zeal. He began construction of a railroad bridge over the St. John’s River, which ultimately opened up the entire southern half of the state and drew his dream of a developed Florida ever closer.

Next time we will wrap up Flagler’s story with the almost accidental founding of Miami and (finally!) the construction of the over-seas railway!

Florida Feature: A Brief Biography of Flagler

December 16, 2011 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler

American tycoons were once something we admired as a nation. They were the physical embodiment of the American Dream and represented the supremacy of the free market. Turn-of-the-century oilmen, factory owners and real estate magnates were the celebrities of their day, both beloved and envied for their success. In 2011, this is no longer true. The super-wealthy “1%” exists in the public consciousness today as a despicable, money hungry bunch, whose financial success is a testament to their ruthlessness and lack of empathy rather than the “classic” American ideals of hard work and faith.

Fortunately for him, Henry Flagler made his bones in an era when the tycoon was king. He grew up in Hopewell, New York during the 1830s, raised by his mother, Elizabeth and father, Isaac, an itinerant Presbyterian minister. Young Flagler only attended school until the eighth grade when he dropped out and moved to Bellevue, Ohio to work for his uncle. The future titan of industry began his working career at a meager salary of $5 a month plus room and board. However, as his later achievements would illustrate, Flagler was a man of formidable ambitions and by age 19, he was promoted to the company’s sales staff at an increased salary of $900 a month. Henry Flagler was on his way.

Late in his wildly successful career, Flagler was viewed by the American public as an exemplar of the “Horatio Alger myth;” a real “pulled up by his own bootstraps” story. However, as is often the case, the public’s perception of celebrity is slightly skewed: Flagler was born into a wealthy family. In fact, he was only able to found his first company in 1862 after borrowing nearly $100,000 from his mother’s side of the family and recruiting his brother-in-law, Barney York, as his business partner. Due to widespread salt shortages related to the Civil War, The Flagler and York Salt Company was initially profitable, but the recipe for success was not destined to last. In April 1865, the Civil War ended, provoking a freefall in demand for salt and the company collapsed.

After the failure of his first company, Flagler returned to Ohio and took a job with a grain company. Undeterred, and determined as ever, Flagler was also aided by an exceptionally serendipitous meeting. Through his business dealings with the grain company, Flagler became acquainted with John D. Rockefeller, a New Yorker, who was in Ohio to start an oil refinery in Cleveland, a city that was quickly becoming the center of the burgeoning oil industry. In 1866, when Rockefeller was searching for investors to get his refinery off the ground, he remembered the savvy young grain salesman he had met the previous year. The ensuing negotiation demonstrated Flagler’s impressive business acumen as he leveraged his $100,000 investment into a position as Rockefeller’s full partner. The refinery was a success and the business grew into the famous, turn-of-the-century American corporate behemoth, Standard Oil.

Although Henry Flagler’s substantial fortune would have made him a member of the 1%, were he alive today, he likely would have resented the image of selfish, unchecked excess associated with modern tycoons. He was renowned as a generous, avuncular fellow who eventually abandoned his executive duties at Standard Oil in order to focus his energy on construction and philanthropic efforts in Florida.

This biographical blog series on Henry Flagler will continue next week with posts on Henry’s first trip to Florida and the epic tale of the overseas railway and its financially bloated, hurricane battered construction!

Florida Feature: Henry Flagler Father of Modern Florida

December 13, 2011 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler

Chances are you’ve heard of the Florida Keys’ sprawling overseas highway. You may even have enjoyed the unique pleasure of traversing its 120 plus miles by car. If this is the case, you’ve got turn-of-the-century real estate and railroad tycoon, Henry Morrison Flagler to thank, as he engineered the original over-seas-railroad back in 1912. In fact, if you have set foot in the state of Florida in the past century, you’ve seen his fingerprints all over. From the mega-resorts of Palm Beach to the quaint seaside villas of St. Augustine, Florida is littered with monuments to Flagler’s prodigious (even by Gilded Age standards) accomplishments.

Known as the “father” of modern Florida due to his construction and philanthropic efforts, Flagler has countless streets, schools, hospitals and even entire towns named in his honor. In 2006, Key West erected a statue of Flagler on the site where his finest achievement, the overseas railway, once ended. Although a modern highway has since replaced the railroad tracks, the first overseas railway remains the jewel in Flagler’s crown. By founding the Florida East Railway and spearheading its expansion, Flagler facilitated the development of the state’s remote, swampy hinterlands and provided access to the Keys. Perhaps more than any other region of Florida, Key West has flourished due to his efforts. Before the overseas railway, Key West was isolated from the mainland by more than 120 miles of ocean. After its completion, the island gradually became a popular destination, evolving into the eclectic melting pot of artists, locals, travelers and outcasts that it is today.

The overseas railway is merely an episode in the storied life of Henry Flagler. This month on the Literary Traveler Blog, as part of our ongoing series on Key West, we will be exploring the life of this titan of industry. Stay tuned for more, including his profitable friendship with John D. Rockefeller and the tale of grand failure that was Flagler’s first business venture!

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