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!