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Flagler was charmed by the quaint seaside town, but found its hotel accommodations and transportation options to be outdated and woefully insufficient.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!

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