Industry Icons: Henry Flagler

Portrait of Henry Morrison Flagler

Portrait of Henry Morrison Flagler by J. J. Cade [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The existence, design and style of many famous Florida resorts owe much to the singular vision of a man named Henry Flagler – often referred to as the Father of Miami.

The making of Florida

A wealthy businessman who established the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller, Henry Flagler decided to devote the second part of his life to building Florida into a popular tourist mecca. Flagler built a series of fabulous resorts in previously impenetrable places, forging railways through mosquito-ridden swamps. He is also credited with the pioneering of branding in the world of hotels by integrating the style and colour of his trains to match the hotels he built. Flagler enticed well-to-do customers to his resorts by printing promotional brochures that sold train travel and hotel packages – until then, an unheard-of practice.

Henry Flagler was born in New York State, but spent a lot of time in Ohio with his second family, the wealthy Harkness clan. He married Mary Harkness and worked for her father. After the American Civil War, Flagler moved with his family to Cleveland and met John D Rockefeller. In 1867, the pair became partners in an oil business that three years later evolved into the Standard Oil Company.

The Standard Oil Company quickly became a monopoly and began to move its concerns further east. By the late 1870s both the Rockefellers and the Flaglers were maintaining offices and households in New York City. The Flaglers lived on Fifth Avenue and eased seamlessly into the high-society life of Gilded Age New York, mixing with the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Ripe for development

It was around this time that Henry and Mary, who suffered from tuberculosis, made their first trip to Florida. They went to St Augustine, a very small but growing Florida port town gaining popularity with those seeking a restorative climate. Known as the Ancient City, it was the site of the first landing by the Spanish in the 1500s. St Augustine – and indeed Florida – was ripe for development. The South was keen to banish the tarnished image it garnered from the American Civil War, and welcomed rich Northern tycoons like Flagler to its warm climes.

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Mary Flagler died in 1881, and within two years Henry married her carer, 34-year-old Ida Alice. Ida and Henry spent their honeymoon in St Augustine, and by 1885 Flagler had decided to build his first hotel, the Spanish-inspired Ponce De León. At the time, the Standard Oil Company was under fire for its monopolistic business practices, and Flagler – now aged 55 and seeking new horizons – decided to cool his heels in the warmth of Florida. He now enjoyed complete financial security and used some of his Standard Oil stocks to begin investing in Florida and to buy his first railway system connecting Jacksonville to St Augustine. It was the beginning of the great Florida East Coast Railway Company. The railways would transport produce from the South and return from the North carrying rich tourists south for the winter season. As Flagler expanded his railway concerns further south to Palm Beach, Miami and the Florida Keys, so too did he expand and build his hotel empire.

The lavish Ponce De León opened in 1888 and was his most expensive hotel. Flagler opened two more hotels in St Augustine in the same year. By the early 1890s, Flagler had established Palm Beach and built the Royal Poinciana Hotel. He had by now abandoned the Spanish style of the Ponce for the more practical and undoubtedly more economic Colonial Revival style. His hotels and his railway systems were colour-coded in matching hues of creams, whites and greens. In 1898, Flagler even dressed in these hues for his annual George Washington Ball, which heralded the end of the ‘season’. Men were required to dress in women’s clothing, and Flagler himself dressed as Martha Washington.

Flagler also owned many of the newspapers that publicised his hotels and built vast warehouses for all the standardised stock for the hotels. Flagler originally established West Palm Beach as a small village housing stock, staff and laborers. A renowned philanthropist, he also built African-American schools and Catholic churches for his workers.

The Hotel Ponce De León opened in 1888 and closed in 1967. It is now part of Flagler College.

The Hotel Ponce De León opened in 1888 and closed in 1967. It is now part of Flagler College.

Flagler’s greatest triumph

Ida Alice began to suffer from mental illness and was institutionalised in 1897, and Flagler was granted a divorce on the grounds of “incurable insanity”. In 1901, at the ripe old age of 71, Henry Flagler married 34-year-old Mary Lily and built Whitehall, a palatial villa for his new bride in Palm Beach just near the Poinciana. It was from here that he supervised what many regard as his greatest triumph, the rail link between Miami and Key West. It is an engineering masterpiece featuring over 160 km (100 miles) of bridges and rail beds built over inhospitable swamps into a hurricane-battered terrain. At the age of 82, Flagler travelled on the first train through to the farthest point of Florida’s south and gazed across at more conquerable terrains.

Henry Flagler died 16 months later at Whitehall. He had once hoped that his son Harry would take over the family business, but, estranged from his father, Harry lived out his years in New York as a philanthropist and patron of the orchestra. He never married.

Henry Flagler once declared, “I have always been contented, but I have never been satisfied”, words that sum up the limitless drive that spurred him on to establish Florida as a tourist mecca, as well as the ingenious way he built grand hotels amid beautiful scenery and provided his wealthy clientele with the means of travelling to these new and exotic destinations.

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