Everglades Biographies

Henry Morrison Flagler

Henry Morrison Flagler was born on January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New York to Reverend Isaac and Elizabeth Caldwell Harkness Flagler. Flagler left school at 14 to seek his fortune in Bellevue, Ohio, where his mother's family resided. Penniless when he arrived, he became a successful businessman working in the family mercantile business with his half-brother, Dan Harkness. Before long, young Henry advanced from L.G. Harkness and Company's grain store to its sales staff, increasing his salary from five dollars a month to $400. He eventually bought out a partner in one of the Harkness operations with money he had saved. He courted and married his half-brother's sister, Mary Harkness. They had two daughters, Jennie Louise and Carrie. Their only son was born in 1870.

Through his work with the Harkness company, Henry Flagler made the acquaintance of John D. Rockefeller. In 1868, at age 37, Flagler joined with John Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews to form the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Refinery. On January 10, 1870, the partnership emerged as a joint-stock corporation named Standard Oil and by 1872, Standard Oil led the American oil refining industry, producing 10,000 barrels per day. Five years later Standard Oil was considered the largest and richest industrial company in the world. It moved its headquarters to New York City, and the Flaglers moved to their new home at 509 Fifth Avenue.

Within several years, family concerns shifted Flagler's attention away from the business. Flagler's wife, who had always struggled with health problems, was very ill with tuberculosis. On doctor's orders, the Flaglers visited Jacksonville, Florida for the winter in 1878. When Henry Flagler arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, he found the most backward state on the Atlantic coast. Key West was Florida's largest populated city of about 10,000; Jacksonville 7,000; St. Augustine and Tampa had populations in the few thousands, and Daytona in the few hundreds. Miami was little more than a frontier settlement.

Mary's illness grew worse and she died on May 18, 1881 at age 47, leaving Flagler alone with their ten year old son. Flagler responded by distancing himself from Standard Oil and spending less time in its New York offices. On June 5, 1883, Flagler married one of his first wife's nurses, Ida Alice Shourds.Soon after the wedding, the couple visited St. Augustine, Florida where they found the city charming, but inadequately developed for visitors. Flagler recognized the state's potential for growth but acknowledged the lack of transportation and hotels. He set about the task of building both. Though Flagler remained on the Board of Directors of Standard Oil, he gave up his day-to-day involvement in the corporation in order to pursue his interests in Florida.

When the Flaglers returned to Florida in 1885 Henry Flagler began building a grand hotel St. Augustine, the Hotel Ponce de Léon. He also purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what would eventually become the Florida East Coast Railway. The railroad system complemented his string of luxury hotels that included the Breakers and Royal Poinciana Hotels in Palm Beach, Royal Palm Hotel in Miami, and the Casa Marina in Key West. In 1902, Flagler also built his palatial 55-room winter retreat named 'Whitehall'. The Palm Beach estate was built as a wedding present to his third wife, Mary Lily, whom he had married after divorcing his second wife -- a victim of incurable insanity.

One of Henry Flagler's most controversial undertakings was "Flagler's Folly." The aim of the project was to extend the tracks to Key West, a bustling city located 128 miles past the end of the Florida peninsula. The railway would span seven miles of open water on its way to Key West. During the seven year construction, workers were besieged by mosquitoes and sand flies Five hurricanes threatened to halt the project, with hundreds of workers lost in the 1906 storm. Despite the hardships, the final link of the Florida East Cost Railway was completed in 1912. The railroad proved to be a failure, however, and never earned the expected revenue before it was destroyed by a 1935 Labor Day hurricane.

In 1913, at the age of 84, Flagler died after falling down a flight of marble stairs at Whitehall. He was buried in St. Augustine alongside his daughter, Jennie Louise and first wife, Mary Harkness. At the time of Flagler's death, the Florida East Coast Railway linked the entire east coast of Florida, from Jacksonville to Key West. His development of the agricultural industry through his Model Land Company established tourism and agriculture as Florida's major industries. Hotels built along the route of the Florida East Coast Railway established St. Augustine, Daytona, Palm Beach and Miami as famous resort cities.

Biography prepared Gail Clement, Florida International University


Photograph of Henry M. Flagler, 19--?

Photo courtesy of Florida Bureau of Archives & Records Management, Florida Photographic Collection



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