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
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
Photograph of Henry M. Flagler, 19--?
Photo courtesy of Florida
Bureau of Archives & Records Management, Florida Photographic