Before the train
Henry Flagler built, Key West was a tiny island accessible only by sea and Miami had a population of around 300. There was no Palm Beach.
All that changed with the vision of a millionaire tycoon who visited Florida and didn't care much for its hotels - so he decided to build his own. With the foresight to envision promising development and the means to take that past the drawing board, an elderly oil man with an ailing wife single-handedly changed the course of Florida's history. He did it by not just building luxury resort hotels, but providing transportation, too.
In the process, places Flagler built for his wealthy friends became destinations visited by millions of people around the world. The man known as the "Father of Florida" also parented the state's modern tourism.
"Florida tourism was really his idea," said Claudia Pennington, executive director of the
Key West Art and Historical Society. "I do think he's the man who opened up Florida. He's the visionary. Someone had to have the vision and the money to do it."
Jan. 22, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Flagler's
Florida East Coast Railway's Key West extension, the
Over-Sea Railroad, the engineering feat that made the lower Keys accessible by land. Celebrations are planned from Key West to St. Augustine to honor the man whose railroad created cities, transformed towns and opened Florida to the traveling public.
Born in New York, Flagler founded
Standard Oil with
John D. Rockefeller. He visited Florida in 1878 for a bit of fresh air with his sick wife, but the hotels in 19th century Jacksonville failed to impress him. Flagler saw a business opportunity.
He eventually built the
Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, which is now part of
Flagler College, and began his career as a resort developer.
But hotels in Florida would do little business if people couldn't reach them. He bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax railroads, and renamed it the Florida East Coast Railway.
In 1894, Flagler extended the railroad to Palm Beach, where he built two more hotels,
the Palm Beach Inn and the Royal Poinciana.
In 1901, the Palm Beach Inn became The Breakers, a high-end hotel that featured afternoon tea parties and stylish ballrooms with live entertainment. A conservative who shunned excessive drinking and gambling, Flagler tried to encourage wholesome cultural activities.
"Palm Beach literally radiated out from his resorts," said Breakers historian Jim Ponce. "His hotels were so far more elegant than anything else that had been built. He was catering to the most affluent people."
For a while, Flagler's Royal Ponciana was the largest hotel in the world.
Flagler built Florida's first 18-hole golf course and designed packages for his guests to go sword-fishing and take weekend getaways to Miami. He built strip shopping centers and ferries to get there. He established newspapers and the electric company.
Hotel guests would step off the Pullman into the lobby, Ponce said."Anything that wasn't there and he felt they needed, he built it. I don't know what the well-to-do were doing in the wintertime, but he convinced them to come to Florida. He brought the wealthy in ahead of the crowd. If it had developed naturally, I don't know where they would have fit in."
Flagler made sure his hotels included big spaces, ambience, fireplaces, spectacular art collections and large social gathering areas, said Prof. Mark Bonn, who teaches tourism courses at the University of South Florida's business school.
Flagler, he said, got in the hotel business because he wanted to build places where people of his ilk - the
Vanderbilts and the like - could gather.
"He looked for special places," Bonn said. "He looked for history, culture and environment. Now we call that 'ecotourism.' The things he built for himself and his friends to enjoy turned out to be enjoyed by millions of people, didn't it?
The original Breakers burned down in 1903. The second Breakers suffered the same fate in 1925. The one that stands now holds
540 roomsand is still owned by descendants of Flagler's heirs.
But Flagler did not stop with Palm Beach. Early Miami settler Julia Tuttle convinced Flagler to extend his train south, and sweetened the proposal by offering him half her holdings in exchange.
Flagler built Miami's storied
Royal Palm Hotel on the mouth of the Miami River, and in 1896, catapulted a town inhabited by fewer than 500 people into an incorporated city.
"It would have been many years before Miami was awakened to development of any kind," said Barry University professor
Seth H. Bramson, author of The Greatest Railroad Story Every Told: Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension.
By the early 1900s, Flagler was at work on an extension of his rail to Key West. Although only accessible by water, Key West was Florida's largest city. With 19,000 inhabitants, Key West was a thriving city famous for its salvage businesses and cigars. But the arrival of Flagler's train meant freight - and customers - could come by land.
When Flagler first pulled into the island on Jan. 22, 1912, he was greeted by some 10,000 people. "Building a railroad over 128 miles of water had never been done," Pennington said.
Bramson, the Florida East Coast Railway official company historian, calls Flagler's accomplishment the
"greatest railroad engineering construction feat in United States - and possibly world - history."
"He put Florida on the map for the rich and famous, and then, of course, everybody else started to follow," said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright. "I don't think anybody would have built the railroad to Key West, and then nobody would have built the highway. We'd have forever stayed an island accessible by air or sea. Key West would have been the equivalent of a Caribbean island."
Flagler built Key West's
Casa Marina hotel but never saw its opening. A year after his dramatic arrival on the island, Flagler died after falling down the stairs at his Palm Beach mansion.
His $50 million railroad was destroyed in the
1935 hurricane and was never rebuilt.
Historians agree that The Father of Florida would have been thrilled with his life's work, even if might have wrinkled his nose at modern day nightlife debauchery.
"Florida really was America's last frontier - largely a swampy area," said John Blades, executive director of the
Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. "He would be pleased that so many people come to enjoy Florida and call it home."
Florida State Archives; article courtesy of Visit Florida