Henry Flagler: Honorary Southern Man or Yankee Carpetbagger?

Statue of Henry Morrison Flagler that stands i...

Statue of Henry Morrison Flagler that stands in front of Flagler College. Français : Statue d’Henry Morrison Flagler située en face du Flagler College. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you live outside the state of Florida, you may not even know the name Henry Flagler. If you live anywhere along Florida’s Atlantic coast, however, the name Flagler is unavoidable. There’s Flagler Beach, Flagler College, Flagler County and countless other institutions, both private and public, named for Henry Flagler. But who was he?

Born in Hopewell, New York, Henry Morrison Flagler received an eighth-grade education before leaving home in 1844 to seek his fortune … at the youthful age of fourteen. After a few years working in a family store in Ohio, Flagler moved to Michigan to get into salt mining. After losing over $100,000 of his and his family’s money in the salt business (salt demand plummeted at the end of the Civil War), Flagler returned to Ohio and entered a family grain concern. There, he fatefully met a young sales agent named John D. Rockefeller.

When Rockefeller left to start his own oil refinery, he looked to Flagler for an investment. With money from family member Stephen V. Harkness (Harkness was was Flagler’s mother’s step-son by her late husband … and we thought Southern relationships were complicated), Flagler became a partner in what would eventually become Standard Oil. Though Rockefeller may be the more commonly known name, it was reportedly Flagler who was the real brains behind what would become the largest oil company in the world.

Doctor’s orders sent him to Jacksonville, Florida for the winter of 1876. Two years later, he returned with a new bride and honeymooned in St. Augustine. While he thought the city was charming, he found the hotels and transportation system lacking.  Henry Flagler had found his new purpose. Over the remainder of his life, Flagler set about transforming the sawgrass jungles and barren beaches of Florida’s Atlantic Coast into a vacation mecca.

First, he built the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine. Then, by buying up small regional rail lines and connecting them, Flagler created the Florida East Coast Railway. In order to have the facilities to serve his growing holdings in St. Augustine, he also built a modern depot, schools, hospitals and churches.

Next he expanded south by purchasing the Ormond Hotel, just north of Daytona. He then built a rail bridge to expand rail service across the St. John’s River and into the Southern half of the state. Next came the founding of the towns of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach … and the construction of world-class hotels in each.

Moving further South, Flagler took interest in a small farming community that had proven to be outside the reaches of the occasional frosts that would affect central Florida citrus crops. The two primary land-owning families there offered half of their land to Flagler if he would extend his railroad into their community and built one of his legendary hotels there. So in 1896, he did just that, taking his rail line all the way to Biscayne Bay. The small community of 50 or so inhabitants incorporated that year and wished to name the town in Flagler’s honor. He declined and suggested they retain the old Indian name for the area: Miami.

Henry Flagler disembarking train at Key West

Henry Flagler disembarking train at Key West (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

At that time in Florida history, the largest city in the state was also its southernmost: Key West. Flagler had a dream, though most called it his folly. He wanted to connect Key West to Miami with an over-sea railroad line. This would allow his communities and his rail line to capitalize on the international trade taking place in Key West. By 1912, Flagler’s Overseas Railway was complete. The railway was later heavily damaged in a hurricane in 1935, but its foundations were repurposed for the Overseas Highway. (Today’s Overseas Highway, or US Route 1, follows the same general route, but was built some years later.)

A year after Flagler’s Folly was complete, Flagler fell down a flight of stairs at his Whitehall mansion in Palm Beach. He never recovered from his injuries. By the time of his death, Flagler had invested more than $50 million of his personal fortune in the development of his adopted home state.

As we mentioned above, many in the state still credit Flagler as the father of modern Florida. Without his efforts, the its Atlantic coast wouldn’t be lined with condos and hotels, Miami wouldn’t be one of the largest cities in the country and millions of Northerners wouldn’t have discovered the state for future retirement. Then again, maybe it was all a historical inevitability.

So was he a Northerner who became a Real Southern Man in modernizing the South’s playground? Or was he simply a carpetbagger whose actions only “Yankeed” up the South’s southernmost state?

The next time I’m relaxing and sipping a cold one at a little waterside joint in Ponce Inlet, or strolling through the idyllic streets of historic St. Augustine, I’ll give you an answer.


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