top of page
Henry M. Flagler
Henry M. Flagler was born in Hopewell, New York, the son of a Presbyterian minister. After completing the eighth grade in 1844 he made his way to Bellevue, Ohio, to work as a grain merchant. Rising through the ranks, he was promoted to partner in 1852. A decade later, using capital from his own savings and from relatives, he founded a salt company in Saginaw, Michigan, but this venture collapsed with the salt market at the end of the Civil War. Heavily in debt, Flagler moved to Cleveland to re-enter the grain business. Here he met John D. Rockefeller, who in 1867 invited Flagler to invest in his burgeoning oil business. Flagler dug into his own savings and those of relatives to loan Rockefeller $100,000 and take a seat on the board of what would soon become Standard Oil.
By 1877, the corporation was the leading American oil refiner and moved its headquarters from Ohio to New York City. Flagler negotiated contracts on Rockefeller's behalf, including earning rebates from railroads for shifting traffic to them and away from lake and canal transportation. He was also instrumental in creating a trust arrangement to shield Standard Oil from lawsuits by the various states in which it operated.
Flagler’s fortune grew, but his wife Mary, whom he had wed in 1855, was very ill and died in 1881. Flagler then married her nurse, Ida Alice Shourds, and the couple traveled to St. Augustine, Florida. Though delighted by the city, they found the hotels uncomfortable and transportation inadequate. This combination gave Flagler the idea to invest in developing the state of Florida. In 1885, he gave up his day-to-day involvement at Standard Oil and spent the rest of his life investing in Florida. He returned to St. Augustine to begin construction on the Hotel Ponce de Leon and buy the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax Railroad, the first segment of what would become his Florida East Coast Railway. The hotel opened in January 1888, and its success encouraged Flagler to continue with his Florida investments, this time near Daytona. Other hotels followed, and the railroad was extended to West Palm Beach in 1894, where he built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Severe winters in 1894 and 1895 caused him to rethink his plan to make West Palm Beach the terminus of his railroad, so when landowners in the Miami River region offered him free real estate, he laid tracks to the area and renamed the company the Florida East Coast Railway. In this latest venture, he funded municipal utilities, newspapers, street building, and canal dredging, though he declined the honor of having the new city named after him and suggested using the Indian name of Miami for the booming metropolis.
In 1895, Flagler's second wife had been institutionalized for mental illness, and Flagler lobbied legislators to legalize divorce in the case of permanent insanity. In 1901, two years after the measure passed, Flagler married Mary Lily Kenan, for whom he built Whitehall, an estate in Palm Beach. In 1905, with Florida fast becoming a winter vacation destination for the nation's elite, he decided to extend the Florida East Coast Railway to Key West, some 128 miles beyond the Florida mainland. Though his decision seems quixotic today, at the time Key West was Florida's most populated city and the closest port to the proposed Panama Canal. The extension, called the Florida Overseas Railroad, was opened in 1912 and brought his total investments in Florida to $50 million. Flagler did not live long to enjoy this latest triumph. He injured himself in a fall at his home in 1913 and died of the wounds he sustained on May 20, 1913, at the age of 83 and was buried in St. Augustine. He is remembered for his dogged advocacy of Florida as a place for development and his willingness to risk his not inconsiderable fortune to develop the east coast of the Sunshine State.
bottom of page