Henry Flagler: Father of Florida Tourism
Though you’ve probably never heard of the man, you can’t travel very far along the east coast of Florida without coming under the influence of Henry Flagler, who almost singlehandedly turned what had been swampy coastline into one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. After making a fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in the Standard Oil Company, in the early 1880s Flagler came to St. Augustine with his wife, who was suffering from health problems. He found the climate agreeable, but the facilities sorely lacking, so he embarked on construction of the 540-room Hotel Ponce de León, which opened in 1888. The hotel, the first major resort in Florida, was an instant success, and Flagler quickly expanded his operations, building the first railroad along the coast south to Palm Beach, where he opened the world’s largest hotel, the now-demolished Royal Poinciana, in 1894, joined by The Breakers in 1901 and his own palatial home, Whitehall, in 1902.
Meanwhile, Flagler was busy extending his railroad south, effectively founding the new city of Miami in 1897 when he opened the deluxe Royal Palm Hotel. From Miami, he decided to extend his Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West, which at the time was Florida’s most populous city and the American deep-water port closest to the proposed Panama Canal. At a cost of $50 million and hundreds of lives, this amazing railroad was completed in 1912, but it lasted only two decades before a hurricane destroyed the tracks in 1935. The remnants of Flagler’s railroad were used as the foundation for today’s Overseas Highway, US-1, but Flagler himself never lived to see it: In 1913, a year after his railroad reached Key West, Henry Flagler fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 84.