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"Flagler's Florida: From Swamps to Sunshine State"
With his pioneering spirit, industrialist Henry Flagler transformed the Sunshine State's swampy wilderness into a tropical paradise.
His name adorns streets, buildings, museums- and even a college- all across Florida.
Yet few of today’s residents remember the remarkable contributions of the man who earned the well-deserved moniker of "the father of modern Florida."
A Fortune Worthy of Rockefeller
Before venturing south, Flagler was a founding partner of Standard Oil alongside John D. Rockefeller. When Standard Oil (Ohio) was established in 1870, Flagler drew up the papers and received 1,333 shares, just about half as many as the 2,667 shares that Rockefeller took for himself.
During their morning strolls, Rockefeller deeply valued Flagler's business insights. America's richest man attributed much of the company's early prosperity to his colleague's savvy. Rockefeller once admitted that it was Henry Flagler who conceived the idea of the Standard Oil Trust. ''He was the man of the most imagination in the firm,'' Rockefeller said at the time.
Yet it was in Florida where Flagler left his most enduring legacy. He opened up the east coast of Florida to railroads—he almost single-handedly willed cities like Miami into existence.
Back in the late 1870s, the muggy swampland of Florida seemed an unlikely destination for a Gilded Age tycoon. But during a vacation to St. Augustine in 1878, Flagler was dismayed by the city's woefully inadequate hotels.
Sensing a new business opportunity, he constructed the lavish Ponce de Leon and Alcazar hotels. He thereby ushered in an era of luxury tourism along the coast.
Flagler envisioned grand possibilities. He set about extending his Florida East Coast Railway south from Jacksonville. He transformed the sleepy towns dotting the shoreline into bustling winter havens for Northern elites. By 1894, he had pushed the tracks down to Ormond and Daytona. He then set up camp in Palm Beach.
Flagler built the enormous Royal Poinciana and Breakers hotels. In doing so, Flagler single-handedly turned Palm Beach into the place to see and be seen by Gilded Age high society. The Vanderbilts and Rockefellers flocked south during winter.
They soon spread the word that Florida's balmy weather and pristine beaches were the new Cote d'Azur.
Father of Miami
But Flagler saved his most audacious vision for Miami. His railroad arrived there in 1896. He soon constructed the magnificent Royal Palm Hotel. He invested in the city's first electric lights, water, and sewage systems. Almost overnight, this backwater became a magnet for land speculators. Flagler's railroad had opened up the frontier for development.
Capping his career in 1912, the indefatigable Flagler completed the near-impossible feat. He extended his railroad across 128 miles of open sea to reach Key West. It was an engineering marvel requiring seven years of grueling labor by thousands of men. It was considered an engineering feat that rivaled the construction of the Panama canal.
Eventually, the Overseas Railway allowed travelers to journey from New York to Havana with ease.
Flagler transformed swampy Florida from an isolated backwater into a thriving winter playground for the rich and powerful.
He proved himself a visionary empire builder.
Yes, few Floridians appreciate the remarkable accomplishments of Henry Flagler.
But among Gilded Age tycoons, Flagler is rightly revered as the founding father who unlocked the Sunshine State's full potential…
And laid the foundations for turning Florida into the 15th largest economy in the world.