Flagler’s rail system linked growing cities
Before venturing to South Florida to make a lasting imprint on the area’s transportation industry and infrastructure, Henry M. Flagler already had secured his proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
In the late 1860s, Flagler teamed with industrialist John D. Rockefeller and his brother, William Rockefeller — along with chemist Samuel Andrews and Stephen V. Harkness, a distant relative and an investor — to form the Standard Oil Company.
By 1892, Standard Oil had a monopoly over the American refinery industry. John D. Rockefeller, whose name has been forever attached to Standard Oil and American entrepreneurship, often gave credit to Flagler for creating the Standard Oil Trust, a system through which the company invited its competitors to form under a single group of trustees in exchange for dividend-paying certificates.
A trustee board would then manage all the companies, creating a monopoly for the dominant company.
“Had Flagler done nothing but his work with Standard Oil, he should be in the Business Hall of Fame,” according to John Blades, executive director of the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. Flagler’s greatest accomplishment was “inventing modern Florida,” Blades said in a telephone interview.
In the late 19th century, Flagler gave up his day-to-day duties at Standard Oil — although he retained a seat on the board — to focus on Florida. He began in St. Augustine, where he built his first hotel, the Ponce de Leon, now the centerpiece of Flagler College. He eventually owned a number of hotels throughout the state, and his Model Land Co. was responsible for much of Florida’s agricultural and tourist development.
But one thing was missing — a well-developed transportation structure.
Not for long. Flagler purchased a set of small railroads that he would transform into the Florida East Coast Railway system. He expanded his endeavors, including an extension from West Palm Beach to Miami in 1896, and his work was pivotal to the growth and development of both cities.
Miami was incorporated, not long after the first train arrived there. Flagler, who became known as the “Father of Miami,” resisted naming the city after himself as some residents wished. Instead, he chose to name it after the Native American word “Miyaimi,” a tribe indigenous to the area surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
Sixteen years later, Flagler’s overseas railroad would connect the tip of mainland South Florida to Key West. That major technological accomplishment was completed in 1912, a year before his death.
The Overseas Railroad, also known as the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, was heavily damaged in the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935. The FEC Railway, unable financially to rebuild the destroyed sections, sold the roadbed and remaining bridges to the state of Florida. The state later built the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1) to Key West, using much of the remaining railway infrastructure.
Blades says that Flagler has been Florida’s most influential resident. “Given the modern environment,” he said, “no one is likely to unseat his influence in Florida’s history and development.”
Flagler’s name is memorialized in a lot of places, including Flagler College in St. Augustine, the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach and Flagler Street in downtown Miami. Three statues are erected in his name: in Key West in honor of his overseas railroad, in Miami outside the Miami-Dade Courthouse, 73 W. Flagler Street — and at Flagler College.