Chris Belland's - "Hindsights & Insights"
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Ninety days and 100 years ago, Flagler's Folly became a modern miracle

Ninety days from now will be Jan. 22, 2012, and will mark the 100 year anniversary of the arrival of Henry M. Flagler's private passenger car, The Rambler, into Key West at 10:43 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1912. What was once called Flagler's Folly was soon and forever after appropriately called a miracle of engineering, the eighth wonder of the modern age!

Henry Flagler was born to an impoverished Presbyterian minister on Jan. 1, 1830. His business career started as a grocery clerk at a salary of $5 a month, having left school after the eighth grade. Apparently it was enough to start Henry Flagler on the road to building one of the largest corporations in the world.

Certainly, time and circumstance had a great deal to do with Flagler's success, but it was also an indomitable will, innate genius and a ruthless pursuit of wealth that made it possible. Henry Flagler made a fortune in the salt business during the Civil War but lost it when, at war's end, salt prices collapsed, leaving him $50,000 in debt.

Against this backdrop was the discovery of oil and the nascent refining industry of the oil regions of Pennsylvania, and the beginning of Cleveland as the industrial center of the United States. Simply, Henry Flagler was in the right place at the right time.

With a loan from his father-in-law, Flagler, John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews started the Standard Oil Co. With no legal training, Henry Flagler wrote the original charter for the corporation in 1870 -- it was less than 200 words, perhaps a lesson in brevity to all attorneys.

In fact, even John D. Rockefeller gave Henry Flagler full credit for the establishment of the Standard Oil business model.

At the time it was illegal for one company to have multiple ownership interests across state lines. Henry Flagler devised a way to create a combination of trusts that, along with secretly negotiated rail rates based on the volume that Standard was shipping, essentially gave Standard an irresistible monopoly established for the transportation and refining of oil.

It would offer a price to suppliers and shippers and, if it was rejected, Standard would simply refuse to handle their product, in essence putting them out of business. My own grandfather was treated thusly and would not allow the mention of Rockefeller in his house.

The main use of refined oil at the time was kerosene, which replaced whale oil as the source of household lighting. Of course, the invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison in 1885, and the subsequent beginning of the age of the automobile, changed everything and catapulted Standard Oil into a company such as the world had never seen. The Standard Oil can was the "standard" means of consumption and was seen literally worldwide before globalization was even thought of.

Henry Flagler first went to Florida in 1876 to take his first wife, Mary, who was soon to die, there for the recuperative weather. His first impression was poor. However, upon returning, he began to see the opportunities the undeveloped wilderness of the state of Florida offered.

He began building his railroad systems down the east coast of the state, and decided to stop at Palm Beach until an extraordinary freeze in 1884 caused him to rethink the strategy. Upon receiving fresh orange blossoms sent by Julia Tuttle -- indicating the weather was fine farther south -- he extended the railroad to Miami, where it arrived in 1896.

Ever the shrewd businessman, Flagler knew the Panama Canal would be completed in 1913, and he determined to build the railroad extension from Miami down to Key West to make it the closest deepwater port to receive goods from Central America, Cuba and the Panama Canal, and to provide a coaling stop for ships from the West Coast.

The railroad was completed at a cost of $50 million and the lives of hundreds of men. It was something on the order of one man building the Alaska Pipeline out of his own pocket. Even today, one can see the evidence of the extraordinary engineering feat many thought impossible. For better or worse, newer ships and fuels made Key West obsolete as a coaling port and the railroad did not make money, a fact Flagler never witnessed, as he died in 1913.

The Flagler Centennial Committee has been formed to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of this modern miracle. It comprises the heads of all the chambers of commerce throughout the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Key West. There are several events planned leading up to Jan. 22, when there will be a parade, a grand Golden Age costume ball and a fireworks celebration.

Save the date! Tickets are limited.

The centennial represents an extraordinary opportunity for the Florida Keys to once again focus the attention of the world on not only the accomplishments of Henry Flagler, but also the extraordinary opportunities it opened up for visitors to the Florida Keys.

For further information on the parade, please visit the website.

Chris Belland's Hindsights & Insights column appears here on Sundays. Belland also writes a biweekly column on environmental issues, which runs in our Sunday magazine, Solares Hill. All of his previous columns are available on his blog: Contact Chris at