It is strange to think that so few people know that much about Henry Morrison Flagler, for he was at the epicenter of events during which time the United States transitioned from a post-Civil War agrarian economy to the very beginning of the industrial power that was its destiny. He was also primarily responsible for the Florida we know today. So who was he?
Henry Flagler was born in 1830 to a devout and poor Presbyterian minister. His first job earned him $5 a month, and he was only educated through the eighth grade. By 36, after making a fortune during the Civil War, he lost it all and was bankrupt.
From this less-than-auspicious beginning and the ashes of his first career would be born one of the largest companies in history. With borrowed capital, Flagler went into partnership with John D. Rockefeller, whom he had known previously in the grocery business. They formed a company called Standard Oil of New Jersey, whose singular purpose was to monopolize petroleum transportation and refining in the United States.
To his dying day, Rockefeller always gave credit to Flagler for the brilliance behind the concept of Standard Oil. With only a limited education, Flagler conceived and wrote all the documents for the formation of interlocking trust companies that allowed a single company to do business across state lines, which was heretofore not legal.
Through these trusts, through various techniques, some of which bordered on the unscrupulous and would be considered ruthless by the morality of any age, Flagler and Rockefeller were able to eventually control all transportation of petroleum from the burgeoning fields in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, transporting it to their refineries in Ohio.
In the process, Cleveland became the de facto center of the industrial world. The Standard Oil can became the standard unit of measurement and could be seen in virtually any country in the world at the turn of the century. By 1892, Standard Oil of New Jersey had essentially monopolized the transportation and refining capacity of the entire country, with distribution around the world.
At this time, and in dollars of the day, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Flagler and Rockefeller were respectively the richest corporation in history and the richest men on earth.
After this unprecedented success, Flagler began to wind down his involvement with Standard Oil, but his entrepreneurial spirit kept him ever active in many endeavors, not the least of which was his desire to make Florida the "Riviera" of the United States. He had visited St. Augustine in 1876 with his first wife, Mary, who passed away shortly thereafter, but not before Flagler had seen the potential in the year-round climate of Florida.
His intent was not to build a great railroad, but to build and connect luxury hotels to serve the emerging wealthy of the gilded age. From St. Augustine to, eventually, Palm Beach, he envisioned hotels that would be the best in the world. He intended to stop in Palm Beach until a freeze in the northern part of the state in 1885 convinced him otherwise. Julia Tuttle, who was a pioneer in the nascent city of Miami, sent him orange blossoms from that city and invited him down with the lure of free land. The railroad arrived there in 1896.
In 1905, Key West was the most populous city in the state of Florida, and Flagler was aware that the Panama Canal would be completed in the near future. With the deep-water harbor in Key West, Flagler decided to build what some called "Flagler's Folly" but others called the eighth wonder of the modern world, the railroad that went to sea.
His intent was to have a railhead in Key West to provide a coaling station for steam-powered ships that would eventually make their way through the Panama Canal, and also be able to capitalize on the flow of fresh produce from South and Central America to the northern markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and Boston.
Through more setbacks than can be imagined, and at a cost somewhat equal to the amount to build the Alaska pipeline out of the pocket of one man, Flagler completed the railroad on schedule when it arrived in Key West on Jan. 22, 1912. When asked why he was building the railroad, his answer was usually much the same: "If I don't do it, nobody else will."
Henry Flagler changed the United States and the world with his brilliant realization of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey during the dawn of the automobile age. With an immense fortune at his disposal, and a restless entrepreneurial spirit, he changed the state of Florida with the building of the Florida East Coast Railway, which extended from St. Augustine to Key West. It is hard to imagine what this country, and certainly the state of Florida, would be had Henry Flagler never lived.
This coming weekend, Key West will have the singular historic opportunity of honoring Henry Flagler and his miraculous accomplishment with a gala costume gilded age ball at the Waldorf Astoria Casa Marina Resort. It will feature entertainment by a segment of the Key West Pops under the direction of Vincent Zeto. Afterward, all of Key West is invited to view a fireworks presentation that has been graciously sponsored by the Waldorf Astoria Casa Marina, Historic Tours of America, the Southernmost Hotel Collection, Key West Westin Resort, Salute on the Beach, Louie's Backyard, First State Bank and the Key West Butterfly Conservatory. The fireworks can be viewed from any of these waterfront locations at about 10 p.m.
The following day there will be a parade commencing at Truman Annex that will make its way down Whitehead to Angela to Duval Street on its way to the Custom House, where the new Flagler exhibition will be opened by local dignitaries and the president of the FEC Railway. If you and your children would like to be a part of this historic occasion by riding in the parade, call the Market Share Company at 305-296-5596.
We hope that all of the Florida Keys and Key West will enjoy the fireworks show, the parade on Sunday and the history that is uniquely ours.
Chris Belland's Hindsights & Insights column appears here on Sundays. All of his previous columns are available on his blog: hindsightsandinsights.blogspot.com. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.