of Florida and the Caribbean"
Henry Morrison Flagler
"I have always been contented, but I have never been satisfied."
It was a chilly day in October 1844. Henry raised his gray eyes to cast one backward glance at his New York home. With one hand he clutched the carpetbag that contained all of his possessions, with the other he patted the pocket in his homespun pants to be sure he had safely hidden the little money saved for his travels. Though it was a long way to Republic, Ohio for a 14-year-old boy, it was a real opportunity. He was too ambitious to follow in his fathers footsteps, a preacher-farmer with a small Presbyterian congregation near Medina. He was too restless to stay in school. He had been unsuited for the odd jobs he had attempted. He simply wanted to make money, lots of it.
The day after Henry arrived in Republic he began working with his half brother, Daniel M. Harkness, at L.G. Harkness and Company. He was a dedicated employee who was quickly recognized for his outstanding energy, ambition, and intelligence. Promotion followed promotion eventually leading to a partnership in the firm of Harkness and Company in 1852. The company, located in Bellevue, Ohio, shipped large quantities of wheat to Cleveland where commission agent John D. Rockefeller handled most of the shipments. Flagler and Rockefeller soon became friends, finding they shared much in common, especially the desire for success.
On November 9, 1853, Henry married Mary Harkness, first cousin of Daniel M. Harkness. Their first child, Jennie Louise, was born on March 18, 1855; their youngest child Harry was born in 1870. The family moved to Cleveland and purchased a nine-room house on Euclid Avenue. Henry had an office in the Sexton Building downtown. During this time the petroleum industry grew rapidly. Rockefeller, who had invested in petroleum in 1862, had by 1866 a business worth $1,200,000. He also had an office in the Sexton Building, and lived with his family on Euclid Avenue. By 1867 the friends had formed the oil partnership of Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler.
On January 11, 1870, the partnership was incorporated as a joint stock company called the Standard Oil Company. Within a few months of incorporation 20 of the 25 refineries in Cleveland were taken over by Standard Oil, the small oilmen realizing they could not stay in competition with the burgeoning giant. In 1877, the site of the Standard Oil Company moved to Americas largest city, New York. Henry, secretary of the corporation, moved his family there, joining the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and other industrialists and bankers of what had become known as the "Guilded Age".
Over the years Henrys wife Mary suffered increasingly poor health, which precluded him from participating in social activities. It was said that for the final 17 years of Marys life, from 1864 until her death on May 8, 1881, Henry spent only two evenings away from home. Her death had a profound effect on Henry who resolved to spend more time on himself and his children.
He purchased and completely renovated Satanstoe, a beautiful 40-room summer home situated on 32 acres of land on Long Island Sound. It was a wonderful retreat for the children, family and friends. Flagler delighted in his renovation efforts that offered a new diversion from the Standard Oil business.
On June 5, 1883, 53-year-old Henry married 35-year-old Ida Alice Shourds, attendant to the late Mary Flagler. She had bright blue eyes, a profusion of red hair, and a violent and often uncontrollable temper. Ida considered Henrys fortune to be one of his most attractive features. With limitless spending power she made every attempt to gain social acceptance through the purchase of extravagant gifts and lavish clothes. She never succeeded.
The couple chose to honeymoon in Florida, staying for four days at the St. James Hotel in Jacksonville. They then traveled up the St. Johns river by steamship, transferring at Tocoi to the St. Johns River Railroad to reach St. Augustine. The ancient city so charmed Flagler that despite the absence of an attractive hotel, or facilities for winter visitors, he determined to retire there.
Though Flaglers worth in Standard Oil was between $10,000,000 and $20,000,000, he had lost interest and, for the most part, ceased to participate in the business of the company. His vision had turned to Florida. In March of 1885, Flagler bought from Dr. Andrew Anderson several acres of land in St. Augustine on which he built the magnificent Ponce De Leon Hotel. The hotel formally opened on January 10,1888. At the same time, Flagler also constructed the Alcazar Hotel across the street, designed for less wealthy travelers.
Flaglers daughter, Jennie Louise, died of childbirth complications on March 25, 1889. He built the First Presbyterian Church of St. Augustine (now the Memorial Presbyterian Church) as a memorial to her. The mausoleum adjoining the church contains Jennies remains as well as those of her mother and her baby. Flagler also contributed funds for rebuilding the Catholic cathedral destroyed by fire, the City Hall, a modern hospital, an African American school, and for paving roads, establishing waterworks, installing electric lights, laying sewers, and constructing affordable homes for workers. Dr. Anderson, who became a lifelong friend of Flaglers, believed that Flaglers intrinsic motivation was a religious, charitable desire to use his wealth so as to create opportunities for others to advance themselves.
With the decision to build hotels came the concomitant decision to develop transportation facilities. On December 31, 1885, Flagler purchased the rickety, narrow gage Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railroad. By 1888 he had also acquired the St. Augustine Palatka Railroad and the St. Johns Railroad. In 1889 he completed the track for rail service as far south as Daytona, and with this achievement seriously entered into his second post-retirement career, railroads.
From 1889 Flagler devoted his energy to the development of Florida. He advanced south along the East Coast, laying track, building magnificent hotels, and pioneering new regions. In the early 1890s, when Flagler first visited Palm Beach, there were only about a dozen houses and frontier conditions. In April 1893, Flagler purchased land in Palm Beach east of Lake Worth, with the decision to create the Royal Poinciana Hotel. He purchased several hundred acres of land west of the lake to lay out the town of West Palm Beach. As he had done in St. Augustine, Henry Flagler was a major benefactor of West Palm Beach financing both civic projects and private developments including the construction of the Catholic Church for his Catholic employees.
Mrs. Julia D. Tuttle, originally from Cleveland, had purchased 640 acres of land opposite William Brickell, on the north bank of the Miami River in the early 1870s, and later remodeled Fort Dallas at the mouth of the Miami River. She had heard of Flaglers developments along the East Coast and contacted him repeatedly about buying land in Fort Dallas and extending his railroad south. He managed to ignore her for several years until a terrible winter freeze did such extensive crop damage that he began to think about the possibilities farther south. The two finally met in 1895 and Flagler was immediately convinced of the regions potential. By April 15, 1896, the railroad had reached Miami. Less than 20 years later, the population of Miami had increased from a few pioneers to a citizenry of 10,875.
In 1894 Ida Alice began to exhibit peculiar behavior. Her mental condition deteriorated from sporadically illusional to degenerate into complete insanity. Her condition devastated Henry. Though he retained the best psychiatric specialists for her, Ida Alice was eventually diagnosed as terminally insane. On March 23, 1897, rambling incoherently about her impending marriage to the Czar of Russia, she was carried off to Pleasantville Sanitarium. In 1899, the New York Supreme Court declared her insane and incompetent. She lived in a world of delusions and hallucinations in private sanitariums until July 10,1930, when she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 82.
On August 24, 1901, dapper 71-year-old Henry Flagler married Mary Lily Kenan, a 34-year-old North Carolina belle. Because she had always wanted a marble palace, Flagler built her a mansion in Palm Beach which she called Whitehall (now the Flagler Museum). For several years Mary Lily Flagler hosted fabulous social events to entertain all of the most prominent people at Whitehall. Due to his age, Flagler grew less and less able to participate in these events. Gradually Mary Lily sought social attractions outside the home, the houseguests soon became infrequent, and the great marble palace fell as silent as a tomb.
Henry Flaglers final undertaking was the daring construction of the overseas railroad extension from Miami to Key West. The Spanish-American War of 1898 placed Cuba under U.S. tutelage by the Platt Amendment and Flagler expected that the U.S. would maintain close political and economic relations with the island. He was interested in trade, crop cultivation, and had purchased shares in several Cuban railroads. He would be in an exclusive position to transport goods and people overland upon completion of the Key West extension.
The railroad took seven years to complete and the labor of as many as 4,000 men at a time. Despite labor shortages, intense heat, vicious mosquitoes and hurricanes, the first official train crossed the overseas extension on January 22, 1912, to be met by a cheering crowd of some ten thousand people. A now frail man of 82, Henry Flagler was on board, accompanied by dignitaries including Robert Shaw Oliver, Secretary of War, representing President Howard Taft. Representatives of Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Costa Rica, Guatemala, San Salvador, and Uruguay joined General Jose Marti, representative of President Gomez of Cuba, in celebration.
In January of 1913, Flagler suffered a broken hip due to a fall down the white marble steps of Whitehall. He was unable to leave his bed thereafter and passed away peacefully on May 13, 1913. His body rests near that of his daughter, Jennie Louise, and her infant, in the mausoleum at the Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine. He was an acute visionary. He successfully developed the East Coast of Florida after the age of sixty and his retirement from Standard Oil. Like all celebrities, he was a controversial figure in his time, but should best be remembered for his kindness and generosity. From the landing of Ponce de Leon on the shores of the East Coast, Florida has inspired people to dream. Flaglers legacy is to have made his dream into reality.
Florida East Coast Railway
Florida East Coast Railway/ Florida Rails Online Museum
Morrison Flagler Museum
The History of the Standard Oil Company