Even before relocating to the Keys, I’ve been in awe of Henry Morrison Flagler, who more-or-less single handedly launched the tourism industry in Florida -- in fact, one might say, the “development” of Florida -- owing to the construction of his Florida East Coast Railway. This weekend, a year-long centennial celebration at venues from St. Augustine to Key West will commence to commemorate the accomplishment.
Here’s a little history:
Exactly 100 years ago today, at the very moment I am writing this, the first Overseas Railway train was minutes outside of town, rolling over concrete arches spanning stretches of open water, approaching Key West. In a feat deemed impossible by most, it connected the Florida Keys to one another and the Mainland, forever changing the face of the island chain. Its guest of honor on the inaugural journey was its creator, aged and ailing oil baron Henry Flagler.
There is plenty written about the physical challenge of accomplishing such an engineering feat, but less about what proved to be a fortuitous byproduct of that accomplishment: the birth of the tourism industry in Florida.
Prior to the railroad’s arrival in the Southernmost City, the 128-mile expanse of open ocean, dotted by bits of terrain known as the Florida Keys, had been accessible only by sea or air. At the time, Florida was America’s last frontier – a swampy expanse with few redeeming virtues other than its exotic tropical vegetation and temperate climate.
Flagler, the Standard Oil mogul with the financial wherewithal to make such a farfetched dream actually come true, conceived of the idea of the extension of his Florida East Coast Railway from the mainland, hop-scotching across the Keys to Key West. It was to become the engineering marvel that first made the northernmost islands of the Caribbean Basin accessible by land.
Despite its isolation, Key West in 1912 was Florida’s largest city. With 19,000 inhabitants, it had a thriving economy based on maritime salvage and cigar making. When Flagler’s first train rolled onto the island at 10:43 AM on Jan. 22, 1912, more than half the population turned out to greet it.
Rising above his humble roots, Henry Flagler as a young man founded Standard Oil in New York City on borrowed money, along with then-struggling John D. Rockefeller. With gypsy adaptability and an entrepreneur’s eye to opportunity, he was simultaneously involved in numerous, mostly-successful business ventures.
By the 1870s, Flagler was one of the most well-off citizens in America. Seeking a favorable climate for his ailing wife’s health, Flagler wintered in Jacksonville. After her death, he returned to the area. Finding the local 19th. century hotels, as well as the transportation system, not to his standards, he recognized yet another business opportunity. He ventured into the lodging industry with the construction of the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now a part of Flagler College) in St. Augustine. Upon its opening, it was an instant success.
Soon, Flagler acquired what became known as the Florida East Coast Railroad, which connected the inland agricultural lands to the east coast. As a point of reference, imagine this: at that time, Miami numbered around 300 pioneers and was essentially an Indian trading post, the only organized semblance of municipality in existence in South Florida.
A well-connected entrepreneur, Flagler was privy to potentially lucrative trade opportunities with countries to the south. Concurrent with the announcement in 1905 of the imminent construction of the Panama Canal, linking the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, he began the monumental undertaking (most called it “Flagler's Folly”) of extending his railroad across the 128 miles of open water dotted with occasional land masses to Key West.
Flagler's vision was of Key West becoming an important port, maritime supply hub, and refueling stop, establishing a trade route with Cuba and Latin and South America. Best of all, he had the monetary means to achieve it.
For a number of reasons, Key West never reached its potential as a major port. But, during the prolonged effort of the construction of his railroad’s Key West Extension, a burgeoning business opportunity had become apparent: tourism.
Probably without ever realizing the magnitude of what he had started, the man that many call the “father of Florida tourism” single-handedly changed the course of the state’s history. The places he built for his rich-and-famous friends have become dream destinations for people from around the world.
Key West, which he originally envisioned as an industrial port, has become the most unique vacation playground of all the locales which bear his mark. When visiting here, make it a point to walk through the Casa Marina (Waldorf Astoria) Hotel, Flagler’s last lodging creation on the Atlantic waterfront. While not as imposing as his Palm Beach and Miami edifices, it nevertheless bears the distinctive stamp of its progenitor, in the grand style of the “Gilded Age”.