And while I tend to gravitate towards European tales, I don’t have to go much farther than my own area for a good story.
Do you recognize this man?
Most people wouldn’t. So it’s surprising to learn that he is considered to be the father of Miami and founder of Palm Beach. His name is Henry Flagler.
And yet hardly anyone outside of the Sunshine State even knows who he is.
Henry Morrison Flagler was born in New York. He came from modest beginnings, the son of a Presbyterian minister. Yet he managed to overcome every obstacle, including only reaching an eighth-grade level education, to become one of the wealthiest businessmen of America’s illustrious Gilded Age.
In his younger years he dabbled with various unsuccessful business ventures. He eventually crossed paths with none other than the famous John D. Rockefeller, and history was made. Rockefeller, Flagler and a man named Samuel Andrews were the original partners of Standard Oil. This company grew into the largest oil refiner in the world.
But Flagler didn’t stop there. His first wife, Mary, had a poor constitution. At the recommendation of a physician the couple migrated south for the benefit of better winter weather. She eventually died, but the connection between Flagler and Florida had been established.
Flagler would remarry, and the newlyweds would travel to Saint Augustine for their honeymoon. And it would be here that Flagler would identify his next major business opportunity. Florida was popular with northerners escaping the brutal winters, but the accommodations were starkly lacking compared to what you could find in New York. And transportation was a nightmare.
So Flagler decided to fix this little issue. He began developing luxurious hotels all along the Florida east coast, starting with the 540-room Hotel Ponce de Leon in Saint Augustine. He bought the railways and consolidated them into the Florida East Coast Railway system. And he brought his developments further and further south.
He extended the tracks and built posh resorts the whole way down to Palm Beach, opening his Palm Beach Inn in 1896. It still stands today as The Breakers, a landmark destination. He continued pushing south and in 1896 reach Biscayne Bay. He founded a town at this location, complete with water and power and its own newspaper. The residents wanted to name it “Flagler” after its founder, but this suggestion was politely declined. Instead they opted to go with the native name for the local river.
And the city of Miami was born.
Flagler eventually ran his railway all the way down to Key West. The little town of Palm Beach wasn’t forgotten, however. Flagler built the mansion Whitehall in Palm Beach as a wedding present to his third wife. The home featured 100,000 square feet and more than 75 rooms. It’s open to visitors today as the Flagler Museum, and well worth a visit.
The house was designed by famous architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, and was described by the New York Herald as “… more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”
And just to prove that statement, here’s a little look inside.
This man… this name that hardly anyone knows, is single-handedly responsible for developing South Florida. He practically invented the place. And from his vision has sprung the modern coastal metropolises we see today. It’s quite impressive actually.
And it’s just the sort of story that gives Florida its own rich, unique narrative.
You can read more about Henry Flagler’s life and achievements here, as well as further details about Whitehall, the Gilded Age and the Florida East Coats Railway. If you’re into history, they’re fascinating reads.