Henry Flagler

Flagler’s journey to Florida

Henry Morrison Flagler developed the Florida East Coast Railway which accelerated development throughout the Sunshine State.

Flagler’s journey to Florida

Henry Morrison Flagler developed the Florida East Coast Railway which accelerated development throughout the Sunshine State.
UM News
Henry Flagler
Flagler getting off train at Key West for official opening of extension to Key West. Note with Flagler is Key West mayor J. N. Fogarty. Photo courtesy of Florida State Archives.

It was Jan. 22, 1912 when the first train arrived in Key West, Florida. On board was Henry Flagler, the mastermind of the Florida East Coast Railroad system himself. The trip marked the end of a construction achievement and the beginning of an everlasting legacy for Flagler, who was the visionary of it all.

Flagler’s vision to create a railway system that reached as far south as Key West began in the 1880s when he took a trip to St. Augustine for a honeymoon with his second wife, Ida Alice Shrouds. According to Jeff Donnelly, a former University of Miami English professor, it was during this visit when he noticed Florida’s potential.

“He looked around and thought it was a great place. He realized he would be able to bring more people if there were better transportation,” Donnelly said.

In 1885, Flagler made the decision to buy the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax railroads, which would ultimately become the beginning of his Florida East Coast Railway.

Within about two years of the purchases, Flagler opened his first hotel in St. Augustine and named it Hotel Ponce de Leon.

“Gradually over a couple of years, the railroad kept moving further south. Many of the points where he would stop, he would build a hotel. One of them still exists today: The Breakers in Palm Beach,” Donnelly said.

Julia Tuttle
Julia Tuttle was a pioneer resident and one of the founders of Miami. She was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 1984. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

History later indicates that Flagler was approached by Julia Tuttle to extend his railroad further south to Fort Dallas, now known as Miami. In 1891, Tuttle moved from Ohio to near the Miami River after buying an extensive amount of land near today’s downtown Miami. She turned to both Flagler and Henry Plant, who was also building a railroad on the west coast of Florida at the same time. She knew she needed help from either of them to make her vision of Miami as a major hub become a reality.

In the winter of 1894, a great freeze plagued much of the agriculture in Florida, and Flagler decided to extend his railroad south after Tuttle offered him land for the railroad. In return, Flagler would build a hotel and help her lay out the city now known as Miami.

According to Kate Bradley, the Flagler Museum archivist and research librarian, this move led to the South Florida we know today.

Railway Reached Miami
Florida East Coast Railway's Miami train yard with government center in the background. Circa mid-1920s. Photo courtesy of Homestead Historic Town Hall Museum.

“His move to South Florida influenced a big part of the state’s growth. With the hotels and the railroad, it brought a vast amount of people down for vacation,” Bradley said. “The people who were also working and developing these areas eventually settled down here for agricultural purposes as well.”

In 1905, when the United States took on the Panama Canal Project, Flagler decided that it was finally time to extend the railroad to Key West, adding 156 miles of track, mostly over water.

“Flagler realized that building a railroad all the way to Key West would help the city become a major hub for goods and merchandise coming to and from the Panama Canal. It would be a very good opportunity for business,” said Bradley.

It was one of the most ambitious engineering accomplishments of the time. Throughout years of construction, Flagler and his team had to overcome hurdles that included three major hurricanes. Bradley said the 1906 storm was the worst by far. The hurricane led to a halt in construction for more than a year.

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Henry Flagler Railway Henry Flagler Railway
Railroad work crews. Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.
Henry Flagler Railway Henry Flagler Railway
Construction of Jewfish Creek swing bridge. This is seen as the entrance to the Keys near mile marker 107. Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.
Henry Flagler Railway Henry Flagler Railway
Building Bridge forms. Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys History & Discovery Center.
Henry Flagler Railway Henry Flagler Railway
Florida East Coast Railway, Key West Extension. A train on the Seven Mile Bridge taken from Pigeon Key. Courtesy of Monroe County Public Library via the Library of Congress.
Henry Flagler Railway Henry Flagler Railway
Postcard of the arrival of the first train in Key West January 22, 1912. Postcard gift of Ramon Davies. Monroe County Library Collection.

“At the time of the hurricane, many workers were being housed on floating dormitories. During the storm, one of these washed away, killing more than 100 people onboard,” Bradley recounted. “As a result of the hurricane, the construction team changed a lot of methods they used, including decreasing the amount of quarter boats. They also installed a telegraph system, and started halting work on the extension during the summer months of hurricane season.“

Despite the hardships, the railroad was completed in 1912, just weeks after Flagler’s 82nd birthday. The railway project was a job he decided to take on after co-founding Standard Oil with partners John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews.

“This was his retirement deal, but he was still incredibly involved in all aspects of the construction. He wanted to be engaged in every part of the development,” Bradley said.

More than a century later, Flagler’s hard work is still reflected in the state of Florida’s economy, tourism and agriculture.

“It’s hard to imagine someone who had this combination of entrepreneurial courage, great wealth, perseverance, and determination. Whatever it was he wanted to succeed, and he did,” said Donnelly.

Information for this story was gathered from “Last Train to Paradise” by Les Standiford and the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum.