Henry Flagler was one of those nineteenth century industrialists who believed he could accomplish anything he set his mind to. He made his first fortune as the co-founder, along with John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil. In fact Rockefeller once said that Flagler was the brains behind the enterprise. Ruthless competitors, they took Standard Oil from a small refining concern in Ohio to a virtual monopoly of the oil business. But dominating one industry was not enough to satisfy Flagler’s ambition. He, like myself, was not a fan of cold northern winters so he took a trip down to St. Augustine, Florida, to check out the local scene.
He found a sleepy Spanish provincial town and immediately saw the opportunity to make a lot of money luring other winter-weary northerners to its agreeable climate and seaside beauty. So he built a hotel. The Ponce de Leon Hotel, named in honor of the Spanish explorer who allegedly found the Fountain of Youth a few blocks away, was the grandest of hotels, built with poured concrete and brick accents in the Spanish Renaissance style. Interior elements were provided by Louis Tiffany. It was the first hotel wired for electricity from the outset, made possible by his buddy Thomas Edison. Patrons of Mr. Flagler’s hotel needed deep pockets: the minimum stay was the entire winter season, whether you stayed all four months or not.
I visited the Ponce de Leon, which is now part of Flagler College. It houses the dining hall and serves as the women's dormitory. What a contrast to the dorms I inhabited at Carnegie-Mellon. I was not able to take the guided tour as I am still limping and wincing from the sciatic nerve flare-up that struck me two weeks ago. But just sitting in the courtyard for a while and taking a look at the grand entrance hall and rotunda was worth the effort. I had expected a stone interior, something resembling a gothic cathedral, but instead found it is all carved wood. Exquisite.
Flagler needed a way to get his patrons to St. Augustine so he bought the short line railroad from Jacksonville. He discovered that he enjoyed running a railroad so he decided , in typical Standard Oil fashion, to buy up all the other railroads in the region and expand southward to West Palm Beach. But the winter of 1894-95 was so severe that only the southern tip of Florida, where the town that is now Miami stands, escaped the freezing weather. So Flagler set his sights there, extended the rail line, and pretty much built Miami.
Meanwhile another industrialist, Robert Plant, was snatching up railroads in the state. As befitting robber barons of the era, the two men made a gentleman’s agreement: Flagler would keep to Florida’s east coast if Plant would stay on the west. This left Flagler with only one direction to expand – south.
At the time Key West was the largest city in Florida and a bustling port. Although engineers said it couldn’t be done, Flagler extended his line 128 miles down the Keys, mostly on causeways and trestles. His Florida East Coast Railroad was now the railroad that went to sea. It’s premier passenger train was the Havana Special, an all Pullman deluxe overnight run from New York to Key West with connections to passenger steamers bound for Cuba.
A hurricane on Labor Day 1935 wiped out nearly one third of the line and the railroad decided it was cost prohibitive to replace. Flagler had passed away twenty-two years prior to the disaster but one can’t help wonder if he had been alive, would he have rebuilt the line? Could one still have taken the Havana Special for a vacation in the Conch Nation?
Remnants of the overseas railroad exist throughout the Keys. Much of U.S. Highway 1 was built on the original pilings. As to the rest of Flagler’s railroad it is alive and well today. The Florida East Coast Railroad is the longest “short line” in the country and one of the most profitable railroads. Long coveted by rivals CSX and Norfolk Southern, it remains fiercely independent and a competitor worthy of Flagler’s heritage.