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Henry Flagler and the Birth of Florida

Henry Flagler and the Birth of Florida

As unbelievable as it sounds a little over a hundred years ago much of the Eastern coast of Florida was untamed wilderness.

Overgrown marshes and thick fields of mangrove forest stretched for numerous miles over what would become Miami, Palm Beach, and many of the other state’s popular cities. Prior to the 1900s, Florida was only known for its agriculture and seafood market and very few people flocked to the state for a nice vacation. As the economy in the United States began to boom following the conclusion of the Civil War, numerous different fortunes were made across a span of different industries. These vast fortunes led to a new chapter in American history that would become known as the Gilded Age.

Henry Flagler

One prominent figure to rise out of this new era of history was Henry Flagler. Although he isn’t as widely known as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or J.P. Morgan; he left an unprecedented legacy in Florida and is heralded today as turning Florida into the tourist site it is today. Born to middle class parents in 1830 in New York, the young Flagler soon moved to Ohio after the sudden death of his father. Flagler was an ambitious young man and after leaving school after eighth grade he set his sights on becoming a business mogul. He attempted to enter the salt mining industry but failed to get the company off the ground. Not to be deterred by past mistakes, Flagler entered the grain selling business where he met with his first success.

His luck in business would continue to grow as he eventually met John D. Rockefeller and the two would go on to found Standard Oil together and make an immense fortune. Later on in his life, Flagler’s first wife would fall ill and a common remedy at the time was to prescribe a warmer climate for patients suffering from a prolonged disease. Taking the doctor’s advice Flagler took his wife to Florida where he experienced the warm climate for the first time and briefly fell in love. He forgot about this love affair until he revisited the state a couple years later after remarrying when his first wife died. Flagler stayed in St. Augustine and found the city charming but the lack of transportation and hotel amenities rather lackluster. So, Henry Flagler set about transforming Florida into a kind of American Riviera, a place where wealthy people could travel with their families and enjoy luxury in the inviting climate. Thus the birth of Florida’s tourism first began when Flagler began to construct hotels and resorts along the Northeast part of the state.

Perhaps Flagler’s best known contribution to the history of the state was the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway. What began as an efficient way to reach St. Augustine soon stretched all the way down the state to the Florida Keys. Along the way dense marsh lands were cleared and cities like Miami and Palm Beach were built along the seaside. Although these cities were originally constructed merely as resort towns, their proximity to the ocean and their access to nearby sugar and fruit plantations soon turned them into economic powerhouses in their own right.

Without Flagler’s unwavering vision and unprecedented ambition it’s hard to know if Florida would’ve ever become the beautiful tourist destination it is today. His presence can be felt as far north as the old city of St. Augustine to the far off remote Keys at the very bottom of the state. You can explore all the history and amazing culture of these states today if you choose to come join us at one of our amazing CME CEC conferences in Florida this year. Whether you want to experience the old Spanish Forts of St. Augustine, wander through the steel and glass city of Miami, or simply spread out and relax on the white sand in Palm Beach there’s something for everyone to enjoy in Florida.

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