William Henry Jackson, The Alcazar and the Cordova viewed from the Ponce de Leon, c.1890s

A New American Riviera: Henry Flagler and the Making of Modern Florida

“The man who saw wilderness and out of it created an empire; who saw a desert and out of it made a garden…”

Henry M. Flagler—Empire Builder, W. M. Walker, 1925 

From the 1880s through the second decade of the twentieth century, Henry Flagler dedicated himself to the development of Florida’s East Coast.

Born in 1830 in Hopewell, NY, Flagler worked in grain and salt production businesses before becoming a founding partner in Standard Oil. Alongside John D. Rockefeller, Flagler led the company to remarkable success.

Flagler first visited Florida in 1878 with his wife Mary Harkness Flagler. Suffering from longstanding health issues, Mary Flagler’s physician recommended she spend time away from the cold northern climate by visiting Jacksonville, Florida. During his visit, Flagler was struck by the state’s potential for growth but noted its lack of hotel facilities and transport infrastructure.

With the founding of the Standard Oil Trust in 1882 the 52-year-old Flagler was able to depend on an annual income of several million from dividends. Flagler withdrew from the day-to-day operations of Standard Oil and set his sights on Florida and his new role of resort and railroad developer. In 1883 Flagler honeymooned in St. Augustine with his second wife, Ida Alice Shourds Flagler. Shortly thereafter, he purchased his first parcel of land in the city, setting in motion a plan to remake St. Augustine as a luxury winter resort.

In 1885, Flagler began construction of his first hotel in Florida, the Hotel Ponce de Leon. Following the tremendous success of the Ponce de Leon, and the construction of the Alcazar, Flagler turned his attention south. As his Florida East Coast Railroad opened the region to development and tourism, Flagler established a magnificent chain of grand hotels to accommodate wealthy travels. These included the Breakers and Royal Poinciana Hotels in Palm Beach, the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami, and the Casa Marina in Key West. 

Flagler’s visionary development of Florida’s hotel and transportation facilities would occupy the Gilded Age entrepreneur until his death in 1913.

Portrait of Henry Flagler, c.1907

Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel, Palm Beach, Fla, built 1893-94

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