Henry Flagler comes to Key West

Henry Morrison Flagler was born January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New York. After completing the eighth grade he moved to Bellevue, Ohio to work with his cousin at L.G. Harkness and Company.

In addition to a $5 a month salary, he was given room and board at the home of his half-brother, Daniel Harkness. By 1852 Flagler had partnered with his half-brother in the D.M. Harkness and Company and the following year would marry Daniel’s 20-year-old cousin Mary Harkness, the first Mrs. Henry Flagler.

Henry and his brother-in-law, Barney York, formed the Flagler and York Salt Company in 1862. While they profited from the sale of seeds and farm implements, the majority of their income was made selling food and other staples to the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, the company floundered, costing Flagler his investment and causing him to go back to selling grain for Harkness.

In addition to grain, Flagler helped to operate a distillery, all of which, the grain, wheat and wine, were sold through commission agents, one of whom was John D. Rockefeller. In addition to becoming business associates, Flagler and Rockefeller became friends.

When Rockefeller decided to invest in America’s oil refining industry, he asked Flagler to become a partner. Because Flagler did not have the money, one of his relatives made the $100,000 investment with the understanding that Henry would become a 25 percent partner in the newly formed Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler Company. It was January 10, 1870 when the company organized into the Standard Oil Company.

The first time Henry Flagler came to Florida was the result of doctor’s orders. His wife had fallen ill and in 1878 doctors recommended she winter in more favorable climates. Henry and Mary came to Jacksonville, though Flagler’s fascination with Florida would not truly come into focus until after Mary passed at the age of 47 in 1881.

Flagler married Alice Ida Shrouds, the first Mrs. Flagler’s former nurse, and when the two honeymooned in St. Augustine in 1883, Flagler’s vision for Florida as a tourist destination blossomed. It was over the course of the next decade that Flagler would build several hotels, including luxury accommodations like Hotel Ponce de Leon, Hotel Royal Poinciana, and the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers). In addition to the favorable climate, breathtaking sunsets, and first-class amenities, Flagler understood the destination had to be accessible.

While Flagler remained on the board of directors at Standard Oil, he abandoned day-to-day operations. Rather, he concentrated on transforming Florida into a tourist destination. Part of his plan was the purchase of the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad. At a meeting held by the board of directors on April 19, 1893, Flagler declared, “The line of the company be changed so as to run and extend from some point on Biscayne Bay, in Dade County, to the Island and City of Key West.” Flagler’s growing railway would be renamed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895.

The spring of 1905 saw 11 dredging barges make the trip from Miami to multiple worksites throughout the Keys. Four dredges were assigned the task of creating fill on which to build the railway’s right-of-way connecting Key Largo to the mainland. Two barges dredged their way south from the mainland and two dredged their way north from Jewfish Creek.

While no more than 5,000 men were employed at any one time, approximately 40,000 men helped build the Over-Sea Railway. In addition to receiving free medical care, workers were paid $1.25 per day, plus food and lodging. Because of the nature of the work and the isolated locale (not to mention the hordes of mosquitoes), workers were hard to find and harder to keep. Many of them were hired through employment agencies in Philadelphia and New York.

To house the men, a total of 82 work camps were built with Work Camp 1 located on Key Largo and Work Camp 82 located on Key West. Each work camp consisted of a mess hall, officers’ tent, medical tent, commissary and barracks. Work was done at several sites along the surveyed right-of-way simultaneously with workers often shuffled between camps to work on projects for various reasons, including weather conditions and equipment failure.

Once decried as Flagler’s Folly, when Henry Flagler’s private rail car arrived in Key West at 10:43 a.m. on January 22, 1912 the nearly blind 82 year old industrialist declared to the nearly 10,000 people who had gathered, “Now I can die happy. My dream is fulfilled.” He said to those standing closer, “I can hear the children singing, but I cannot see them.”

Though Flagler’s train arrived at the Key West Depot in 1912, it would not be until 1916 that all the permanent bridges and tracks were completed. The Key West Extension of the East Coast Railway remained operational until Labor Day, 1935.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. As well as operating Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, he is s the curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at