It would be impossible to explore St. Augustine, Florida without hearing of and experiencing Henry Flagler’s epic legacy. Step foot into the illustrious Flagler College? He built it. Wander into the Lightner Museum…that’s there because of him, too. Florida Eastcoast Railway, anyone? He had everything to do with that! Henry Flagler is kind of like the Walt Disney of St. Augustine. Known as the father of not only St. Augustine, but also Palm Beach and Miami, Flagler was a super rich, business savvy entrepreneur who changed the course of history and made St. Augustine a destination not to be missed. Here is where Henry Flagler’s story and the story of St. Augustine meet.
In the first half of his business life, Henry Flagler (1830-1913) co-founded the Standard Oil Company. With his ruthless negotiation skills, Flagler transformed Standard Oil into a monopoly, eclipsing and rendering competing oil companies effectively obsolete. It was during this part of his life that Flagler, a New York resident at the time, visited Jacksonville and St. Augustine Florida with his ailing wife, under doctor’s orders. It was believed that the warmer climate would improve her condition. At the time, Florida was basically an uninhabited wilderness but the area clearly struck a chord with Flagler. Shortly after his wife passed away from her illness, Flagler retained his seat on the board of directors of Standard Oil but turned over his day to day responsibilities to others, so he could pursue his new business interests in Florida.
In 1888, Flagler purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Halifax railroads, which became the basis for his Florida East Coast Railway. Flagler modernized and combined the existing railroads so they would be able to accommodate heavier traffic! This was integral to Flagler’s vision of creating a new “American Riviera” in Florida. The time was right, as apparently, the state of Florida was now encouraging development by offering swampland (prime real estate!) for as little as 50 cents per acre (imagine seeing THAT on the MLS!).
Flagler purchased land from a friend and began constructing a magnificent 540 room luxury hotel called the Ponce de Leon Hotel. Flagler had it built on land that was part of a former orange grove and salt marsh. He brought in various famed designers, architects, and painters to work on the project. Highlights are the Tiffany stained glass windows in the dining room; the hand painted murals in the Rotunda; and of course, electricity, a rare treat, indeed! In short, Flagler went ALL OUT. Today, the Ponce de Leon hotel is a liberal arts college, aptly named, Flagler College.
The Ponce de Leon Hotel was an immediate success, and within two years, Flagler opened another hotel across the street, the Alcazar. Notable features of the Alcazar included a steam room, a three-story ballroom, and the world’s largest indoor swimming pool. Today, the Alcazar is the stunning and educational Lightner Museum, and one of the favored locations for the holding of St. Augustine galas.
If you would like to know what Henry Flagler did next, well, you are just going to have to come visit! One thing is for certain: Henry Flagler <3’s St. Augustine, and you will too!