Flagler, Henry

Henry Flagler is considered to be one of the builders of Florida, known as the ‘Sunshine State’, along with Henry Plant (1819-1899).

Henry Flagler (1830-1913), an industrialist and businessman, is a perfect example of the American dream of the self-made man. He started out as a simple salesman. In 1867 he met John D. Rockefeller, which changed his fate. He co-founded Standard Oil, which went on to nearly take over oil refining and sales in the United States (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. Portrait of Henry Flagler, early 20th century (Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/153464>, 20 July 2022)

His fortune was made but his wife was ill. Her physician recommended they spend the winter in Jacksonville to escape the snow and cold of the Northeast. She eventually passed away. He later remarried and in 1883 discovered St. Augustine. Charmed by the location, he wanted to turn it into a winter holiday resort, modelled after the Riviera. He then embarked on a vast project to build hotels and develop a rail network along the east coast of Florida.

An industrialist and major developer for tourism in Florida

Henry Flagler is therefore considered to be one of the builders of Florida, known as the ‘Sunshine State’, along with Henry Plant (1819-1899). Both are considered key figures to understand the economic development and metamorphosis of this U.S. state from the late 19th century, by embarking on the construction of railways heading south. They set up two railway and hotel systems, more complementary than competitive, with a total of over 5,000 hotel rooms. In the 1850s, travelling from New York to Jacksonville, Florida, took eight days with steamboat transfers in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. In the 1880s, the journey took only 36 hours (Braden, 2002: p. 78).

Henry Plant, who had a railway monopoly on the western coast with the South Florida Railroad, built the line from Jacksonville to Tampa and extended the line by a maritime connection to Havana, Cuba. In the eastern part of Florida, Henry Flagler played an even greater role; he owned Florida East Coast Railway, a shipping company, hotels, power plants, water and electricity systems, in addition to building roads, bridges, churches, schools, hospitals, town halls, etc. (Corliss, 1960: p. 197). He was behind the development of Daytona, Palm Beach, which quickly became a winter holiday resort, and Miami, which the train serviced from 1896. He promoted the coastline as the ‘American Riviera’. The Ormond Hotel, whose guests included Louis Chevrolet, Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford, was the birthplace of one the world’s most famous car racing tournaments, originally held on Daytona Beach in 1903. The railway reached Key West in 1912. It served Nassau, Bahamas, where he also built a hotel and acquired another (Braden, 2002: p. 25).

Ill. 2. Henry Flagler’s and Henry Plant’s hotels in Florida and the Bahamas. The year opened is in parentheses. The hotel opened after Flagler’s death (according to S.R. Braden, 2002) is in italics.

Henry Flagler died in 1913. There is a museum in Palm Beach dedicated to his legacy (Ill. 3).

Ill. 3. The passenger car ‘Rambler’ on display at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, FL, photograph taken in 1967 by Charles Lee Barron (Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. <https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/83142>, 20 July 2022)

Various statues in Florida pay tribute to him. Flagler Street is a major shopping area in Miami. A city, county, hospital and private university are also named after him.

Jean-Christophe Gay


  • Braden Susan R., 2002, The Architecture of Leisure. The Florida Resorts Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 395 p.
  • Corliss Carlton J., 1960, «Henry M. Flagler – Railroad Builder», The Florida Historical Quarterly. n° 3, p. 196-216.
  • Sammons Sandra W., 2010, Henry Flagler, Builder of Florida. Saratosa (Fl.), Pineapple Press, 59 p.
  • Sammons Sandra W., 2010, The Two Henrys. Henry Plant and Henry Flagler and Their Railroads. Saratosa (Fl.), Pineapple Press, 105 p.