December 2021

If you’ve never lived in or visited Florida, chances are good that you never heard of Henry Morrison Flagler (1830-1913). You wouldn’t know of his life’s astonishing work; never heard that many people in his time considered him to be either a crackpot or a visionary.

Does a crackpot see things that others don’t, make it reality, and in the process help untold numbers of people, making their lives and their country better even to this day? Les Standiford wrote this meticulously researched and hard-to-put-down book to tell us about Flagler. After reading it, you can decide for yourself who was right.

Flagler was raised in a poor family headed by his Presbyterian minister father in northwestern New York state. At fourteen, he was sent to northern Ohio to work as a salesman in an uncle’s general store. His ambition, tireless work ethic, and ability to learn quickly soon began to pay off. His success as a grain broker enabled him to buy into the family business. Business boomed during the Civil War and made him a wealthy–but bored–man.

Flagler invested his own money and more in a salt business in Michigan that failed after the war. He returned to Ohio to grain brokering and took a position that his friend John D. Rockefeller had vacated.

Rockefeller had moved to Cleveland where he’d invested in oil refining. Flagler joined him later and the two men embarked on a flurry of buying out competitors and consolidating and growing their business. They were 2 of the co-founders of Standard Oil, which became an all-powerful and hugely profitable company.

The two men worked together for 15 years. The business tactics that were so beneficial to the company’s operation and dramatic growth led to antitrust issues. Negative public opinion and government investigations took their toll.

(For readers who would enjoy a detailed account of the growth and practices of the company, Ida Tarbell’s investigative journalism of the company during the Progressive Era resulted in her book The History of the Standard Oil Company.)

In his early 50s, “Flagler had amassed a fortune…but…his monumental business achievements had brought him the apparent enmity of an entire nation. In addition, he had lost his wife [to tuberculosis], the virtual supporting pillar of his private life.

It should have come as no surprise, then, that a man in Flagler’s position—wealthy beyond imagination, his public life a source of never-ending condemnation, his personal life virtually obliterated—should be poised for a sea change.” [p. 43]

It turned out to be literally a SEA change. Various events led his path to Florida with eyes open to what was around him. Florida at that time was like nothing we’d recognize today: overgrown, even primitive, with few to no amenities or even basics like fresh water, little settlement, but lots of potential in his eyes.

Flagler knew railroads. He’d learned about them in his previous work and saw them as vital transportation in the era before convenient forms of private transportation.

He was horrified to find that Jacksonville in the far northern corner of eastern Florida was the end of decent rail service. Beyond that was a nightmare of disconnected lines, incompatible gauges and tracks, with passengers needing to find alternate transportation between them. Clearly, few tourists would be drawn to places further south along the Florida east coast, no matter how lovely the destination may be.

Flagler saw the potential and how to do it. He had the money, the idea, and could hire people to make it real. He built a new railroad all along the east coast of Florida in increments.

First he brought the railroad to a place; then he built a posh hotel with modern amenities to house tourists. He operated on the principle that “if you build it, they will come”–and come they did.

The hotels needed people to work in them, so many jobs were created. Workers brought their families. They also needed services for their personal lives, which brought more people to populate the towns around the hotels. In this way, towns that became the cities we know today began to dot the eastern Florida coast all the way down to Miami. (There’s a photo of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, still operating today, in the book.)

Flagler didn’t stop at Miami, however. The infamous Key West, the “Paradise” at the end of the Florida keys, was the last piece of America in that part of the ocean. Situated as it was, arcing toward the west from the mainland, Flagler visualized it becoming important for trade with Cuba and Central and South America. He decided he needed to build a railroad 153 miles over the ocean with the final terminus in Key West. That’s when people began to think of him as a crackpot…at least until he actually did it.

Flagler searched for experts, architects, and people with cutting edge ideas for their time, and found and hired many to accomplish his dream. They did it, although not without snags and setbacks.

Two hurricanes in 1906 and 1909 caused considerable damage to the existing construction as well as considerable loss of workers’ lives and loss of time to complete the project. Damage to the structure was able to be repaired. Using new techniques that had been developed, the structure was stronger than ever. Changes were also made in housing and refuges to better protect the workers.

Everyone on the project knew that Flagler wanted to be able to ride his new railroad all the way to Key West before he died. At 83 in 1913, his wish came true, despite his worsening health. He had proven to everyone that his vision could be brought to fruition.

The railroad served Floridians for over 20 years. In 1935, however, the Labor Day hurricane, reputed to be the strongest ever hurricane to hit the U.S., damaged it beyond repair—or at least beyond repair that anyone was willing to attempt without Flagler. Whether or not it remains the strongest hurricane after Katrina and others that hit after the book was published in 2002 is unknown, but there’s no doubt it’s very close to being the worst in terms of wind speed (over 200 m.p.h.) and low barometric pressure (26.35”).

In those days, weather and hurricane forecasting was less than reliable. People had little warning to prepare, and landfall location was uncertain but vital to know when a few miles could make a big difference for survival.

This hurricane (naming them didn’t start until years later) slammed into the Florida Keys. There’s nothing that could be considered a “high point” on any of the Keys; nothing that could stop a vicious storm surge from completely running over all land, taking all construction and people with it when it recedes. Although the railroad had been built to account for this, so they thought, they were wrong. Mother Nature would always beat human nature, even if that human was Henry Flagler.

The physical and human devastation was beyond human imagination. Many hundreds of people presumably died, although many bodies were never found. They simply disappeared, leaving no trace of themselves except in the memories of loved ones who survived. Many that were recovered were unrecognizable. Some people who survived were so traumatized, they never recovered their sanity. Standiford’s accounts given by survivors in the book are almost beyond comprehension.

People who live in the Keys must deal with the reality of hurricanes if they want to stay. While the railroad didn’t survive to stay operational, a roadway was built using much of its right-of-way. It connects mainland U.S. with the Keys and has the terminus at Key West. In that way, Flagler’s vision lives. By whatever quirk of Luck or Fate, Flagler was the right man in the right place and time, not once, but twice in his lifetime.

It may seem to some readers that I’ve “spoiled” the story, but I can assure you that there is SO MUCH MORE in this book, I couldn’t even begin to “spoil” it in this format. I’m still amazed at how much information Standiford packed into this book while keeping it immensely readable and enhanced with maps and photos. A less talented author could not have kept it so compact, so easily digestible. I learned an amazing amount of information painlessly. I highly recommend this book.


Related Notes:

–Les Standiford later wrote an equally good book about a man much like Flagler in his vision and determination to bring it to reality. Water to the Angels is the story of William Mulholland and how he brought water to Los Angeles from other parts of California.

–For readers interested in hurricanes, my September 2018 blog about Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson tells the tale of the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston Island.

–For readers interested in learning more about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane mentioned herein, a more detailed account is part of The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton (June 2020). The book is classified as historical fiction: the characters are mainly fiction, the hurricane part is not. (This book is available only in paperback, so not available at GBCL.)

Last Train to Paradise will be available at Grover Beach Community Library.

–Donna Rueff–