HENRY FLAGLER’S RAILROAD
By Doc Lawrence
Many Americans have never enjoyed the thrill of traveling by rail. In Europe, it is preferred and efficient. 100 years ago this year, Henry Flagler completed his rail line to Key West, literally connecting Florida’s Atlantic coastline with the world. Ponce de Leon led the first European’s to land in Florida, but it was oil tycoon Henry Flagler who was truly the state’s founding father.
Flagler along with John D. Rockefeller was co-founder of Standard Oil. His monumental projects in Florida connected St Augustine to Palm Beach, Miami and Key West, producing an immeasurably beneficial impact on this economic and cultural development of the state. A swamp became an oasis featuring luxury hotels more opulent and better designed than most counterparts Europe. And through Flagler’s efforts, rail transportation opened up Florida tourism and commerce to the rest of the world.
Flagler’s love of luxury accommodations is fascinating. His hotels along the rail line remain international legends, time-honored examples of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. His masterpiece, The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, has no equal in the country.
An architectural wonder adorned with priceless objets d’art, The Breakers represents the best in gourmet dining and fine wines, maintaining a global reputation for excellence. My visits there over the years include unforgettable Bordeaux wine dinners, a delightful conversation with rock star Sting, a frequent guest, days and nights covering the gourmet gathering of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, and more than a few overnight pampered stays. Today, a glimpse of the Breakers from the street conjures up images of Henry Flagler whose descendants still own it. Here is an American treasure, just as important in its way as Flagler’s railroad.
Flagler, with a little help from ships, connected New York City with Havana via Key West. If there were delays, his resort hotels in Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, Miami, Palm Beach and Key West made a layover a fairytale experience.
Flagler, according to those who worked with him, was motivated to build his railroad by vision while the luxury resorts were extensions of his lifestyle. More than one colleague recalled that Flagler never asked if his railroad would make a profit, but instead wondered whether it could be built.
The Key West part of the story ended in tragedy. In 1935, before hurricanes had names, a monstrous storm struck Key West northward, destroying lives, property and most of the Flagler rail line in the southernmost extremity. Ernest Hemingway, then a Key West resident, reported much of the tragedy. His words are not for the feint of heart.
Henry Flagler died as a result of a fall in his beautiful home Whitehall in Palm Beach. Today, his mansion is the acclaimed Flagler Museum. Among the last words Flagler spoke were these: “Sometimes, at the close of the day, when I am fortunate enough to be alone, I come here. I look at the water and the trees yonder and the sunset and I wonder if there is anything in the other world so beautiful as this.”
Florida celebrates 500 years and Spain is part of the soiree: