Monday, May 14, 2012



By Doc Lawrence

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. Next year, the Sunshine State embarks on a celebration of Florida’s 500th anniversary, but for now we toast to Flagler’s foresight and iron-willed determination. This year marks a century since his Florida East Coast Railroad joined Key West and Florida’s Atlantic coast with the world.


Flagler, who along with John D. Rockefeller was co-founder of Standard Oil, became one of the most influential leaders during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 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.

For some time now I traveled the entire route of the Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, from where it began in St. Augustine, then south just the way Flagler built it. Flagler’s love of luxury accommodations is fascinating. Although he wasn’t much for heavy drinking or extravagant dining, his hotels along the rail line remain international legends, time-honored examples of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach has no equal in the country.

The Breakers, an architectural wonder adorned with priceless objets d’art, 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.

With the imposition of mindless Prohibition, the popularity of the “Havana Special,” as Flagler’s passenger service from Miami to Key West was called, soared. While “dry” America sunk into boredom, the good life continued in the Conch Republic. Les Stamford’s magnificent book, “Last Train to Paradise,” recounts typical days there during America’s failed social experiment: “The city’s bars never closed, the rumrunners never stopped their trade between Key West and Cuba, and federal agents were known to beg off any posting to the wide open southernmost city.”

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.

Flagler’s remarkable achievement suggests that there likely would be little of consequence in Southeast Florida today without his rail line. However, 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.”

NOTE: The Southern Culinary Triangle is a hot new tourism magnet. Tupelo honey, Mayhaw jelly, goats that faint, artisinal cheeses all with some gourmet restaurants dotting the landscape:


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