Gilded Age Galant
In 1873, Mark Twain dubbed the time of unequalled technology growth as The Gilded Age. It was a captivating time in history when American culture leaped to life and captains of industrial commerce – like Henry Morrison Flagler – believed anything was probable with American inventiveness and hard work.
As a pioneer of The Gilded Age, Flagler created the foundation for Florida’s scenic destinations through the construction of hotels and a railway that would connect the entire east coast of the state. The period’s business entrepreneurs believed it was their duty to uphold a strong public responsibility, and this is just what Henry Flagler
aspired to do.
“In all my life, the ‘future’ has had more in store for me than the past,” said Flagler, who followed the European Gilded Age principles of wealth and expansion in order to transform Florida into the American Riviera.
The Birth of Standard Oil
Originally from New York, Henry Flagler was introduced to John D. Rockefeller in the 1850’s and soon became his business partner in the Standard Oil Company, which by 1892 held a monopoly over all refineries in the United States.
“Flagler first built the Standard Oil and then built the state of Florida,” said John Steele Gordon from Audacity Magazine in 1996.
Flagler then made his first trip to Jacksonville, initially sparking his growing interest in Florida. After the death of his first wife and second marriage, Flagler visited St. Augustine, a town he found charming, but knew it lacked tourism. As a result, Flagler constructed a stunning hotel in St. Augustine – he called it The Ponce de Leon(part of Flagler College today) – and expanded the railways to reach the South. His venture would become the Florida East Coast Railway. In 1894 Flagler founded the city of West Palm Beach and built the iconic Breakers Hotel.
“I can understand how, for instance, James J. Hill built his railroad into the uninhabitable prairies, for he knew what the soil was capable of, and it was a country similar to what man elsewhere were used to. But that any man could have the genius to see what this wilderness of waterless sand and underbrush was capable of and then have the nerve to build a railroad there, is more marvelous than similar development anywhere else in the world,” said George W. Perkins of J.P. Morgan and Co. about Henry Flagler in Everybody’s Magazine in February, 1910.
Flagler went on to extend his railway to Miami in exchange for land. The magnate encouraged farming in the area and donated money for the creation of hospitals, schools, and churches along the railway line. By 1896, the railroad reached Biscayne Bay and Flagler began to develop the city of Miami. By 1912, the railway reached Key West, allowing it to become the tourist destination it is today.
“Henry Flagler not only was present at the creation of the modern economic world but was one of its prime creators,” said Steele.
Ironically, Flagler often downplayed his impressive feats. “It was perfectly simple,” Flagler said to Dr. Andrew Anderson. “All you have to do is build one concrete arch and then another, and pretty soon you find yourself in Key West.”
Preserving Flagler’s Legacy at Whitehall
As a visionary, Henry Flagler’s accomplishments are preserved in his winter estate of Whitehall located in Palm Beach. Built as a wedding gift for his third wife, the 75 room home is fashioned after the Beaux Style of architecture and its decor is designed to resemble the Italian Renaissance. As an educational institution, tours and events take visitors through Flagler’s life during The Gilded Age. A series of lectures provide details of Flagler’s contributions to Florida, and visitors can experience The Gilded Age during events such as holiday festivities, Gilded Age style tea and music concerts.