Flagler's Playground: St. Augustine in the Late 19th Century
Until the late 19th Century, Florida remained a mostly uninhabited frontier. The sleepy Spanish colonial town of St. Augustine had barely survived the 1800s, facing a plague of the yellow fever, the Seminole War of 1836, and Union occupation during the Civil War.
All this would change, however, with the arrival of Henry Flagler. Flagler began his career as a grain merchant in Ohio, with limited success. He started a salt company which lasted until the end of the Civil War, when low demand caused it to crash. He was working as a grain commission merchant when he met fellow grain merchant John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller invested with Flagler and another man named Andrews to establish what would become Standard Oil, Inc., generating millions of dollars.
Henry and his wife Mary were living in New York City when Mary's health began to decline. On his doctor's recommendation, Henry took Mary to Jacksonville, Florida in hopes of improving her health. Mary died in Florida, and Henry remarried. He and his new wife Ida traveled to St. Augustine in 1883.
Flagler recognized the tourism potential of the charming little town, so in 1885, he left active duty at Standard Oil and focused on improving St. Augustine. His extravagant hotels would breathe life back into the mostly abandoned town, attracting rich northerners to the balmy coasts of Florida.
Eventually, Flagler moved his railway further south, founding the city of Miami and revitalizing communities along the east coast. After his death in 1913, he was buried in St. Augustine alongside his first wife and his daughter.
Flagler's hotels, the Hotel Ponce de Leon and the Hotel Alcazar, formed the nucleus of modern St. Augustine. These resorts provided several luxuries, including steam rooms and an indoor swimming pool. Today, these hotels house Flagler College and the Lightner Museum, respectively. The Lightner Museum houses an excellent collection of 19th Century artifacts, including French paintings, working nickelodeons, and an urn from the palace of the Russian Czar.
If the charm of St. Augustine hadn't captured the imagination of Henry Flagler, the history of the Florida peninsula would have been drastically different. The contributions of Henry Flagler contribute to the life and beauty of St. Augustine, Florida.
Copyright 2006 National Scenic Byways