Saturday, December 11, 2010

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Flagler

Who is Henry Flagler, you ask? I was unaware as well until I arrived in the Sunshine State* and saw his name on everything from street signs to universities to museums to most books about Florida. It seems that it was my fate to come to Florida and learn about this famous American visionary because he has been credited with the founding of modern Florida, and it is thanks entirely to him that the railroad connected the state with the rest of the country. To say that he is my new favorite historic American entrepreneur** would be putting it lightly.

This is very exciting to me and I could go on for quite some time about his accomplishments, but I have heard that some of you only want pictures so I will give you just the highlights of the life of this genius of the Gilded Age.


Henry Morrison Flagler was a well-known salesman who had built himself up from the impoverished life of the son of a rural Presbyterian minister when he partnered with John D. Rockefeller to found Standard Oil. In fact, it was only because of his influence that the company incorporated in 1870. He used the railroads to get a comparative advantage in the oil refining business, ensuring the vast success and monopolization of the company and garnering no small amount of bitterness in the public eye.

Later in his life, he started spending time in St. Augustine for the health of his consumptive wife but found that the accommodations and transportation there did not meet his standards. He therefore took it upon himself to build the most immaculate hotel in the nation, connect the town to the railroad, and develop "America's Riviera" out of what had been only a few years before a sleepy town with a few orange groves. The newly wealthy industrialists of the era now had a place to spend all of their profits in the mild Floridian climate, and a vacation empire was created.

He subsequently extended the Florida East Coast Railroad all the way down to what would soon be known as Miami, but at that time was hardly even a village. The locals actually wanted to name the young city for him after he single-handedly developed all of its infrastructure, but he declined and said that it should be named for the indigenous name, "Maiyami." The rest was history, and the next thing we knew Will Smith was beckoning us all to the high rise party condo Mecca of the south.

Flagler's latest and most impressive accomplishment in my opinion though is his extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad over 130 miles of ocean to Key West, in 1910. The undertaking was dubbed "Flagler's Folly" at first, but he managed to accomplish the feat at last, to the amazement of of the world. The inspiration, will, engineering, manpower, and capital investment that the construction demanded amazes me. Sadly, only 25 years later the worst storm in U.S. history hit the Keys and destroyed the entire thing, and it was replaced by highway as part of the New Deal.

I just wanted y'all to know about Mr. Flagler, possibly one of the most underrated figures in U.S. history. I will resume the story now.

I arrived in the city of Palatka to hook up with the Silver Star heading to Miami. The station was attached to an exhibit put on by the local rail preservation society, and there I learned about an amazing thing called the American Freedom Train, which was a mobile exhibit about American History that traveled the whole country in 1975-6 in celebration of its bicentennial***. Waiting for the train, I also had a chance to have an in depth interview with an elderly gentleman who had worked for 21 years on the railroad. When I told him about my project, he was eager to fill my little brain with as much train trivia as possible. He held my rapt attention for over an hour.

(America's Freedom Train!)

He worked as am engineer and as security, so he had a very different, hands-on perspective, and he had a ton of information about the technological developments of train functions, most importantly new techniques for quicker braking. In an emergency, powerful air brakes are used, and sand is actually ejected on the tracks in front of the engine to give more traction. Genius! Working in train security he often encountered hobos and vagrants hopping trains, but he said he always had compassion for them and actually respected many of them as simple working people that needed to get from one point to another. He explained that many were Latin American migrant workers, some were typical hobos with a lifestyle of moving about on the fringes of society, and others were just teenagers hopping on and trying to make amateur adventure movies. I told him that the idea of hopping freight trains had intrigued me but I had thought better of it and decided to buy tickets from Amtrak and collect the most Guest Rewards points of any human in history. He said that it was probably a good decision, especially as a woman traveling alone****, and that I could redeem my points for countless fabulous things, like free upgrades and companion tickets!

He wistfully described how even now, retired, he always examines passing trains considering different factors that could cause the train to derail, and admiring their phenomenal cosmic power.

I was delighted to be back on the train again, though the scenery was not quite so exciting as on other rides. I was surprised to see that much of Florida looks like the African Savannah, the myriad luxury beach resorts and Walt Disney World notwithstanding. Bereft of exciting events outside the window, and feeling a bit awkward caught in the crossfire of the avid flirting of my seat mate and another passenger, I moved to the cafe and chatted with the train staff for most of the afternoon. The big news was the construction of a new station in a place called Okeechobee, and they all excitedly peered out the windows to see the site as we passed. They explained the Miami dialect to me, saying it was the same mixed patois of the various early European settlers in the area, which essentially equated to Spanglish. Luckily, I am fluent in this language.

Nearly on time, we pulled into our last stop, and the first thing I saw was an enormous sign saying,

"Welcome to Miami!"


*Florida. I am in Florida.
**My old favorite was Eli Whitney, best known for the invention of the cotton gin.
***Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see that!
****So ladies, resist the urge to hop a train, or if you must do so, try to bring a male friend along.

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