Henry Morrison Flagler was born on January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New York, to Reverend and Mrs. Isaac Flagler. At the age of 14, after completing the eighth grade, Flagler moved to Bellevue, Ohio where he found work with his cousins in the grain store of L.G. Harkness and Company, at a salary of $5 per month plus room and board.
In 1852 Henry Flagler became a partner in the newly organized D. M. Harkness and Company with his half-brother, Dan Harkness. The following year, on November 9, he married Mary Harkness. They had three children, Jennie Louise, Carrie, Henry Harkness. Unfortunately, only Henry Harkness would survive to have children, one of which would later establish the Flagler Museum.
In 1862, Henry Flagler and his brother-in-law, Barney York, founded the Flagler and York Salt Company, a salt mining business in Saginaw, Michigan. When the Civil War ended however, salt, which had been in heavy use as preservative by the Union Army, was no longer in high demand and Flagler and York Salt Company collapsed. Heavily in debt, Flagler returned to Bellevue, Ohio - his initial investment of $50,000 and an additional $50,000 he had borrowed from his father-in-law and Dan Harkness were lost.
The next year Flagler re-entered the grain business as a commission merchant and paid back the money he had borrowed for the salt business. During this time, Flagler became acquainted with John D. Rockefeller, who worked as a commission agent with Hewitt and Tuttle for the Harkness Grain Company. During the mid 1860s, Cleveland was quickly developing as the center of the oil refining industry in America and Rockefeller decided to leave the grain business to start his own oil refinery. In need of capital for his new venture, Rockefeller approached Henry Flagler, with whom he had business dealings for many years. Flagler secured $100,000 from a relative on the condition that he be made a partner owning 25% of the shares in the new company of Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler.
On January 10, 1870, the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler partnership was organized as a joint-stock corporation named Standard Oil. In just two years Standard Oil became the leader in the American oil refining industry, producing 10,000 barrels per day. Five years later Standard Oil moved its headquarters to New York City, and the Flaglers moved to their new home at 509 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
In 1878, Flagler's wife, Mary, who had always struggled with health problems, became very ill. On the advice from Mary's physician, she and Flagler visited Jacksonville, Florida for the winter. Unfortunately, Mary did not recover. She died on May 18, 1881 at age 47, leaving Henry Flagler with a young son to raise alone. Two years after Mary's death, Flagler married Ida Alice Shourds. Soon after their wedding, the couple traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, which they found charming but lacking in adequate hotel facilities and transportation systems. Flagler believed that Florida had the potential to attract large numbers of tourists. Though Flagler remained on the Board of Directors of Standard Oil, he gave up his day-to-day involvement in the corporation in order to pursue his interests in Florida. He returned to St. Augustine in 1885 and began construction of the 540-room Hotel Ponce de Leon. Realizing the importance of a transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what would eventually become the Florida East Coast Railway system.
The Hotel Ponce de Leon opened January 10, 1888 and was an instant success. Two years later, Flagler expanded his Florida holdings, building a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River to gain access to the southern half of the state. Flagler began building a hotel empire by purchasing the Hotel Ormond, just north of Daytona.
In 1894 Flagler built the Hotel Royal Poinciana on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach and extended his railroad further south to West Palm Beach. The Hotel Royal Poinciana soon became the largest resort in the world. In 1896 Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers in 1901) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.
Probably in the late 1880s, Henry Flagler first began to think about ultimately extending his railroad and hotel system all the way to Key West. However, the timing of his plans were accelerated somewhat when the severe freezes of 1894 and 1895 affected the area around Palm Beach but not the settlement known today as Miami, about sixty miles further south. Julia Tuttle, the Florida East Coast Canal and Transportation Company, and the Boston and Florida Atlantic Coast Land Company, each offered Flagler land to bring his railroad further south, which he set about doing immediately.
Flagler's railroad, renamed the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895, reached Biscayne Bay by 1896. Flagler dredged a channel, built streets, instituted the first water and power systems, and financed the town's first newspaper, the Metropolis. When the town incorporated in 1896, its citizens wanted to honor the man responsible for its growth by naming it "Flagler." He declined the honor, persuading them instead to use an old Indian name for the river the settlement was built around, Miama or Miami. A year later, Flagler opened the exclusive Hotel Royal Palm in Miami.
Flagler lost his second wife, Ida Alice, to mental illness, which she suffered from for many years. Ida Alice finally had to be institutionalized in 1895. On August 24, 1901, Flagler married for the third time, to Mary Lily Kenan. Built as a wedding present to Mary Lily in 1902 and designed by architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, Whitehall became the Flagler's winter home. With more than 100,000 square feet and 75-plus rooms, Whitehall was described in 1902 by the New York Herald as, "... more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world."
Probably since the late 1880s, Henry Flagler has been considering extending his railroad and hotel system all the way to Key West. In 1905, when the United States took on the Panama Canal Project, Flagler decided that it was finally time to extend the railroad to Key West, adding 156 miles of track, mostly over water. He named the extension to Key West the Over-Sea Railroad. At the time, Key West was one of Florida's most populated cities, and would become the United States' closest, deep water port to the Panama Canal. Flagler hoped to take advantage of additional trade with Cuba and Latin America as well as the increased trade with the West that the Panama Canal would bring. In 1912, the Over-Sea Railroad to Key West was completed. It was the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen. Henry Flagler arrived in Key West on January 22nd to be greeted by thousands of grateful citizens and a week of celebrations.
A little more than a year later, Flagler fell down a flight of stairs at Whitehall. He never recovered from the fall, and died of his injuries on May 20, 1913, at 83 years of age. He was laid to rest in St. Augustine alongside his daughters, Jennie Louise and Carrie, and his first wife, Mary Harkness.
Following an amazing career as a founding partner and "the brains" behind Standard Oil, which was the largest and most profitable corporation in the world for more than a century, Henry Flagler invested himself in the development of Florida. During the next quarter century, he literally invented modern Florida. The transportation infrastructure and the tourism and agricultural industries he established remain, even today, the very foundation of Florida's economy, while the building of the Over-Sea Railroad remains the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen. When Henry Flagler began his work in Florida, it was perhaps the poorest state in the Union. Today, thanks in large part to Henry Flagler, Florida is the third largest state in the Union with an economy larger than 90% of the world's nations. Indeed, no individual has had a greater or more lasting impact on a state than Henry Flagler has had in Florida.