The Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad
Nearly thirty years after the last spike was driven in the transcontinental railway at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869, the vast Florida wilderness was America’s last frontier, an area as unknown to the white man as the heart of Africa. But Standard Oil millionaire Henry Morrison Flagler had the will, the money and the vision to build a railroad that would open this territory for development.
Flagler was a product of the period Mark Twain called the Gilded Age (1865-1929), a time characterized by great inventions, technological change and a “can do” spirit where men believed anything was possible. It was an era of unrestrained capitalism fueled by the fabulous wealth of America’s captains of industry and commerce.“Flagler believed that if he laid tracks and built settlements,” wrote Washington Post Journalist Michael Grunwald, “people would come.” The transcontinental railway opened the West for pioneers and developers and Flagler’s railroad transformed America’s last frontier.
FLAGLER’S TRAIN is a one-hour public television documentary that chronicles the men and ideas that connected America’s last frontier with the developing nation. It airs Thursday, January 12 at 8:00 p.m.
Who is Henry Flagler?
Eventually, Flagler became a partner in the newly organized D. M. Harkness and Company with his half-brother, Dan Harkness in 1852. The following year, on November 9, he married Mary Harkness. On March 18, 1855, their first child, Jennie Louise, was born. Jennie Louise lived until 1889, when at the age of 34, she died following complications from child birth. A second child, Carrie, was born on June 18, 1858, but she only survived three years later. On December 2, 1870, the Flagler’s last child and only son, Harry Harkness Flagler, was born.
Since the late 1880s, Henry Flagler began considering ultimately 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, and accelerated his plans to build an additional 156 miles of track, mostly over water, which he named the Over-Sea Railroad. At the time, Key West was one of Florida's most populated city, 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 Florida Over-Sea Railroad to Key West, the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen, was completed and Flagler arrived in Key West on January 22nd to be greeted by thousands of grateful citizens and several days of celebration.
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 daughter, Jennie Louise and 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.
To learn more about Henry Flagler and his accomplishments go to www.wpbt2.org/flagler.
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