Morrison Flagler was born on January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New
York to Reverend Isaac and Elizabeth Caldwell Harkness Flagler.
At the age of 14, after completing the eighth grade in 1844,
Flagler decided to move to Bellevue, Ohio where he found work in
the grain store of L.G. Harkness and Company at a salary of $5
per month plus room and board. By 1849, Flagler was promoted to
sales staff of the company at a salary of $400 per month.
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
March18, 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. She died three years later.
On December 2, 1870, the Flaglers' only son, Harry Harkness
Flagler, was born.
Flagler founded the Flagler and York Salt Company, a salt mining
and production business in Saginaw, Michigan in 1862 with his
brother-in-law Barney York. By 1865, the end of the Civil War
caused a drop in the demand for salt and the Flagler and York
Salt Company collapsed. Heavily in debt, Flagler returned to
Bellevue, Ohio. He had lost his initial $50,000 investment and
an additional $50,000 he had borrowed from his father-in-law and
The next year Flagler reentered the grain business as a
commission merchant. Flagler had become acquainted with John D.
Rockefeller, who worked as a commission agent with Hewitt and
Tuttle for the Harkness Grain Company. By the mid
1860s,Cleveland had become the center of the oil refining
industry in America and Rockefeller left the grain business to
start his own oil refinery. In 1867, Rockefeller, needing
capital for his new venture, approached Flagler. Flagler
obtained $100,000 from a relative on the condition that Flagler
be made a partner. A Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler
partnership was formed with Flagler in control of Harkness'
On January 10, 1870, the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler
partnership emerged as a joint-stock corporation named Standard
Oil and by 1872, Standard Oil led 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
By 1878, Flagler's wife, who had always struggled with health
problems, was very ill. On advice from Mary's physician, she and
Flagler visited Jacksonville, Florida for the winter. Mary's
illness grew worse, however, and she died on May 18, 1881 at age
47. Two years after Mary's death, Flagler married Ida Alice
Shourds. Soon after their wedding, the couple traveled to St.
Augustine, Florida where they found the city charming, but the
hotel facilities and transportation systems inadequate. Flagler
recognized Florida's potential to attract out-of-state visitors.
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 on the 540-roomHotel
Ponce de Leon. Realizing the need for a sound 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
The Hotel Ponce de Leon opened January 10, 1888 and was an
instant success. Two years later, Flagler expanded his Florida
holdings. He built a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River
to gain access to the southern half of the state and purchased
the Hotel Ormond, just north of Daytona. His personal dedication
to the state of Florida was demonstrated when he began
construction on his private residence, Kirkside, in St.
Flagler completed the 1150-room Royal Poinciana Hotel on the
shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach and extended his railroad to
West Palm Beach by 1894. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was at the
time the largest wooden structure in the world. Two years later,
Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers in 1901)
overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.
Flagler originally intended for West Palm Beach to be the
terminus of his railroad system, but during 1894 and 1895,
severe freezes hit the area, causing Flagler to rethink this
original decision. Sixty miles south, the town today known as
Miami was reportedly unharmed by the freeze. To further convince
Flagler to continue the railroad to Miami, he was offered land
from private landowners, the Florida East Coast Canal and
Transportation Company, and the Boston and Florida Atlantic
Coast Land Company, in exchange for laying rail tracks.
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 to use an old Indian name, "Miami."
In 1897, Flagler opened the exclusive Royal Palm Hotel in Miami.
Flagler's second wife, Ida Alice, had been institutionalized for
mental illness since 1895. In 1901, the Florida Legislature
passed a bill that made incurable insanity grounds for divorce,
opening the way for Flagler to remarry. On August 24, 1901,
Flagler married Mary Lily Kenan and the couple soon moved into
their Palm Beach estate, Whitehall. Built as a wedding present
to Mary Lily in 1902 by architects John Carrere and Thomas
Hastings, Whitehall was a 60,000 square foot, 55-room winter
retreat that established the Palm Beach season for the wealthy
of America's Gilded Age.
By 1905, Flagler
decided that his Florida East Coast Railway should be extended
from Biscayne Bay to Key West, a point 128 miles past the end of
the Florida peninsula. At the time, Key West was Florida's most
populated city and it was also the United States' closest deep
water port to the canal that the U.S. government proposed to
build in Panama. Flagler wanted 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 was completed to Key West.
In 1913, Flagler
fell down a flight of stairs at Whitehall. He never recovered
from the fall and died of his injuries on May 20 at 83 years of
age. He was buried in St. Augustine alongside his daughter,
Jennie Louise and first wife, Mary Harkness.
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