Henry Morrison Flagler made a great impact on the development of South Florida, especially around the shores of Lake Worth. Many books and articles have been written about him. This account will deal with his activities at what is now Palm Beach.
Flagler was born 2 January 1830 at Hopewell, New York. By the time he spent the winter of 1883-1884 in St. Augustine, Florida, he had made his fortune in the Standard Oil Company with his partner, John D. Rockefeller. But instead of retiring, he poured millions of dollars into building hotels, such as the Ponce de Leon, and making St. Augustine a resort city.
Travel by rail was difficult at the time as each segment had its own gauge. Flagler started buying up railroads and standardizing the gauges. In the l880s, Titusville was “the end of the line” by rail. The only way south was via the Indian River or by the Atlantic Ocean.
When Flagler visited the lake of Lake Worth in 1893, he decided to make it “the queen of the vacation spots.” He made plans to build a large resort hotel in what was to become Palm Beach and to bring his East Coast Railway to West Palm Beach. He purchased Robert R. McCormick’s property for $75,000 and also bought Brelsford’s Point for $50,000. Land immediately jumped from $150 an acre to $1,000 an acre, bringing about Palm Beach’s first real estate boom.
Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel was built for 1200 guests, was six stories high and covered 32 acres, including the gardens. Located south of Main Street, it was next to the future site of the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum on the lake front. It was built in three stages and at one time considered the largest wooden hotel in the world. The hotel was torn down in 1936 after being damaged in the 1928 hurricane.
Workers, some being immigrants, were recruited from New York. Many were hired, so the work went quickly. Living quarters were provided north of Main Street, in a section known as The Styx. The hotel, started 1 May 1893, was finished 11 February 1894. Meanwhile, work continued on Flagler’s East Coast Railway, which reached the west side of the lake in April 1894. A year later, a railroad bridge was built on the site of today’s Flagler Memorial Bridge (North Bridge) so private railroad cars could be parked near the hotel.
In 1901, Flagler built a marble palace, Whitehall, as a home for his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. Today it is known as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum. There he died 20 May 1913. He is buried in St. Augustine. Flagler had only intended to bring the railroad to West Palm Beach but, by the time he died, the Key West Extension had been built, so it was possible to get to Key West from New York without changing trains.