Who was Henry Morrison Flagler?
Henry Flagler literally invented modern Florida. And nowhere is Flagler’s legacy more evident than in Palm Beach County.
At a time in life when the average man of the late 19th century had reached the end of his life expectancy, Flagler decided to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities of Standard Oil, the company he co-founded. Had he not accomplished another thing for the rest of his life, he certainly would be remembered for his role in what would remain for a century the largest and most profitable corporation in the world. But instead of retiring, Flagler devoted all of his considerable resources and creativity to building Florida.
From St. Augustine to Miami, Henry Flagler built a series of luxury hotels that quickly established tourism as a mainstay of Florida’s economy. His Florida East Coast Railway not only connected his hotels but opened the state to growth of all kinds. Through his Model Land Company, Flagler encouraged the agricultural development of
millions of acres, thus establishing agriculture as another mainstay of the state’s economy. Not content with those accomplishments, Flagler undertook and accomplished the most ambitious engineering feat ever attempted by a private citizen, the building of the Over-Sea Railroad, covering more than 155 miles from Miami to Key West.
Along the way, Flagler fell in love with the Lake Worth area and decided he would build the Hotel Royal Poinciana on the eastern shore of Lake Worth, where a lush grove of coconut palms had grown up following the shipwreck of the Providencia in 1878 with its cargo of 20,000 coconuts. On the western shore of the lake, he established a city named West Palm Beach, which he hoped would one day become a thriving metropolis larger than Jacksonville. The Hotel Royal Poinciana became the world’s largest resort, and Greater West Palm Beach indeed grew into a thriving metropolis larger than Jacksonville and the seat of government for one of the largest counties in the Southeast. Around 1900, Flagler decided to build a winter home on the eastern shore of Lake Worth. The home he built was unlike any of his many other residences. It was a home for the Muses, a museum.
Built to evoke an image of a temple to Apollo, Whitehall’s public rooms are filled with symbolism related to the Muses of arts and literature. In 1960, Whitehall became a public museum and, in 2000, a National Historic Landmark. Today, Whitehall is known around the world as one of America’s great historic house museums.
But Flagler’s legacy doesn’t end there:
• The park at the east end of Clematis Street was given to West Palm Beach by Flagler and bears his name, as does the drive along the lake.
• The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens are built on land once farmed by the Yamato Colony, whom Henry Flagler attracted to the area through his Model Land Company.
• The land the Norton Museum of Art is built on was owned by Flagler and later given to West Palm Beach. Likewise, the land the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum and the 1916 Courthouse was built on was given to West Palm Beach by Henry Flagler’s Model Land Co.
• The land St. Ann Catholic Church was built on was donated by Henry Flagler. The land the Royal Poinciana Chapel was built on was donated by Henry Flagler.
• Woodlawn Cemetery was built and given to West Palm Beach by Henry Flagler.
• The Breakers hotel was established by Henry Flagler. And the list goes on, and on.
Of all the places Henry Flagler established or nurtured, of all the places he could have chosen to live and have his greatest impact, he chose the shores of Lake Worth to build the greatest lasting legacy of his amazing life: his winter home and Florida’s first museum, the world’s largest resort, and a thriving metropolis larger than Jacksonville.
And, he gave away thousands of acres for churches, a fire department, a waterworks, a power station, schools, clubs, cemeteries and parks.
While a great many have helped to make Palm Beach County the beautiful place that it has become over the last century, the county owes its very existence more to Henry Flagler than to any group of 10 other individuals. More important to Henry Flagler, without a doubt, would be the fact that so many have come to share his love of the place he thought of as “Paradise.”
The town was incorporated on April 17, 1911.
Courtesy of the Palm Beach Daily News.