Henry Flagler – “Father of Miami”

Question: Why did Henry Flagler extend his railroad to Miami and how did the extension of the Florida East Coast Railway impact the economic development of Miami FL?

Cleveland and the weather. They have gone together for decades as Cleveland has suffered through harsh winters since its inception. However, another city that has become a major player in the United States and the Western Hemisphere was built through this Cleveland and weather connection. Specifically, the city is Miami and one of the three ‘Clevelanders’ is Henry M. Flagler. Over the 20th-century Miami evolved from a small southern port to a major commerce center of the Western Hemisphere; the contributions of Henry Flagler to the ‘birth’ of Miami led to this evolution.

“Biscayne Country” as the area was called in the 19th-century, was a wilderness area located on the Miami River on the southeast corner of Florida1. Also on the Miami River, built in 1836, Ft. Dallas served as an outpost during the Seminole Wars2. Unsettled by civilians through much of the 19th-century, Florida began to attract wealthy people from the north towards the end of the century. First, Cleveland businesswoman Julia Tuttle settled on the Miami River in the 1880s after visiting her father who had settled nearby3. Before Mrs. Tuttle was established her residence on the Miami River, Cleveland oil tycoon Henry Flagler, upon suggestion of his physician attempted to nurse his first wife, Mary (who had contracted tuberculosis), back to health and spent time in Jacksonville4. However, Mary did not survive and two-years later Flagler married Ida Alice Shourds, who was Mary’s caretaker, Flagler and Ida visited Florida on their honeymoon. Four years after he remarried, Flagler grew determined to refocus his business interests on building luxury hotels in Florida [Although Ida Alice started to show signs of insanity soon after they were married – but that is another story.]5. Beginning in St. Augustine, Flagler opened the Ponce de Leon Hotel, his goal was to attract enough wealthy customers to visit and, perhaps, invest in developing a strong tourist industry. In order to support Flagler’s ideas, he needed a solid infrastructure – in the 19th-century that meant railroads6.

With the building of his first hotel in St. Augustine FL, Flagler began to piece together the Florida East Coast Railway. Taking advantage of Florida state law, Flagler used convict leasing to modernize existing railroads and add mileage to the existing lines in order to transport supplies, mainly citrus fruits from the interior of the state and to bring in other supplies necessary for a luxury hotel.7 Flagler’s initial success led him to expand the railroad further south, ultimately reaching Palm Beach where he would build more luxury hotels thus creating a Florida playground for the wealthy he knew from Cleveland and the Northeast. By 1894, Flagler had experienced success and his railroads to and hotels in Palm Beach were as far as he wanted to go. In the winter of 1894-95, however, Florida was hit with ‘the Great Freeze’ where low temperatures, normally (according to NOAA) in the low 50s (Fahrenheit), dropped to 17-degrees at the end of December (unofficially). Then again, February 7-9, 1895 the temperature dropped again to 17-degrees (unofficially) accompanied by strong winds8. All across Florida citrus fruits were destroyed. Flagler’s plan to deliver the food supply he needed for his hotels was over.

Meanwhile, on the southern tip of the state, while Flagler was building his hotel empire, Julia Tuttle purchased a 640-acre tract of land on the Miami River in 1891 – including the stone buildings that remained from Ft. Dallas9. By 1894 she was living in her home on the north side of the river, on the south side, another Clevelander, William Brickell, had purchased a plot of land, built his home as well as a trade post and a post office9. By the time the ‘Great Freeze’ hit north and central Florida, Miami had two founding families settled in the area. Before the ‘Great Freeze,’ Mrs. Tuttle had invited Henry Flagler for a visit with the hope that she could convince him to build his Florida East Coast Railway from Palm Beach to Miami10

Prior to the winter of 1894-95, Flagler had no intention to extend his railway. Mrs. Tuttle even offered half of her land holdings in Miami if Flagler would extend his railway to her new home town.11 Ultimately, when word of the severity of the freeze reached Miami – as millions of oranges and grapefruits (along with other fruits) lay on the ground of central Florida12, Mrs. Tuttle took advantage of the situation and invited Flagler back to Miami. There are two major versions of the story at this point, either Julia Tuttle sent ‘fresh’ orange blossoms to Flagler to prove that Miami was unscathed by the ‘Great Freeze’ or, the most historically substantiated version, Flagler went to visit Mrs. Tuttle again and he sent fresh, healthy orange blossoms to St. Augustine to demonstrate to potential investors that Miami not only survived the ‘Great Freeze’ but the area was good for the production of citrus crops. At that point Flagler pulled together funding and created plans to extend his railway the final 67 miles to Miami. Simultaneously, Flagler began to plan to build luxury hotels in Miami beginning with the Royal Palms13.

Within the year Flagler’s railway was almost to Miami, hotels and housing were under construction and people were moving to Miami for work and warmth. Ultimately hundreds of displaced citrus growers willing to become trackmen, road builders, bricklayers, carpenters, and hotel clerks arrived in Miami14. By April 1896, the first train rolled into Miami, FL.15.

In order to incorporate a new city during the 19th-century Florida law required the signature of at least 400 registered voters. On July 28, 1896, 460 voters met in ‘the Lobby Pool Hall’ (see Photo 2) to sign the required legal documents to incorporate Miami16. Miami was officially a city.

Photo 1: As a result of ‘The Great Freeze of 1894-95″ millions of pounds of citrus fruit froze and rot on the ground all across north and central Florida17.
Photo 2: The Lobby Pool Hall where over 400 residents of Miami signed the legal documents to incorporate Miami.18 Was located on ‘Avenue D’ before a fire burned down several buildingd around Christmastime 1896.


Brown, Aubrey. “The Story of Convict Leasing in Florida.” The Jaxson, March 22, 2019,
https://www.thejaxsonmag.com/article/the-story-of-convict-leasing-in-florida/. (Accessed
September 15, 2022.)

Corliss, Carlton J. “Henry M. Flagler: Railroad Builder.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 38
No. 3(1960): 195-205

George, Paul S. “Passage to the New Eden,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 59 No. 4(1981):

Martin, S. Walter. Florida’s Flagler. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1949.

Nolan, David. Fifty Feet in Paradise: The Booming of Florida. New York: Harcourt Brace
Javonovich Publishers, 1984.

“On the East Coast,” The Ocala Evening Star, August 26, 1896. Page 2.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84027621/1896-08-26/ed-1/seq-2/ (Accessed
September 14, 2022.)

“The Great Freeze of 1894-95,” photograph, https://patch.com/florida/newportrichey/the-great-
freeze-of-1894-1895. Copy housed at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center – copy not on line. (Accessed September 10, 2022).

Webber, Herbert J. “The Two Freezes of 1894-95 in Florida and What They Teach,” Yearbook of
the U.S. Department of Agriculture
, (1896), 159-174.
https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/IND23311579/PDF (Accessed September 14, 2022).

  1. Larry Wiggins, “The Birth of the City of Miami,” Tequesta FIU Digital Collections, pg. 6 https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/26247099/the-birth-of-the-city-of-miami-tequesta-fiu-digital-collections []
  2. Wiggins, “The Birth of the City of Miami,” pg. 6 []
  3. S. Walter Martin, Florida’s Flagler (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1949), 152 []
  4. David Nolan, Fifty Feet in Paradise (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), 98-9 []
  5. Nolan, Fifty Feet in Paradise, 133-35 []
  6. Carlton J. Corliss, “Henry M. Flagler: Railroad Builder,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 38 No. 3(1960): 197-8 []
  7. Aubrey Brown, “The Story of Convict Leasing in Florida,” The Jaxson, March 22, 2019, https://www.thejaxsonmag.com/article/the-story-of-convict-leasing-in-florida/ []
  8. Herbert J. Webber, “The Two Freezes of 1894-95 in Florida and What They Teach,” Yearbook of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (1896), 159-60, https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/IND23311579/PDF []
  9. Wiggins, “The Birth of the City of Miami,” pg. 5 [] []
  10. Wiggins, “The Birth of the City of Miami,” pg. 10 []
  11. Corliss, “Henry Flagler: Railroad Builder,” pg. 200 []
  12. “The Great Freeze of 1894-95,” photograph, https://patch.com/florida/newportrichey/the-great-freeze-of-1894-1895 []
  13. “On the East Coast,” The Ocala Evening Star, August 26, 1896 []
  14. Nolan, Fifty Feet in Paradise, 124 []
  15. Paul S. George, “Passage to the New Eden,” The Florida Historical Quarterly 59 No. 4(1981): 440 []
  16. Wiggins, “The Birth of the City of Miami,” pg. 29-30 []
  17. “The Great Freeze of 1894-95,” https://patch.com/florida/newportrichey/the-great-freeze-of-1894-1895 []
  18. https://miami-history.com/miamis-site-of-incorporation-from-pool-hall-to-ashes/ []

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