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Flagler: Our Man in Miami

Miami will always be in debt to Henry Flagler, who opened the doors of the city to the rest of the country and the world.

One of the most explosive scenes of Mission: Impossible 3 takes place on a bridge. A plane fires missiles at Ethan (Tom Cruise). The rumble and its effects last almost three minutes and he ends up hanging from rubble, swaying over the turquoise open sea between Knight’s key and Little Duck key, right across from another smaller, old and battered bridge.

Henry M. Flagler (1830–1913), founder and partner of John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil Company — the most profitable company, until today, in the history of the United States — traveled for the first time to Florida during the 1870´s. He was following the doctor´s recommendations given to his wife, Mary Harkness, to settle in a tropical climate. Mary’s health was fragile, and she died in 1881. In 1883, Flagler married Ida Alice Shourds and, in December of that same year, traveled to Florida on their honeymoon. Their gateway to Florida was Jacksonville, although with Ida Alice the journey lasted longer: they boarded the ferry to St. Augustine, a green city with just two thousand inhabitants. Months later, Flagler returned to St. Augustine to build the Ponce de León hotel, a Mediterranean-style hotel with five hundred and forty rooms. Flagler, a businessman, soon expanded his company and built the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach, an area that he considered paradisiacal. The problem with Florida was transportation: The train did not go beyond Jacksonville, so it was impossible to commute to other places. If Flagler wanted his hotels to be a tourist epicenter, he had to connect the cities. So, he decided to extend the railroad route to Palm Beach.

In 1894, Florida was struck with bad weather. One of the cruelest frosts of all time killed the crops, damaging the economy dramatically. However, south of Palm Beach stretched a territory called Fort Dallas, almost uninhabited due to mosquitoes, pests and heat. Nothing interesting for many, except for Julia Tuttle, an entrepreneurial widow who sold everything in Ohio and isolated herself in these inhospitable lands. Fort Dallas was not affected by the frost, and Tuttle, who had been trying to convince Flagler to continue his railroad to Fort Dallas, got his wish. In 1895, in exchange for a portion of land, Flagler agreed to extend the railroad to Fort Dallas, a city that months later would be inscribed as Miami.

Flagler´s hotel empire arrived at the Miami River shores with the Royal Palm Hotel, and consolidated Miami as a tourist attraction. Based on Miami, Flagler traveled through the Cays, the Everglades, Homestead… and, in 1905, announced what would probably be his most ambitious company — although for some it was the biggest folly that a 75-year-old man could commit. To build the Florida East Coast Railway, a hundred-and fifty-three-mile rail that would connect Miami to the south end of Florida, Key West.

The Florida East Coast Railway was done in stages between 1906 and 1912. Unpredictable weather complicated the venture: three hurricanes lashed against the coasts and blights were considerable. The biggest challenge was the seven-mile stretch between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key. The only thing that was between those two pieces of land was the Atlantic. They assessed the probability of not completing the railway, but stubborn Henry Flagler opposed it.

The Florida East Coast Railway construction concluded the morning of January 21, 1912 and Flagler died a year later, along with his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. Henry Morrison Flagler’s project consisted of three hundred and sixty-six miles of rail linking Jacksonville to Miami and one hundred and fifty-six between Miami and Key West. A masterpiece of engineering that connected all of Florida, so unusual at the time, was rated as the Eighth Wonder of The World.

The railway continued operating after the death of Mr. Flagler. Key West became a trade window for the Caribbean and the newly inaugurated Panama Canal. Tourism was also favored. People from all over the United States traveled to the keys and Miami for the weekend or to take the ferry to Cuba. Nevertheless, the boom lasted only until Labor Day weekend on 1935, when a hurricane swept the entire state´s east coast as no other one has. The gusts of wind took hundreds of lives, homes and the impressive machine.

Little remains of the Eighth Wonder of The World. Just a few scraps, like that old seven-mile bridge, the Old Seven, Florida’s historical landmark that runs parallel to the highway from Miami to Key West. And while its usefulness is limited to weekend bicycle rides or posing for camera lenses, it has also served as a stage for Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron, among many others.

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Raul Guerrero

Raul Guerrero

At the intersection of city living, Downtown Miami, and urban culture. Authored several books. “Informed, informative and irreverent.”