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Henry Flagler

Henry Morrison Flagler, born Jan. 2, 1830, was an American oil tycoon, hotelier and railroad developer. He played a key role in the growth of Florida's eastern coast and was the founder of the Florida East Coast Railway, which eventually extended from Jacksonville down to Key West and connected the state. Born in New York as the son of a poor minister, Flagler went on to make his fortune as an oil tycoon in Ohio. He partnered with John D. Rockefeller to create the Standard Oil Company. Henry Flagler is also very well known for his resort hotels and railroads in Florida. In 1878, he traveled to Jacksonville for the winter with his sickly first wife Mary (Harkness) Flagler. Two years after she died in 1881, he married Ida Alice Shourds. The two traveled to St. Augustine after their wedding. This visit was when Flagler realized Florida's potential as an out-of-state visitor hub. However, hotels and transportation were seriously lacking. In 1885, Flagler began building his first hotel, the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine. Completed three years later, this project sparked Flager's interest in creating a new "American Riviera." His first step was to create a better transportation system in the state. Flagler bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what would become known as the "Flagler System" or the Florida East Coast Railway. By 1894, Henry Flagler completed the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel - the largest wooden structure in the world at the time -- in Lake Worth and extended his railroad to service West Palm Beach. A couple of years later he built the Palm Beach Inn, which would in 1901 become The Breakers Hotel. By this time Flagler's railway reached all the way to Biscayne Bay, and, in 1897, he opened the exclusive Royal Palm Hotel in Miami. In the following years Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway to Key West, a point 128 miles past the end of the Florida peninsula. Henry Flagler's life took a turn for the worse when he fell down a flight of stairs at his Palm Beach estate, the famous Whitehall mansion, in 1913. He never recovered from the fall and died in Palm Beach of his injuries on May 20. He was 83 years old. Flagler was buried in St. Augustine alongside his daughter, Jenny Louise and first wife, Mary Harkness.