One of the mysteries of American history is that it has managed to forget Henry Morrison Flagler. Though it is a bit too much to say, as does the subtitle of David Leon Chandler's biography, that he led an "astonishing" life, it certainly is true that he was the "founder," in fact if not name, of Florida. Chandler correctly observes that "no one in American history, with the possible exception of Brigham Young, has been so singly responsible for the creation of a state," yet somehow Flagler has managed to get lost in history.
That this should be the case is puzzling. It is true that Flagler had relatively little interest in publicity or veneration -- he declined, for example, to let the young city of Miami name itself after him -- yet the sheer weight of his accomplishments should command our continued attention. As a young man he was a close associate of John D. Rockefeller, with whom he founded Standard Oil. In middle age he accumulated a great fortune (though by no means so great as Rockefeller's) through the growth of that vast monopoly. Then, with old age nearing, he turned himself single-mindedly to the development of Florida, in the process laying the foundation for that state's current prosperity and problems.
He was born in Upstate New York in 1830, but as a teen-ager went off to Ohio to seek his fortune. He did well in grain, distilling and related businesses, had a humiliating setback in a salt mining venture in Michigan, then returned to Ohio. There he and Rockefeller joined forces, just in time to capitalize on the discovery of oil in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Within a decade "virtually the entire oil business of America -- refining and gathering -- was in their hands, the most complete monopoly that had yet been built in American industry." According to Rockefeller, the "brains" behind Standard Oil, "the man of the most imagination in the firm," was Flagler.
Yet in 1883, newly married to his second wife, Flagler greatly reduced his involvement in Standard Oil and went down to Florida. "I liked the place and the climate," he said later, "and it occurred to me that someone with sufficient means ought to provide accommodations for that class of people who are not sick, but who come here to enjoy the climate, have plenty of money, but could find no satisfactory way of spending it." He got started toward solving that problem by building the Ponce de Leon, a colossal hotel in St. Augustine that catered to the rich, and the Alcazar nearby, for those with less money. But St. Augustine was only the beginning; with those two hotels behind him, Flagler looked south.
To get there he built a railroad: first to Palm Beach, which he founded, then to Miami, which he transformed from a shantytown into a small city, then -- in a triumph of engineering and determination -- across the open sea to Key West. He constructed hotels everywhere: the Royal Poinciana, the Breakers, the Ormond Beach, the Royal Palm. Through various schemes he lured workers and settlers from the North and overseas. He encouraged the development of a vast agricultural industry south of Miami, at Homestead. He gave generously to charities, built churches and treated his employes with impressive decency.
He was a good man as robber barons go, but he was no saint. When he wanted to divorce his mentally ill second wife, he bought the Florida legislature and got a law making "incurable insanity" grounds for divorce. He put on a great show of loathing the press, but silently purchased interests in newspapers to assure their compliant coverage of his activities. He exercised unprecedented power over the State of Florida, power to which he had not been elected and for which he was in no consequential way responsible to anyone.
The record must show, though, that for the most part the millions of dollars he poured into Florida improved the lives and opportunities of those who lived there, as well as enabling the state to emerge from the primitive conditions imposed on it by climate and geography.
He lived a productive life, and Chandler is right to observe that it is a pity history has passed him by.
It is also a pity that Chandler's effort to do him justice has resulted in an awkward book that, although it contains a great deal of interesting information, is patchily constructed and flat. There's a very good story in Flagler's life, but not in Chandler's book.