Yankee Dollars and Florida Development: Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle

January, 2016

There is a point in each Canadian winter, as the cold sets in following December’s holiday season,  that Canadians start to dream of warmer weather. Soon, the annual ‘snowbird’ migration begins to the American south.

This is the story of how their destination came to exist.

After the Civil War, John D Rockefeller was looking for venture capital to expand his fledgling Cleveland Ohio refinery’s production. Yankee grain merchant Steven Harkness offered to invest, on condition that his half-brother Henry Flagler be made a partner in the company. Steven wanted to be a silent partner, perhaps because he had just started a bank and refineries were considered risky, but also Flagler’s name was not immediately associated with the Harkness clan, and brother-in-law Henry’s failed salt production experience was closer to oil production, so he could more effectively protect their interests.

Henry made many strategic, negotiating and legal contributions to the success of Standard Oil. As the company grew, its headquarters were moved to New York City and in 1877, Flagler moved there as well. As his wife was ill, he took her to Florida that year for part of the winter.

Wealthy families’ interest in travelling to Florida had begun after the Civil War, when the climate, like that of Arizona later, was promoted as being healthful for sufferers from pulmonary disease, aka tuberculosis. Gradually, the wealthy followed the ill. This process had been known in reverse in the antebellum years, when wealthy Southerners followed the ill north in summer to mountain spas, such as Saratoga Springs or to the cool seaside at Newport RI.

In 1881, Mary Harkness Flagler died. Flagler, at 52, began to distance himself from the affairs of Standard Oil. In June,1883, he married his deceased wife’s former nurse, who was considerably younger than himself. The Flaglers decided on a delayed winter honeymoon in Florida. The problem they encountered lay in getting there. At the time, one could go by packet along the Atlantic coast, braving storms and rough weather. On land, railroad connections were indirect and uncomfortable, to say the least.

When the Flaglers arrived in Jacksonville, they found the hotels, what there were of them, to be unsuitable. They found the same thing after they made a ferry-plus-small-railway excursion to St. Augustine. Flagler’s intent to spend winters away from New York’s cold was unshaken, but someone had to provide better transportation and shelter. Gradually, he came to the conclusion he wanted to do it himself.

Flagler and his wife did not get back to Florida until late February 1885 and by then the rail connection had improve and the trip from New York to Jacksonville took only two days, instead of the previous four. As well, a new hotel, the San Marco, financed by a group of New England Yankees, was open and waiting for them. Clearly, from the numbers and average length of stay, Northerners were building demand.

In St. Augustine, Flagler became friends with a Floridian of Yankee extraction, Dr. Andrew Anderson, purchased some acreage from him and returned to New York in April with concepts for a large, luxury hotel running through his head. Over the summer, as land speculation spread through the St. Augustine area, Flagler encouraged the town to move its tiny railroad station to land he donated, thus clearing the way for hotel construction to begin and providing the town with a station worthy of its potential customers.

Anderson had become Flagler’s man in St. Augustine and they remained lifelong friends. In questioning Flagler, Anderson began to realize that the lavish Ponce De Leon Hotel was but the beginning of Flagler’s ambitions. Flagler was not worried about realizing profits as much as leading development on a large scale. It was a kind of hobby. When asked about his motives, Flagler replied with a story about a devout churchgoer who one day went on a drunken spree. When questioned by his pastor, the man said,’ I’ve been giving all my days to the Lord hitherto, and now I’m taking one for myself’. Flagler had devoted much of his adult life to Standard Oil, and now he was pleasing himself.

Flagler’s Yankee contractors had been brought down from Boston by a wealthy merchant from there to build a hotel in Magnolia Springs. Then, they had built the San Marco in Jacksonville and now were building the Ponce De Leon. It was formally opened January 10, 1888 and was easily the largest hotel in the region. More well-off Northerners began to flock to the Florida winter warmth. When Flagler built a neighboring, but more modestly-priced, hotel nearby, the numbers of ‘snowbirds’ grew even more.

While building the Ponce De Leon, he bought the flimsy railroad from Jacksonville and upgraded the tracks and equipment. Later, he began to push it southward, both to develop tourism but also to tap the northern demand for citrus products. Next, he began to move his Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) terminus south to Daytona. Once Daytona was reached and new hotel construction begun there, Flagler then began to look at Palm Beach further to the south. Later, there would be new moves on south to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and over the water to Key West. This last effort, designed to give land access to Florida’s then second-largest city entailed years of work bridging the waters between low-lying islands, or ‘keys’. The railroad connection to Key West was abandoned in1935 after an intense hurricane caused major devastation. Eventually, it was replaced by a highway.

In his push down the coast, Flagler created Palm Beach as a relatively isolated community of wealthy homeowners. It was on an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. West Palm Beach, on the mainland, was where businesses, the railroad and the homes of servants for the Palm Beach residences were located and housed. Flagler built a mansion in Palm Beach for his family, which has since become a museum. My wife and I have been there a couple of times and it is well worth the visit. Its rooms are decorated in a variety of European styles, a seemingly odd choice for a man who had never visited any place outside the US, except for Jamaica and the Bahamas. Flagler died in 1913, but not before he had seen the completion of his railway down the length of the Florida peninsula.

Julia Tuttle has been called ‘The Mother of Miami’. Her father, Ephraim Tanner Sturtevant was a Connecticut Yankee who moved to the Western Reserve when he was 13. A few years later, he was sent back to Connecticut and graduated from Yale in 1826. After teaching school for a short time in Connecticut, he returned to Ohio to teach at the new Western Reserve College in 1827. Two years later, he resigned and started his own private school nearby, which he ran for 17 years, before retiring due to ill health. He then seems to have become a ‘gentleman farmer’ for the next quarter century before starting to travel south to Biscayne Bay in Florida for his health in 1870. His third wife (he outlived the others) was also from Connecticut and was the mother of Julia in 1849.

She married Leonard Tuttle in 1867, and had two children. Leonard Tuttle was wealthy and owned a Cleveland foundry. There is some evidence that the couple knew both Rockefeller and Flagler around that time. Julia Tuttle first went to Florida in 1875 and was attracted to area and, upon her father’s death in1881, she inherited the property he had acquired at Biscayne Bay.

In 1886, Tuttle’s husband died and she discovered that he had gone through most of his fortune. Her children were in their late teens, so she decided to sell the Cleveland house and move permanently to Biscayne Bay. She began to invest in the property that would later become the center of Miami. She watched as Flagler’s railway proceeded south to the Palm Beach area. Eventually, in 1893, she approached Flagler and tried to interest him in extending the line further south. She offered him some of her property, knowing that if he accepted and word got out, it would lead to a land boom in the area.

A year later, in December, 1894, a cold spell froze the citrus orchards in central Florida, causing millions of dollars in losses to many sectors of the economy. Flagler began to take an interest in land farther south and sent his property manager to look things over in the Biscayne Bay area. He found it untouched by frost and recommended Flagler visit the area himself.

He came; he saw; and in his first night in Biscayne Bay, he decided to extend his railway south once more. Tuttle offered Flagler some tracts of land, including those for the now formulaic railroad station and hotel, but kept enough for herself to guarantee her future. Tuttle insisted that Flagler not only agree to extend his line, but to finish a hotel in the town within 18 months. His men started the surveys for the new line immediately and the local suppliers in Biscayne Bay quickly were sold out of everything, while housing was impossible to get and the land rush began. By 1902, Miami’s population was over 5,000 and Julia Tuttle’s dream would have come true, had she lived to see it. ‘The Mother of Miami’ died of meningitis in 1898. In later years, a Miami causeway was named after her and there is a statue of her in Bayfront Park.

Between 1870 and 1900, Yankees such as Henry Flagler and Julia Tuttle invested their dollars into Florida, helping to change the State from one with almost no population or infrastructure to one with a growing population and an economy based on warm-weather agriculture and tourism. This was not just the development of a resort hotel or two, but most of a whole State, one which now ranks as the fourth most populous in America. Miami is one of the country’s largest cities and the unofficial financial capital of Latin America.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

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This column is an adaptation from a chapter in a forthcoming volume 2 of Jim McNiven’s latest book, The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern America. www.theyankeeroad.com

Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis.






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