Henry Flagler


Content courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Florida Keys historian

Henry M. Flagler

Henry Morrison Flagler was born in Hopewell, New York on January 2, 1830, the son of a struggling Presbyterian minister. Morrison was the name of his mother’s first husband  (Hugh Morrison) who had died. Henry left school after the eighth grade to go work for the Harkness family in Ohio. The Harkness family was his mother’s second husband’s family (David Harkness) and played a helpful role in Henry’s life for many years. To begin his new life, he found work on a barge traveling the newly opened Erie Canal to Lake Erie where he traveled overland to the small Harkness store in Republic, Ohio. There he began work with his half-brother, Dan Harkness.

Penniless, Flagler worked for five years, saving enough money in the mercantile business to move to Bellevue, Ohio, and buy out a partner in one of the Harkness operations. In Bellevue, he courted and married his step-uncle’s (Lamon Harkness)  second daughter, Mary Harkness, November 9, 1853. Henry and Mary had two daughters, Jennie Louise and Carrie. Carrie died at age three.

The company expanded into the grain and distillery businesses, and the latter was sold after making considerable money. One of the grain brokers he shipped grain to was John D. Rockefeller in Cleveland, Ohio.

In 1862, Flagler and Barney York formed a salt producing company that boomed because of demand brought on by the Civil War, though once the war ended in 1965, so did the demand, leaving Flagler with a $50,000 bankruptcy debt. The Flaglers moved on to Cleveland, Ohio where he re-entered the grain business and renewed his connections with John D. Rockefeller – resulting in handsome profits and investment monies for a new venture.

In 1868 at age 37, he joined with John Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews to form the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Refinery the RAF Refinery.

Standard Oil Days

In 1870, the Standard Oil Company was formed, with Flagler as a major stockholder. Under Flagler’s guidance, Standard Oil began buying out almost all the smaller refineries, and became a monopoly, even resulting in Flagler – later in life –  being called before Congress for possible violations of anti-trust laws. By 1884, Standard Oil had moved its headquarters to New York City, and was considered the largest and richest industrial company in the world.

Also, in 1870, Flagler’s first and only son, Harry Harness Flagler, was born.

Florida East Coast Railway, Key West Extension. Henry Flagler and Mayor Fogarty, Key West, January 22, 1912. Photo from the Monroe County Library Collection.

Meanwhile, Mary had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, her health declining. In search of warmer climates, the Flagler’s moved to warmer climates, settling in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1878. Bored, however, after only weeks, Henry moved Mary and Harry back to New York, where subsequently Mary’s health steadily declined until her death at age 48 on May 18, 1881.  Harry was 10 years old. Henry’s sister Carrie moved in to help with Harry.  By this time, Henry’s daughter Jennie Louise, was married herself, but made frequent visits.

On June 5, 1883, Flagler married one of his first wife’s nurses, Ida Alice Shourds. He was too busy to honeymoon in the summer, so in the winter they went to Florida, but this time to St. Augustine. Florida held an appeal for Flagler this time.

He reduced his workload with Standard Oil and at age 53 he turned to a new vocation … building a railroad.


Read more about the Flagler East Coast Railroad Extension, by clicking here.