Like Two Peas in a Pod

Lately, I have been looking at the life of Henry Flagler as a lever into the development of the American tourist industry. Flagler essentially started the tourist towns and cities along the Florida Atlantic coast, connecting them with his own railroad. If you ever go to Palm Beach, stop by the Flagler Museum there. Here’s a bit of my draft that might be interesting:

Henry Flagler and John D Rockefeller had many features in common in their early lives. Both had itinerant fathers, John D’s father was a kind of travelling salesman who would be gone for months at a time. Henry’s was more sedate, but his calls to rural, almost frontier churches, led him to move to find enough money to sustain his family. Both John D and Henry had Yankee mothers who taught them stern morality as well as the need to save money and to plan and bargain aggressively in business.

It was hardly a surprise that they would later become neighbors on Cleveland’s Euclid Street and walk together to the Standard Oil offices on many mornings, discussing strategy. Flagler was nine years older than John D, but had suffered reverses during the Civil War, while Rockefeller prospered. Flagler had moved north to Saginaw MI when salt deposits were discovered there. The idea was to invest in the production of salt to meet the wartime demand, but the end of the war led to a price collapse that ruined him. Rockefeller married into a prominent Cleveland family, while Flagler married a daughter of L.G. Harkness.

The Harkness clan had done very well in grain trading and speculation and, before his salt adventure, Flagler had become a trusted and valuable part of that operation. One of his clients was the junior partner in a Cleveland trading company, Clark and Rockefeller. After the War, when Rockefeller had bought out Clark’s interest in an oil refining venture of theirs, he was looking for venture capital to expand production. Steven Harkness offered to invest on condition that his half-brother Henry be made a partner. Both Henry and Steven had moved to Cleveland by that time. Steven wanted to be a silent partner, perhaps because he had just started a bank and refineries were risky, but also Flagler’s name was not immediately associated with the Harknesses and Henry’s salt experience was closer to oil production and refining than were grain trading and retail sales. When the company was incorporated in 1870, Steven joined the Standard Oil Board of Directors, along with Henry.

Flagler’s involvement in Florida extended over 30 years after he withdrew from active involvement in Standard Oil. The value of his investment in Standard Oil grew faster than his expenses in developing Florida real estate and railroads. He lived to see his railroad extend from Jacksonville in the north, to Key West in the south, bridging the water gaps between the mainland and islands. The story will unfold in Volume 2 of The Yankee Road.

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