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5: Florida East Coast RailwayŚMayport Branch

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Henry M. Flagler, Empire Builder

Henry Morrison Flagler strode across the world stage not a small town in Florida which was, itself, small in population. He was a founder of the Standard Oil Company along with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews. They became so rich that Flagler could afford to indulge his whims. He was a fish so big in the small pond that Florida that he swallowed huge portions of the state because he was bored and needed challenges. His purchases south and east of the St. Johns River were only a means to an end. He would reach all the way to Key West.

He was a New Yorker who made his fortune in Ohio and returned to New York state to enjoy the fruits of his labor and acumen better, was an empire builder. He was born in Hopewell, New York on January 2, 1830, and lived there until he left school in 1844 to work for his uncle, Lamon G. Harkness, in Bellevue. Ohio. He was so successful that his salary was raised from $5 a month plus room and board to the phenomenal $400 a month by 1849. His first independent business venture ended in failure and debt so he returned to Ohio from Michigan and became a commission merchant for the family business, The Harkness Grain Company. In 1852 Henry Flagler became a partner in the newly organized D. M. Harkness and Company with his half-brother, Dan. John D. Rockefeller met Flagler when both were in the grain business. When Rockefeller wanted to expand his oil business, he persuaded Flagler to invest. Flagler had to borrow money from the Harkness family with whom he was so closely associated that he married Mary Harkness on November 9, 1853. The oil business flourished so much that the Flagler, Rockefeller, and Andrews Company eventually incorporated as the Standard Oil company in 1870 and, in 1885, moved to New York City in order to better manage its global enterprise.

Directly and indirectly, women played a major role in the Florida portion of his life. Mary became so ill in 1878 that her physician recommended that she escape the harsh New York winter by journeying to Jacksonville, Florida in hopes that the mild climate would have a restorative effect. Jacksonville offered no cure but Flagler saw the potential of this rather primitive, undeveloped shipping and tourist center. They returned to New York; Mary died a few years later on May 18, 1881. He married the 35-year-old Ida Alice Shourds, who had been Mary's nurse and companion, and took her to St. Augustine for their honeymoon. They stayed in Jacksonville for a few days before taking a steamboat up the St. Johns River to Tocoi and then overland to the town. St. Augustine was charming but lacked adequate facilities for tourism. Flagler remedied that by starting the construction of the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1885 (finished in 1888) and buying the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad so supplies and people could get there. This was the beginning of the Florida East Coast Railway system which included millions of acres of land, luxury hotels, and a railway network reaching to Key West. His railroad bridge between Jacksonville and South Jacksonville in 1890 connected his railroad system with other railroads. In 1895, Ida Alice's behavior had gotten so erratic that she was out into a mental institution. Illness was not grounds for divorce in Florida until Flagler flexed his muscles and got the state legislature to change the law to allow mental illness to be grounds for divorce. It was a scandal and severely condemned by church people but Flagler cared little. He married Mary Lily Kenan on August 24, 1901. As he would tell President William McKinley in 1898, "My domain begins at Jacksonville."

The Florida East Coast system was huge. He had begun by building the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the St. Johns Railway, the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railway, the St. Augustine and Palatka Railway, and the St. Johns and Halifax Railway to create a direct link to St. Augustine. The State of Florida promised him land if he would build railroads and, by 1892, have given him and his companies one quarter million acres in north Florida.[1] The State and others encouraged him to keep building southward along the coast giving him bountiful incentives to do so. He built luxury hotels along the way. Then, in 1905, he decided to build a railroad from Miami across the Florida Keys to Key West, a distance of 128 miles and a considerable engineering feat. On January 22, 1912, the old man rode into Key West on his train.

Florida East Coast Railway system map

If anyone could turn the impoverished Jacksonville and Atlantic Railway around, he should have been able to do it. After he bought it in 1899, he converted it to standard gauge track and the extended it northward to haul coal from Mayport where it was offloaded from ships onto the wharf he built. He had a railroad yard in East Mayport and he established Manhattan Beach just below Burnside Beach for his African American workers. The map below shows the track running from East Mayport across marshland to Mayport and to the wharf there.

Section of 1918 US Geological Survey Mayport Quadrangle Map

FEC station and wharf looking toward the river.

The Mayport Branch track of the FEC is shown below on the 1918 map from the U. S. Geological Survey. The track crosses Pablo Creek on its way eastward to its Pablo Beach terminal. The right of way is Beach Boulevard today. The terminal was approximately on today's Third Street North. That was the terminus for the J&A. When mining began in Mineral City (now Ponte Vedra Beach), the FEC ran a spur or tramway, to the mining works. The Mayport Branch made a curving turn and proceeded northward parallel to what is Second Street North. The black squares on the map represent buildings. Low spots such as marshes or ponds are indicated.
1918 U.S. Geological Survey, Pablo Beach

A larger section of the 1918 map puts the Mayport Branch into perspective because for it covers from the boundary of Duval and St. Johns Counties north to Mayport. There were only four railroad stops on the lineŚPablo Beach, Atlantic Beach, East Mayport, and Mayport. San Pablo, Manatee Avenue (12th Avenue North), Cashens (in Neptune Beach where Thomas V. Cashen had built a house), Neptune (between Beach Avenue and Ocean Boulevard in Atlantic Beach), and Manhattan Beach were flag stops. Very few people lived on the beach when he built the Branch in 1900.

Mayport Quadrangle
Flagler decided to develop this land, choosing to build a luxury hotel as he had done elsewhere in Florida because his other hotels showed a profit. By building the Continental Hotel between his tracks and the ocean, he gave his patrons easy access from either. They could travel by train from other parts of the United States and arrive at the Continental. There, they would be met by hotel employees and be whisked to luxury. Porters handled their luggage while they were being situated in rooms or other accommodations.

And what accommodations they had! Painted FEC yellow, the wooden hotel was 47 feet by 447 feet with a six story rotunda and five story wings. The dining room could seat 350. There were 186 sleeping apartments (later 200) and 56 baths. It had numerous outbuildings. The terminal building was a substantial and commodious structure. On the ocean side, it featured pleasant verandas and covered walkways and a covered pier thrusting into the ocean. When it opened on June 1,1901, it rivaled any hotel in the nation, except it sat in a wilderness.

Continental Hotel with Beach on the right


Continental Hotel Rear View

Continental Hotel Railroad Station

Flagler understood that the hotel with its servant's quarters and employee homes needed houses surrounding it, preferably those of the well-to-do. Selling land would offset some of the costs of maintaining the hotel not only from the one-time purchase price but also from buying electricity and water from the hotel. So the FEC promoted Atlantic Beach as a place to live and visit. Besides the regular train service via Jacksonville, it ran excursion trains to the beaches every weekend. H. H. Buckman, a developer associated with the JMP and then with Flagler, sold some of his property to the FEC.

Buckman Atlantic Beach Ad

Buckman 1925 Map showing the Mayport Branch route

The Hotel was never as profitable as Flagler hoped and his opening up the east coast of Florida to the south, where it was warmer, undercut the Jacksonville area as a tourist destination. Few people could afford to have a summer cottage there. Flagler cut his losses. In 1911, the FEC leased the Continental Hotel for ten years to A. S. Stanford who represented the American Resort Hotel Company. In 1913, the hotel and 4,000 acres north to the south jetty were sold by the Florida East Coast Hotel Company to E. R. Brackett and a consortium of New York capitalists who formed the Atlantic Beach Corporation and renamed it the Atlantic Beach Hotel. This corporation, headed by Harcourt Bull, sought to develop the community. On May 17, 1917, the hotel property was sold at public auction and bought by the FEC Hotel Company for $167,000. In November, 1917, it was leased to W.H. Adams, Sr. It burned on September 20, 1919, a loss of $300,000. Adams bought what remained and rebuilt.[2]

Two other events hurt the Beach Branch of the FEC. It's raison d'ŕtre ended. The engine burned wood until the railroad was extended to Mayport where it could get coal. In 1915, the FEC began converting to oil fueled engines but also ran a gas electric to Pablo Beach but that service stopped in 1920. Passenger traffic did not bring a sufficient return on investment.

The second was the opening of Atlantic Boulevard to great fanfare on July 28, 1910. The railroad would lose its monopoly as the route to the shore. Not many had automobiles until the 1920s, as we know, but automobile ownership grew dramatically in the twenties and provided a viable alternative to the FEC train.

FEC Beach Branch train arriving from Pablo Beach Courtesy of The Bramson Archives

The FEC declared bankruptcy in September 1931 and went into receivership. The Beach Branch was not profitable and was abandoned in 1932. The right of way from South Jacksonville to Jacksonville Beach was given to Duval County; it eventually became Beach Boulevard.

Flagler did no better with a beach railroad than the others except that he was able to use it to transport fuel for his trains. A shrewd man, he began cutting his losses in 1917. Although his beach railroad lasted longer than the other two, it was unsustainable. No trace of the tracks and the only train stations are the Mayport Station which was moved to Pablo Park owned by the Beaches Area Historical Society and the St Nicholas flag stop, moved to a new location and preserved as the St. Nicholas Train Station Park. The other flag stops disappeared decades ago under the pavement of Beach Boulevard, of streets in Jacksonville Beach, Neptune Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Naval Station Mayport.

Mayport Train Station, Jacksonville Beach Photo by Karen Hawkins

Relocated St Nicholas flag stop.     Photo by Mark Olschner

[1] Edward N. Akin, " The Sly Foxes: Henry Flagler, George Miles, and Florida's Public Domain," Florida Historical Quarterly, 58:1 (July, 1979), 23-37.

[2] See "A Man and Three Hotels, " ( and " Harcourt Bull's Atlantic Beach, Florida, " ( posted on the Historical Text Archive.

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