V. FLORIDA EAST COAST RAILWAYŚMAYPORT BRANCH
Henry M. Flagler, Empire
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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
of 1918 US Geological Survey Mayport Quadrangle Map
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.
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
Hotel Rear View
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
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
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.
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.
Train Station, Jacksonville Beach Photo
by Karen Hawkins
Relocated St Nicholas flag stop. Photo by Mark Olschner