Back to the Future of Rail in South Florida

Brightline is preparing to make history in rail travel with its new train service, arriving next summer on its route from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. But it’s a 19th century Oil Man to whom anyone taking a fast, convenient ride on the cool express trains, that we all owe a nod of thanks.

Henry M. Flagler was a wealthy man with a vision. A founding partner in Standard Oil (along with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews), he was involved in the most profitable corporation in the world back in 1878 when for personal reasons he left New York for a warmer winter in Jacksonville. It was in sleepy St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country, that he spotted a development opportunity.

Henry Flagler at the Train Station

Think of it as the equivalent of Bill Gates landing in the state and coming up with a new, locally based idea. Flagler launched a second career that changed the course of history in Florida.

In 1885, he began building the Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, also setting his sights further south envisioning hotels across the state for visitors from the north. One issue was how to transport building supplies for the projects. He needed a railroad.

It’s crazy to think that mules powered the St. John’s Railway – Florida’s original train system – when it opened in 1859. Fortunately, times had changed by the time Flagler began buying existing railroads in the state, but he still had the challenge of converting the lines to a standard gauge.

By spring of 1889, the Flagler train system operated between Jacksonville and Daytona. But the millionaire’s ambitions didn’t end there. Flagler petitioned the state of Florida for permission to lay new tracks and by 1894 his trains were reaching what is today West Palm Beach.

By 1896, Flagler’s train system went all the way to Biscayne Bay. So acclaimed were his transportation and development achievements that a newly incorporated town on the bay wanted to name itself “Flagler.” After the man himself declined the honor, the place instead adopted the name Miami (yes, that Miami).

Flagler particularly liked Palm Beach where he built properties including The Breakers Hotel, turning the place into a trendy resort for the Gilded Age. For himself and his third wife, he built a 75-room Beaux Arts-style estate, Whitehall, today a National Historic Landmark open to visitors as the Flagler Museum (www.flaglermuseum.us).

The builder had another big dream up his sleeve, a project that some dismissed as “Flagler’s Foley” but which would become one of the greatest engineering and construction projects of the 20th century – and one of the greatest railroad engineering feats in history.

Flagler announced plans to build a track over 100 miles of open water, connecting the islands of the Florida Keys with the mainland, making it possible for trains to travel all the way from Jacksonville to Key West. Construction involved more than 4,000 workers and took more than seven years, but on January 22, 1912 Flagler himself took the train to Key West to officially celebrate the opening of the new railroad.

While the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad ended operations in 1931, the system of bridges led to the creation of today’s Overseas Highway – meaning a lasting impact on future generations. The Florida Keys celebrated the 100th anniversary of Flagler’s achievement in 2012.

It’s amazing to step back and think that in many ways the whole east coast of modern Florida, including Miami and West Palm Beach, not to mention Florida travel in general, owes its existence to Flagler and his railroad.

Flagler established the Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway, and even today Jacksonville-based FEC runs freight service along almost the same mainland route that Flagler developed, serving Jacksonville, St. Augustine, West Palm Beach and Miami. Passenger service on the FEC was discontinued in the late 1960s.

When it launches service next year, Brightline will do so as the only privately funded, operated and maintained express passenger train service in the U.S.

Beginning next summer, Brightline passengers will be able to travel by rail from West Palm Beach to Miami, with a convenient stop in Fort Lauderdale. In Phase Two, service will commence to Orlando, including on brand new track between Cocoa and Orlando.

Florida residents and visitors will be able to leave their cars at home and travel fast, conveniently and in an environmentally friendly manner on brightly colored, modern, one-of-a-kind Brightline trains built in California by Siemens. The trains will operate from new, conveniently located stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. These trains will whisk riders quickly and comfortably to their destinations: just thirty minutes from Miami to Fort Lauderdale; and just 60 minutes from Miami to West Palm Beach.

This reinvented, thoroughly modern way to travel by train in Florida will earn Brightline its own place in Florida and train travel history. But, it wouldn’t have happened without Henry Flagler.

Travel Tip: Henry Flagler History in Palm Beach

To explore more about the man and his dream, Brightline passengers may want to visit the Flagler Museum (www.flaglermuseum.us), also known as Whitehall. The Gilded Age estate was built by Henry Flagler for his third wife and completed in 1902. Docent-led, audio and self-guided tours are available, the museum open Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays). Among exhibits is a private rail car built in 1886 for Henry Flagler’s personal use. The Flagler Museum also organizes seasonal tours of The Breakers Hotel (Saturdays only). It’s a quick rideshare (only about two miles) to the museum from the Brightline West Palm Beach train station.