While it is certainly possible that some of our subscribers and readers might question or wonder why the story of this particular railroad is so seriously germane to Mr. Berkwitt’s wonderful Ringside Report, it really is quite simple: this incredible railroad and its creator, the legendary Henry M. Flagler, essentially built the entire east coast of the Sunshine State, from St. Augustine south to Key West, and his indelible imprint and impact upon the state will be memorialized so long as Florida exists. Simply put, the legendary Henry Morrison Flagler is the single greatest person in the state’s history.
All of that being written, we can now “pick up where we left off,” essentially at the point at which Mr. Flagler had decided that he would build, in the then-sleepy little town of St. Augustine, the greatest and grandest winter resort hotel in the world.
Construction began on the Ponce de Leon in 1886. McGuire and McDonald, contractors and engineers, would be chosen to build the hotel. Eventually, they would build several other of the Flagler hotels including the Royal Palm in Miami. (That Royal Palm is not the later Rose and Unger families Royal Palm on Collins Avenue on Miami Beach)
McGuire and McDonald began construction in a timely manner but, as it has a habit of doing, fate stepped.
By the third month of construction the two gentlemen came to see Mr. Flagler in his St. Augustine office, their visit turning out to be less than pleasant.
“Mr. Flagler,” Mr. McGuire said, “we have some unhappy news.” “And what is that?” Mr. Flagler queried. “Sir,” McGuire continued, we are going to have to stop construction on the hotel.”
Mr. Flagler was astounded and in an emphatic voice said, “What?!! Why are you telling me this? I pay every bill and I pay them quickly. What is this all about?!!” McGuire, a bit taken aback, replied, “Sir, that is not the problem—not at all.” “Then what, for goodness sake, is the problem, Mr. McGuire?”
McGuire calmly said, “Sir, the problem is that rickety little narrow gauge railroad that comes down here from the south bank of the St. Johns River. The ties were laid directly on the sandy soil and the trains bringing our construction material go off the track on a daily basis. To add to that, the equipment is outmoded and keeps braking down regularly. We really have nowhere to turn but to you.”
Flagler took a deep breath and said to them, in a quite modulated tone, “gentlemen, do not be concerned; I will go and speak with Mr. Astor immediately and I’m certain he will handle this properly.”
The next day, Mr. Flagler went to speak with Mr. Astor. (That Astor, incidentally, while having the same surname, was in no way related to the famous John Jacob Astor, a well-known in American history financier, whose grandson had a large home on Pinetree Drive on Miami Beach.) Flagler explained the situation and Mr. Astor immediately soothed him, assuring him that he would begin to upgrade the railroad post haste.
Less than a month later, McGuire and McDonald were back in Flagler’s office, the complaint being exactly the same as it had been several weeks earlier. Mr. Flagler was somewhat more perturbed than he had been the first time the men had come to see him, but he again calmly assured them that the problem would be handled and again he went to see Mr. Astor. The latter assured him that the work was in progress and that Mr. Flagler needn’t be concerned any further. Suffice to say, at this point, that Mr. Astor’s veracity would prove to be anything but.
With the contractor’s third visit, Flagler had had enough. Learning who money was owed to by Astor, Flagler went through the proper legal and fiscal procedures and on December 31, 1885, bought, lock, stock and barrel, track ties and right of way, stations, buildings and appurtenances and all locomotives, passenger and freight cars and all other assets of the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax River Railroad. On that day and date, Henry Flagler was in the railroad business, not because he wanted to be but because he had no choice, and because of that the fate and future of the entire east coast of what, until that time, had been nothing more than a frontier was in the hands of one man and that one man would prove that he was not simply “up to the task” but that he was capable of overcoming any and all and every obstacle that could impede his progress and that was the case with everything he did from that point on.
We will continue the story in the next few days, but, and until then, if you wish to begin to get a feeling of the greatness of Flagler, I unhesitatingly commend you to (and you will learn about others as we proceed with the story) the single best-selling (now note the disclaimer words) regional railroad history ever published in America.
When Speedway to Sunshine: The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway was published in December, 1984, the 3000 hard cover copies sold out, without a Florida East Coast Railway Society or the help of an internet which did not yet exist, by August, 1985. It would not be until October, 2002, that the Revised and Enlarged edition was announced, also to be hard cover.
When the announcement was made by the publisher, Boston Mills Press, of Erin, Ontario, Speedway to Sunshine was the single most requested railroad history book on the internet, copies going on ebay and other sales outlets for—are you ready?!!–$380.00 a copy. Boston Mills Press decided that there was definitely a national market for the book and the print run for the new book was set at 4000 copies. The book came out in December, 2002 and “the rest of the story” is almost hard to believe.
After the book came out, this writer, the author, did not receive his ten author’s copies and after about two weeks I called my friend, John, at Boston Mills, inquiring as to where my copies were. After about a minute of hemming and hawing John said to me, and I quote, “Seth, we don’t have any copies.” I said, “What?!! What are you talking about? You published 4000!” And what John answered with floored me.
“Seth,” he said, hesitatingly, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, because I know you told us the book was going to do very well, but….” “But what?” I wanted to know. “Seth, what has happened has never happened before in the history of the railroad history book publishing business.” “And what, may I ask, is that, John?”
It was then that I truly understood the grip that the F E C had on not only Florida historians but railroad fans and buffs nationwide, because John’s answer had me incredulous. “We sold 4000 copies in thirteen days and nothing like that has ever happened before, not to us or any other railroad history book publisher. For one of the few times in my life I was, literally, speechless. Finally, regaining my mental stability, I said, “So what happens now?” The answer was simple: Boston Mills had already ordered another 4000 copies, and, yes, every one of them sold out, not in thirteen days but in a reasonably and respectably short period of time. When the heavy stock, glossy cover edition was published Speedway to Sunshine was already the single best selling regional railroad history ever published in America, with 13000 of the hard copy editions being sold. At this point I have no idea of how many more of the heavy stock cover editions have sold, but I do believe it is on its third reprinting.
And that, my friends, ladies and gentlemen, will conclude the current chapter. As stated above we will be back with you shortness. Till then be—and stay—well and above all, stay safe.