Florida’s Railroad Barons, Part II
Peter A. Demens and Henry M. Flagler
The year 1885 was a memorable one in Florida railroad history. Peter A. Demens and Henry M. Flagler both began their railroad careers then and went on to become famous as Florida railroad barons.
The Florida History Internet Center (FHIC) reports that Demens, whom it describes as “an ambitious Russian refugee,” bought the Orange Belt Railroad of Sanford in 1885. Demens went on to build a railroad down the Pinellas County peninsula on the west side of Tampa Bay. The railroad fostered towns including Clearwater, Dunedin and Largo.
FHIC tells how Demens came to name St. Petersburg: “General John Williams, pioneer of St. Petersburg and a former Detroit mayor, wanted the port town named for his home city, but in a coin flip, the town was named for Demens’s Russian home St. Petersburg.” The city became a retirement and resort community after the American Medical Society in 1885 named it “The Health City,” FHIC states.
“Henry Morrison Flagler was the most ambitious of the railroad barons since his empire eventually stretched from Northeast Florida to Key West,” according to FHIC. FHIC reports that Flagler, son of a poor New York minister, rose from country clerk to bookkeeper to eventual business partner of industrialist John D. Rockefeller. He reportedly came to St. Augustine in 1879 due to the deteriorating health of his first wife.
Flagler built the ultra-luxurious Ponce de Leon hotel in St. Augustine, reports the University of South Florida’s Florida Center for Instructional Technology (USF/FCIT). “To encourage people to visit, he built railroads to help connect St. Augustine and Daytona Beach to railways that could bring guests all the way from New York,” USF/FCIT adds.
FHIC reports that Flagler bought the small Jacksonville to St. Augustine to Halifax Railroad in 1885 and started 30-hour Pullman service to New York City. “The idea immediately made St. Augustine a winter destination to railroad tours.”
Flagler continued to extend his railroad south, and it reached Miami in 1896. FHIC reports that he obtained funding in 1912 for “one of the greatest engineering feats in American history” – the construction of the Overseas Railroad to Key West. Trains crossed 38 bridges on the way to the continental United States’ southernmost point. The railroad was destroyed by the hurricane of 1935.
Flagler County and Flagler Beach are named after the railroad baron.