In the early 1900s Henry Flagler eased himself out of Standard Oil and his partnership with John D. Rockefeller to pursue a career in railroads and resort hotels. He was among the richest men in America in an era of enormous private wealth accumulation, but also wealth inequalities. Florida benefited from that new interest and the money behind it.
Flagler and his first wife had come to St. Augustine for her health. He found the accommodations in “America’s Oldest City” inadequate and began to think about the construction of a hotel that met his standards. He was inspired by, or perhaps he inspired a local physician, Dr. Andrew Anderson, to begin thinking big as well. Anderson owned an orange grove adjoining the town center and a good hotel location. The hard freeze of 1894 had pushed the orange groves farther south and left the town needing new enterprises.
Henry Flagler was a “mover and shaker.” He knew a lot of the East Coast social elites that had made money during the prosperous years of the late nineteenth century, and what they might want in the way of a resort hotel. So they found much to like in Flagler’s Ponce de Leon. Flagler soon acquired two more existing hotels, the Cordova and the Alcazar. These early resort hotels were not year-round hotels. Rather, the hotel’s season began after the New Year, remained open into the hot months of Florida’s long summers, and then closed for the season June.
Graham follows the annual seasons at the Ponce de Leon as described by Mrs. Anna Marcotte in her gossipy local publication, the Tattler. The elaborate parties attended by the rich and famous that both Graham and Marcotte describe are like the destination weddings and other celebrations common amongst the well off in this century.
The hotel guests liked sports, though mostly as spectators. The Chicago Colts (later Cubs) trained in St. Augustine in the spring. There were tennis and golf tournaments, various equestrian events, and prize fights. Later auto racing, though it eventually relocated farther down the coast at Daytona.
Late nineteenth-century American cultural life was brought to its audiences by itinerant lecturers and musicians. But the town also had its own concert band that performed at formal dances to benefit the local hospital or fire station. Tin Pan Alley’s ragtime was the rage in the two decades before the First World War. “Negro melodies” sung by the hotel’s black staff were also popular with the guests. Gambling was about the only known vice.
Hotel patrons got around the town in horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and cycle rickshaws. They rented cars for short drives down the coast, but most guests continued to arrive by rail at Jacksonville with connections to St. Augustine.
Graham follows Flagler’s railway construction as it makes its way to Miami and then the Keys. At the same time Flagler’s sometime business partner – sometime rival, Henry Plant, was building a railroad down Florida’s Gulf Coast and the magnificent Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant’s hotel would rival the Ponce de Leon in size and splendor and draw off wealthy vacationers from Flagler’s hotels. That rivalry has often been portrayed as contentious; Thomas Graham does not think it so.
Both the Atlantic and Gulf Coast tourism were vulnerable to the frequent recessions. Certainly the great age for the Ponce de Leon was prior to the Great War. Graham reports that it never made a profit after the 1924 season. It now houses Flagler College. The Tampa Bay Hotel was a flop from the beginning. It now houses the University of Tampa.
Florida was, during the careers of Flagler and Plant, part of the Jim Crow South. That meant that the huge staffs of the hotels could not be of mixed race but rather either white or black. Flagler made the choice of employing an all-black staff. Most of the staff were recruited in the North and brought by special trains to St. Augustine for the season.
In December 1964, I was married in Gainesville and had arranged to spend a brief honeymoon at the Ponce De Leon. It was still a grand hotel. Both of us were graduate students, so I had reserved the cheapest room available. We arrived in the early evening and were shown to our room. It was dazzling and I decided that either I or the reservation desk had made a big mistake.
I went down to the desk and explained the mistake. The clerk with pleasure said that the hotel was not busy and they had decided to give us their “honeymoon suite” at the price I had paid for the cheaper room. I suspect that Henry Flagler would have approved of their magnanimous gesture.