Turn of the 20th Century
After the Civil War, modern Florida’s history began in earnest, with developers and speculators descending on the state and kick-starting a real estate boom and the beginning of Florida’s tourism industry.
Along the east coast of Florida, Henry Flagler—an original partner in Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller—bought up several regional rail lines and connected them to the main arteries of the rest of the country. In the process, he began heavy investment in hotels and infrastructure projects. Eventually, the Florida East Coast Railway extended all the way from Jacksonville to Key West, with several of Flagler’s notable hotels—the Ponce de León (St. Augustine), the Royal Poinciana (West Palm Beach), the Palm Beach Inn (now the Breakers in Palm Beach), and the Royal Palm Hotel (now the site of the DuPont Plaza Hotel in Miami)—conveniently providing lodging for customers of the railroad.
On Florida’s west coast, Henry Plant was busy buying up small rail lines to connect them to other rail lines he had purchases at bargain-basement postwar prices in Savannah and Charleston. Eventually, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad had Florida operations that extended from Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach in the northeast to Tampa and St. Petersburg in the southwest. Like Flagler, Plant smartly constructed a destination-worthy hotel along his lines; today the Tampa Bay Hotel is the site of the University of Tampa, but its unique and slightly ostentatious Moorish-Spanish design still marks it as one of the area’s more unusual sights.
As tourists began pouring into the area, so did real estate developers, some of whom had visions of turning Florida into a modern and sophisticated place. Most of them, however, saw the swamps and scrublands as a piggy bank ready to be raided. Acres and acres of land was sold by speculators to gullible northern investors sight unseen, who then intended to resell the property at a profit to folks who were ready to move to America’s new promised land. (Sound familiar?) As Florida’s tourism industry kicked up its own marketing and promotion efforts, the paradisiacal images of orange groves, palm trees, and blue seas were amplified by the potential dollar signs promised by real estate investors, and while hundreds of thousands of people did move to Florida and established several of its major cities, many more simply turned around and went back north when they discovered that the little slice of heaven they purchased was little more than a patch of cabbage palms infested with mosquitoes and unbearable heat and humidity. The boom finally went bust in mid-1925, a deflation that was compounded by a devastating 1926 hurricane in Miami and the 1929 stock market crash.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition