Flagler railway connected the Oldest City to key points in Florida
By KIMEKO MCCOY
What some Flagler College students may see as an opportunity to reside in a lap of luxury is really one of St. Augustine’s biggest and most important industries.
Today, the three-building complex on Malaga Street with beautiful marble flooring and loft bedding is dedicated to housing upperclassmen at Flagler College.
Years ago, it was the headquarters for the Florida East Coast Railway.
When Henry Flagler got to St. Augustine in 1878, it was to visit with his wife, Ida Alice Shourds, for their belated honeymoon. He had been to other parts of Florida like Orange Park and Jacksonville but he hadn’t fallen in love with them like he had with the historic city.
Being that Flagler was of a more refined ilk, when he came to St. Augustine, he was looking for a more upscale place to stay and development in the city.
So, in 1885 Flagler returned with his sights set on developing the area around St. Augustine and began building the Hotel Ponce de Leon. It was at this time that he noticed that the city was also missing a solid method of transportation in order to develop Florida.
Henry Flagler’s vision
St. Augustine had St. Johns Railway as its main transportation method. It was 15 miles long and used mules for power. Built 1859, the original track of the railway was made up of wood and iron strap.
When Flagler started developing the old city and began using the railway to transport, his crew alerted him that the railway couldn’t handle the tasks at hand.
So, Flagler built himself a railway. Immediately, upgrades were made and the railroad went from running on wood and iron tracks to standard gauge.
By 1889, Flagler’s system offered service from Jacksonville to Daytona Beach with hotel facilities along the way to encourage tourism.
In 1892, landowners south of Daytona wanted the railroad extended causing Flagler to obtain a charter from the state of Florida authorizing him to build a railroad along the Indian River all the way to Miami allowing for new cities like New Smyrna and Titusville to develop.
Two years later, the railroad system reached West Palm Beach and that area began to develop.
In April of 1896, Flagler celebrated a very big day because now, the railroad extended and ran from St. Augustine to Miami, and further down to Key West.
The final link of the Florida East Coast Railway was completed on January 22, 1912 just weeks after Flagler’s, 82nd birthday.
City’s biggest industry
For years, the railroad stood as St. Augustine’s largest and most important industry even into the Great Depression.
The three buildings that stand connected on Malaga Street today were the headquarters of the FEC Railway. The first was built in 1922, the second the following year and the final phase finished in 1926.
It wasn’t until the Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression in 1929 that the railroad declared bankruptcy.
It took Edward Ball, Chairman of the Alfred I. DuPont Testamentary Trust, to purchase a majority of the railroad’s ownership via the St. Joe Company for FEC Railway to emerge from bankruptcy in 1961.
About 20 years later, Florida East Coast Industries became incorporated and the holding company for FEC Railway and in 2006, the company’s headquarters that were originally on Malaga moved north to Jacksonville.
The industries company then transferred the headquarter building’s ownership over to Flagler College in 2007 through a $7.5 million gift-of-equity as means to preserve the buildings and their history.
Although Flagler owns a lot of historic buildings in order to house its students, the FEC Railway headquarters, which is now the Florida East Coast Towers, was a special treat to Flagler because it has some of the magnificent views in St. Augustine.
Making way for students
Flagler College had to gut each floor and create single-contained rooms. Originally, the building was made up of offices and open areas with collapsible cubicles in it.
Two years after renovating the first two towers, the third was renovated.
The delay was because the building had executive offices up on the top floor that were being used by the institution for institutional advancement.
Today, the FEC Towers buildings are used to house upperclassmen. All three are secured by key card access to both the building and the rooms and the towers are the only residence halls on campus with loft style bedding.
Although the buildings were gutted, there were a few remnants left to remind students of the history they reside in.
A directory board naming some of the building’s employee offices and the original arrows pointing to floor levels in the elevator are just a few of the historical remnants.
The residence hall also boasts the same original marble flooring that were left over from the building’s time as headquarters.
As for the FEC Railway, it still has its gumption and runs on almost the same route Henry Flagler developed all those years ago.
Information compiled from Seth Bramson, FEC Official Historian and Dan Stewart, Flagler College VP of Student Services.