Florida East Coast Railway's ('FECR') story is rich with history, beginning with an entrepreneurial spirit that pioneered the glory days of rail travel. The company owes its roots to Henry M. Flagler… a name synonymous with growth and development for the State of Florida.
Originally an oil man, Flagler had formed the Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Refinery with John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews in 1868, which later emerged as a joint-stock corporation named Standard Oil. By 1877, Standard Oil was considered the biggest and wealthiest industrial company in the world.
But in Florida, development was slow. In 1878, for example, St. Augustine – the oldest city in the nation – was a city of great potential with no one to harness it. On a personal trip to the city, Flagler found it charming, and realized it would be home to his next venture. Giving up his New York Standard Oil job in 1885, he came back to St. Augustine to fix what he thought were the two main problems: hotels and transportation. After successfully building the Ponce De Leon Hotel, he moved on to creating railways, which begins the Florida East Coast lineage.
Prior to Flagler’s involvement, the first railroad that would eventually become part of FECR was the St. John’s Railway, which opened in 1859 and operated from Tocoi Landing on the St. Johns River to St. Augustine, initially using mules for power. It was also the first abandoned of the predecessor railroads, being taken out of service in 1896.
Flagler bought the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Halifax, and Indian River Railroads that would become, after several name changes, the Florida East Coast Railway in September of 1895. FECR founded West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and, in 1896, Miami, as well as most of the east coast of Florida. Between 1904 and 1912, FEC was responsible for one of the greatest railroad engineering and construction feats in the history of the U.S.: the fabled Key West Extension, which opened with Mr. Flagler's triumphant entry into the island city on January 22, 1912. By 1913, when Flagler died, FECR connected the entire east coast of Florida, from Jacksonville to Key West.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression were particularly harsh on FECR. The railroad declared bankruptcy and was in receivership by September 1931, just 18 years after Flagler’s death. Streamliners plied the rails between 1939 and 1963, including such famous trains as "The Champion" and "The Florida Special" jointly operated with the Atlantic Coast Line.
In 1961, Edward Ball, Chairman of the Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust (and duPont’s brother- in-law), purchased a majority ownership of FECR via the St. Joe Company. This allowed FECR to emerge from bankruptcy. However, in 1963 union employees of the company commenced a work stoppage that extended in some form into 1975. Failing to reach agreement with its union employees, the company opted for self-help, hired a new work force to replace the striking employees, and discontinued its money-losing passenger operations.
Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) was incorporated in 1983 and became the holding company for FECR and the real estate holdings which were managed by Flagler Development Company, which today is a separate operating company focusing on the commercial real estate market. FECI began operating independently of the St. Joe Company on October 9, 2000. On July 26, 2007, FECI was purchased with private equity funds managed by Fortress Investment Group.
Today, FECR operates from its headquarters in Jacksonville, and it runs on almost the same route Henry Flagler developed. FECR is not only one of America’s most exciting railroads, but has recently undertaken two major infrastructure expansion projects aligned with the PortMiami and Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale).
For further information regarding the history of the Florida East Coast Railway, please see the following books, by Company Historian Seth H. Bramson:
"Speedway to Sunshine: The Story of the Florida East Coast Railway," published by Firefly Canada
"Florida East Coast Railway" in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of Rail" series
"The Greatest Railroad Story Every Told: The FEC Railway's Key West Extension," published by The History Press of Charleston, SC
The Florida East Coast Railway gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Company Historian Seth H. Bramson in the preparation of the history link of this website.