Flagler railway connected the Oldest City to key points in Florida
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.
Seacrest Hotel once dominated Delray skyline
Built in 1925, a year before the Colony, the old Seacrest Hotel, which stood at the northwest corner of Atlantic Avenue and State Road A1A, where the Delray Beach Marriott now stands.
d the city’s skyline well into the early 1960s.» BEFORE AND AFTER: Check out The Seacrest Hotel then and what it is now
E.H. Scott, a depot agent for the Florida East Coast Railway, bought the original lot for all of $60. With cathedral ceilings and arches that lit in sunlight, the 57-room hotel sported the Spanish architecture that came to symbolize the burgeoning Palm Beach County in the early 20th century. Movie stars, celebrities and the wealthy held court around its pool.
“There were Rolls-Royces all over the place,” longtime resident Robert Ian McLaren, then 69, told the Palm Beach Daily News — the “Shiny Sheet” — in 1982.
The hotel survived the great 1928 hurricane and underwent a renovation in 1933, in the heart of the Depression. During World War II, volunteers and Boy Scouts looked out a turret at the top of its 57-foot tower and scanned the oceans in search of German U-Boats.
But the post-war boom led to new hotels that drew tourists away from the Seacrest.
In 1978, developer Bill Walsh bought the 2.26-acre site. Walsh rewired the hotel and applied a new paint job. But the electrical grid couldn’t accommodate the newfangled, and now mandatory, air conditioning. That was that.
The place just wasn’t viable any more, Walsh said. For two years, he and city commissioners wrestled with its future. In August 1981 the city approved Walsh’s plans to build a new hotel. The Seacrest closed.
For a while, it housed workers building the Holiday Inn on Glades Road, west of Interstate 95, in Boca Raton. They included Jim Graham, now director of sales and marketing for the Marriott, the current hotel.
“It was a little rustic,” Graham said. “They had the old-fashioned switchboards where the operator pulled a plug. It did have good cross-ventilation but I don’t think you could stay there in the summertime.”
After that, salvageable furniture and fixtures were sold or donated. Vandals broke windows and cracked pillars. Wreckers finally brought down the building in February 1982.
The following year, the five-floor, 277-room Holiday Inn Camino Real opened on the spot. In 1998, it expanded and became the Marriott.
With the Seacrest long gone, now only the Colony stands among the great old Delray Beach ocean hotels.
Find out about Action Engine and Fairpromise