Royal Palm Hotel: The Beginning

Royal Palm guests would arrive by boat, train, and later by car.
Royal Palm guests would arrive by boat, train, and later by car.

The Royal Palm Hotel: How It All Began

They called it the “Second Yankee Invasion” when tourists from the North rediscovered Florida and its balmy winters in the 1880s. There were no roads spanning the 350 miles between Jacksonville and Miami; contact with South Florida was almost exclusively by water.

Henry Flagler, a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, had already amassed millions by the time he and his new second wife made their honeymoon voyage to St. Augustine in the winter of 1883-84. A still-vigorous 53 years old, Flagler was still seeking new heights to conquer and made up his mind to develop a luxury hotel in St. Augustine. As work began on his Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1885, Flagler quickly saw the need for improved transportation, and bought and began improving the short narrow-gauge railway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, 40 miles to the south.

Railroads became a fascination for Flagler. In 1892, he acquired a charter to extend his railroad line all the way south to the sleepy town of Miami, although he took no immediate action in that direction.

The triple-strike Big Freezes during the winter of 1894-95 were a turning point. These ruined the citrus and vegetable crops of Northern and Central Florida. Mrs. Julia Tuttle picked a bouquet of orange blossoms and dispatched them to Flagler as proof that Biscayne Bay had been untouched by the disastrous freeze, and the rest, as they say, was history. Her offer of land was the clincher: 100 acres for a railroad terminal and hotel site, plus another 263 acres in what would become future city blocks. The neighboring Brickells offering to throw in an equal amount of land south of the river as well.

Miami, Flagler determined, would become the site of the seventh in his luxury chain: the Royal Palm Hotel. By March 3, 1896, the railroad had reached nearby Fort Lauderdale, and Flagler dispatched John Sewell and a crew of a dozen black workmen by boat from Fort Lauderdale to begin the work of creating Miami.

Sewell’s men breaking ground for the Royal Palm Hotel, 1896

“I found Miami all woods,” Sewell wrote. It wouldn’t remain so for long.

The Florida East Coast Railroad made its debut at Miami just weeks later, on April 15, 1896. With that first train “puff[ing] its way into the village over wobbly tracks,” Miami became instantly available to the wealthy socialites and financial lions of New York, Boston, Chicago, and other cities. Some made the journey in their own private Pullman cars.

The wide veranda of the Royal Palm Hotel was a popular gathering spot.
The wide veranda of the Royal Palm Hotel was a popular gathering spot.
The roomy dining room, ready to welcome guests.
The roomy dining room, ready to welcome guests.

With just this class of patrons in mind, Flagler spared no expense in constructing the Royal Palm. Six stories tall, its lavish footprint spanned 680 x 267 feet in the not-coincidental shape of an “F”.

Golf on the sandy greens, with the Hotel in the background.
Golf on the sandy greens, with the Hotel in the background.