1870s – 1919: Florida’s First Steps Into Tourism (Gilding the Orange)

Not long after the Civil War, Florida began developing as a vacation destination. At first and for the most part, it was the wealthy who discovered that Florida was a great place to spend the winter season. Florida’s first construction boom created the opulence expected out of the sand and swamp.

Steamships docked in Jacksonville and high-quality rail lines replaced a fractured system of local lines that mostly provided transportation for the post-war agricultural boom. Florida’s most famous Henrys: Flagler and Plant, developed the railroads, stations and hotels that drew representatives of the country’s Gilded Age. For the most part, the destination wasn’t important as long as it was temperate and provided for every need. If people think theme park today act entitled…

In the beginning, St Augustine, Palm Beach, Miami and Tampa were the primary destinations of the wealthy. St Augustine was unique, in that the nation’s oldest city had been a destination long before Flagler first visited in. The town was picturesque with old Spanish architecture (some in ruins, some not) and interesting street scenes. The other places mostly grew based on their development as winter vacation destinations.

Other places in Florida were starting to create what would grow into significant attractions at the same time. Silver Springs became a destination for travelers who traveled by riverboat on the St Johns from Jacksonville south to Enterprise and Sanford on lake Monroe. The democratizing effect of the railroad allowed the growing number of American middle class to begin to explore places as well. These were intrepid travelers however, as there were few facilities designed for their use.

Florida slowly developed into a tourism destination for the country though most of the attractions born during this time were originally designed with locals in mind. Florida’s first steps toward land conservation and historical preservation also began with the creation of national forests, state parks, museums and zoos.


First glass bottom boats invented at Silver Springs heralding the start of the first (or modern) era of Florida tourism


South Florida Institute (Florida Southern College) founded – self-described as the “oldest private comprehensive college in Florida”


Rollins College founded – self-described as the “oldest recognized college in the state”


Henry Flagler builds a railroad bridge over the St. Johns River to connect Florida east coast rail lines to the rest of the country and facilitate tourism development

The Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine completed – it’s the first grand tourist hotel in Florida


Henry Plant opens the Tampa Bay Hotel


Saint Augustine Alligator Farm opens – this may be the oldest continuously-running zoo in Florida


Dr. Henry Nehrling establishes Palm Cottage Gardens as a botanical research facility and public gardens – this may have been the first public gardens in the state


Everglades drainage begins, undertaken to create more farmland and subsequently changes the south Florida ecosystem


Daytona Beach Road Course created – the start of racing on the beach


The Fountain of Youth park opens for visitors although the location had been visited since the 1860s

First Gasparilla Pirate Festival held


Musa Isle in Miami opens


Ocala National Forest, the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River, established

Choctawhatchee National Forest established


Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railway complete the Overseas Railroad to Key West

Battle of Olustee monument dedicated on land that would eventually be named Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park


Jacksonville Zoo opens


First Florida State Fair held, although fairs had been held in the location since 1904

Florida displays at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, CA


Royal Palm State Park established – the first park to begin to protect the Everglades


Florida History Museum (Florida Museum of Natural History) chartered by the state legislature


Key West Turtle Kraals constructed to provide locals fresh sea turtle meat and become a tourist attraction


Dr. Henry Nehrling creates his H. Nehrling’s Tropical Garden and Arboretum – the site would eventually become Caribbean Gardens and later the Naples Zoo