In the mid nineteen fifties a contractor on Islamorada, one of the Florida Keys, was digging fill from a rock pit. He unearthed a gruesome discovery. He found three intact cars. Their out-of-state licence plates showed that they had been there since 1935.
The skeletons of the occupants were still inside the vehicles.
It was easy to explain what had happened to those vehicles twenty years before. They must have been visiting the Florida Keys when the Labor Day hurricane struck on September 2nd, 1935.
The Keys were more sparsely populated in those days of course. One notable resident was Ernest Hemingway who had bought a property in Key West seven years before the hurricane. The population was also boosted by approximately 650 veterans. These were men who had fought in the First World War and found themselves down on their luck. A government initiative had sent them to the Keys to complete the ambitious railway from the mainland down through the islands.
This was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the men were housed in camps, many on Matecumbe Key, consisting primarily of tents and temporary structures. The more astute amongst them had asked what would happen if there was a hurricane but they were assured that the management of the Florida East Coast railway had arranged evacuation by train should a hurricane warning be issued. And on Saturday the 31st August, it looked as though a hurricane was indeed heading towards the Keys.
But weather tracking equipment was in its infancy in those days. It was thought that the storm would travel along the channel between Key West and Cuba and not make landfall. This was not to be. On the Monday, Labor Day, the Keys were being battered by the 155 mile-per-hour winds of the violent storm. Today this would be classified as a category 5; a super storm.
The power was lost immediately and the temporary housing was torn to shreds. People clung to anything they could. One of the veterans used his strong leather belt to tie himself to a sturdy tree – to no avail, the storm simply tore the tree from the ground.
In Miami, the authorities had realised the danger the day before. They gave the order for an evacuation train to be sent to the end of the railroad track, at Islamorada. But it was a holiday weekend and they had problems rounding up the crew and getting together the necessary equipment. There was a further delay at a swing bridge which opened to allow Labor Day holiday boats to pass by. By the time the driver, J.J. Haycraft, got the train under way, it was already being buffeted by the storm. When he arrived at Homestead it was decided to reverse the train down to Islamorada to facilitate the getaway – this meant more delays.
As he proceeded, Haycraft was virtually blinded by the rain. The waves crashed around the train and he had to travel cautiously and slowly. When he arrived at Windley Key he saw a group of people trying to escape from the waves. He stopped the train to let them board. Another delay. Then an overhead cable was downed and became entangled with the engine. It look an hour to cut the train free from the cable. The winds were now up to two hundred miles per hour. Haycraft could only proceed at one or two miles per hour.
Eventually he arrived at Islamorada and the train was engulfed by people trying to escape. Many were women with children and babies. Most of the men let them board first but the train was soon packed with people desperate to escape the storm. Haycraft was about to power the train northwards when he heard a huge rumble. A tidal wave engulfed the train. Although the engine remained upright the carriages containing desperate people were knocked over and engulfed.
No-one knows to this day how many people perished in the hurricane
The Miami papers estimated that 1,000 people had died. The government put the veteran figure at 259. One local family had 79 members living in the Keys on September 1st. After the hurricane only eleven were still alive. Many people disappeared and their bodies were never found. Because of the intense Florida heat, bodies were cremated en masse before they could be identified.
As the discovery of the three cars by the Islamorada contractor in the fifties demonstrates, remains were still being discovered many years later.
It’s said that even in this century, remains are being found that could be victims of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.
Images: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
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