Today, we hear about the Labor Day storm that powered through the Florida Keys in 1935. This is part three of four columns on Florida’s great hurricanes. Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history.
What was North America’s most powerful hurricane ever? Hint: It was in Florida.
Did you say Andrew? You’d be wrong. Barometric pressure, not wind speed, is how weather scholars measure a storm’s pure strength. Andrew's lowest reading was 922 millibars. Michael, in 2018, got down to 919. The Labor Day storm's lowest reading was 892.
The storm that struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 3, 1935 – thus its nickname, the Labor Day storm, years before forecasters gave storms official names – swept those low-lying, vulnerable, tiny pieces of coral jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. It killed some 600. It washed an ambitious railroad beneath the waves. It would be the last nail in the coffin of the real estate boom and usher in the Great Depression.
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Florida pioneer Henry Flagler, having built the palatial Whitehall on Palm Beach for his bride in 1902, had one last accomplishment in mind before his long life came to an end. It was the monumental task of building a 128-mile-long railroad through the sea to link the mainland with the isolated island of Key West.
The railroad, at the time one of America’s largest privately financed engineering projects, cost Flagler $20 million – more than a half billion in 2019 dollars. Detractors called it “Flagler’s Folly.” But after seven years of work by 3,000 to 4,000 men, on a glorious day in January 1912, a stooped and weak Flagler made a triumphant entrance to Key West. He’d be dead 16 months later. And what the Miami Herald called the eighth wonder of the world would last for less than a generation.
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After World War I, many embittered veterans said their nation had forgotten them. They demanded dignity and a job. Like many, they were rescued by new President Franklin Roosevelt and his recovery projects. Civilian Conservation Corps camps were set up where more than 700 veterans worked building new bridges and causeways down the Keys, alongside the railroad, to accommodate the heir to Mr. Flagler’s world: the automobile.
Soon word came: a storm was coming. Railroad officials made plans to send a rescue train south to evacuate the workers, but because it was Labor Day weekend, they had trouble rounding up crews. In this mad race against time, a drawbridge over the Miami River held up the train for 10 minutes, and the engineer stopped in Homestead for fifteen minutes to switch the engine to the back, to allow for a quick return. In the upper Keys, a loose cable alongside the track hooked the locomotive and releasing it took more than an hour. The time needed to load the workers and get them out of the storm was quickly running out.
As the train approached Islamorada, waves were already washing over the tracks. The train overran its planned stopping point in the blinding rain and hurricane-force winds and had to back up. The road workers got only five minutes to try to board. Then a 20-foot wave washed over them.
The storm was the most powerful known to strike North America and, with Camille and Andrew, one of only three Category 5 storms on record to strike the U.S. in the 20th century or before.
In a 10-mile stretch from Tavernier to Key Vaca, nothing was left standing. In all, it killed at least 577 people. But some bodies were never found. At least 288 of the dead were those Civilian Conservation Corps highway workers.
Also dead was Mr. Flagler’s railroad, much of it washed away. Officials had planned a second chain of bridges for a motor highway to meet the booming motoring craze. But there was an urgency to reconnect the Keys to the mainland, and many of the railroad beds were too damaged to salvage. So instead, work proceeded apace to complete the Overseas Highway. Now there was an artery for cars, just in time for the automobile to establish its dominance. That accelerated the tourism industry in the Keys. Few had the heart to rebuild the now nearly obsolete railroad, and no one ever did.
READER REWIND: What's your Florida hurricane story? Share it with Eliot by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.
Next week: Andrew
Last week: Florida History: Why did 600+ black people get buried in an unmarked grave?
A reader asks: I read a book and watched the movie with the same title called, "Their eyes were watching God," starring Halle Berry. It was my understanding that both were based off of the flood of 1928. The author's name is Zora Neale Hurston. Can you shed some light on this? Thank you so much! - Joy W.
Eliot answers: Hi, Ms. Weston. Thanks for your note. "Their Eyes" -- one of my favorite novels -- is, in fact, inspired by the 1928 storm, although Ms. Hurston took a few liberties with the mechanics of the hurricanes. She did not go through it, as she was in the Caribbean at the time, but she had lived in the Glades and Central Florida and later interviewed many survivors before she sat down to write her book. One of the chapters of my book “Black Cloud,” about the 1928 storm, is just about Ms. Hurston. Hope this helps.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.