The Florida Keys Hurricane of 1935
In the early days of September 1935, author Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West at the time, was making his way through the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane to ever impact the Florida Keys. Florida residents had lived through violent hurricanes before, but they had been nothing like this one. The storm, a Category 4 nightmare, packing winds of 140 to 150 miles per hour with gusts up to two hundred, struck the Keys, with terrifying force. Originating in the southeastern Bahamas, it gained velocity as it moved toward the Keys. It destroyed everything in its path, including buildings, vegetation, and much of Henry Flagler’s famed Florida East Coast Railroad, which connected most of the Keys to the Florida mainland. The storm surge measured as high as fifteen to twenty feet, swamping the islands with elevations of a foot or less.
According to the American Red Cross, at least 423 of them lost their lives in the storm. Officials believed that many more people disappeared, likely blown into the sea and drowned. Hundreds of the known casualties were veterans of World War I and other campaigns. Most of them were employed by the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration as workers on U.S. Highway 1, which would later link the Florida mainland with Key West. The workers were newly arrived in the Keys and lived in bunkhouses and army tents. The veterans, along with vacationers and the locals, were unaware of the strength of the storm as it approached the islands. The torrential rains and driving winds prevented the local residents from being rescued.
Called by some historians “the storm of the century,” the 1935 Florida hurricane left a permanent mark on the Florida Keys and changed the fabric of the region forever. It not only destroyed Flagler’s railroad, which was the only way to get to Key West except by boat, it also created an eerie legend of a phantom train that still steams its way toward paradise.
The storm began to brew in the Caribbean on September 1. As it approached Andros Island in the Bahamas, less than one hundred miles from the American mainland, it was packing winds of about 75 miles per hour. Bulletins that were issued by the weather service suggested that by the following morning, the storm was likely to hit Havana, 100 miles south of Key West, and pass westward into the Gulf of Mexico. But, of course, nature is always unpredictable and no one had any idea that the relatively benign storm would, less than forty hours later, veer northward toward the Keys and become a Category 5 monster, devouring everything in its path.
Even if anyone had known where the hurricane was going next, little could be done about it. Even with the small population of the Keys, it would have taken at least 24 hours to evacuate the islands in those days. In 1935, weather experts had access to charts that detailed the workings of previous hurricanes, and where they were likely to appear, but they couldn’t say when the next one might appear – or where it might go when it did.
Much of what was known about hurricanes in those days came from the research of Father Benito Vines, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest who was one of the first meteorologists to specialize in hurricane forecasting. Father Vines had established a weather observatory in Havana and while he had little access to instruments, his predictions became so accurate that the locals came to believe that he had supernatural powers. As to what to do about a hurricane that was bearing down on you, though, Father Vines was as perplexed as everyone else. He suggested an appeal to a higher authority – in other words, pray.
Devastation in the Keys after the 1935 Hurricane
And when the people of Key West learned that a huge hurricane was coming in their direction, that’s exactly what they did. Believe it or not, it seemed to work. The island’s most famous resident, Ernest Hemingway, wrote, “… a little after two o’clock [the storm] backs into the west and by the law of circular storms you know the storm has passed over the Keys above us. Now the boat is sheltered by the sea wall and the breakwater and at five o’clock, the glass having been steady for an hour, you get back to the house. As you make your way in without a light you find a tree is down across the walk and a strange empty look in the front yard shows the big, old sapodilla tree is down too. You turn in. That’s what happens when one misses you.”
Whether by divine intervention or plain luck, Key West escaped the worst of it. But for the 1,000 or so residents and workers caught in the Middle Keys, their prayers apparently never made it through. The storm, this time swelled into a massive hurricane, slammed into the Middle and Upper Keys. Islamorada, Craig Key, Long Key, and Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe Keys suffered the worst. The locals who lived on these islands were hammered by the high winds and rain and lost everything as the seas washed over the low elevations and destroyed their homes. There was simply no escape from the storm.
The outlook was just as dire for the men working on the Overseas Highway. The “vets” as the highways workers had come to be called by the locals, were mostly World War I veterans who had marched on Washington a few years before, demanding payment of bonus money that had been promised by Congress but never delivered. Although President Hoover had dispersed the veterans with armed troops and tear gas, Franklin Roosevelt arranged employment for the men building the new highway across the Keys. He had done this with the best of intentions, never dreaming that he had sent most of them to their doom.
Veterans working on the new Florida highway were among the victims of the storm.
The biggest problem was that the workers were not being supervised by project engineers who knew anything about the Keys, but rather by officials from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, bureaucrats who had little knowledge of that they were getting themselves into. The three work camps that were established for the men at various points along the route were not the kind of sturdy, reinforced barracks that had been built by the Florida East Coast Railroad when the line was constructed years before. The highway workers had tents and flimsy temporary buildings that could be easily taken down and moved as the roadway progressed toward Key West. Certainly anyone with experience in the Keys would have been aware of the danger a hurricane posed, but there was no one with the necessary knowledge in charge and no contingency plan in place.
As the storm descended on the Keys, the tropic paradise became like a little piece of Hell. “You could see nothing. The winds are howling. And the rains are pounding. It was chaos,” a survivor named Bernard Russell later remembered. “It felt like eternity. It could have been thirty minutes. It could have been two hours. Time was nothing then.”
With evacuation by sea from the Keys impossible because of the storm, a last-ditch effort was made to try and save as many as the highways workers and residents as possible. A rescue train was sent from Homestead by the Florida East Coast Railway, the main transportation route linking the Keys to mainland Florida. With J.J. Haycraft in the engine of Old 447, he set off in the evening of September 1 to save as many people as he could. When he steamed away from the station and into the heart of the hurricane that night, he earned his rightful place in the colorful history of the Florida Keys.
The Florida East Coast Railway was developed by Henry Morrison Flagler, an American tycoon, real estate developer and John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil. After taking his ailing wife to Florida for the climate in 1878, Flagler fell in love with the region. He began building hotels and a railroad at a time when Florida was a sparsely settled, tropical backwater. The new rail line ran down the east coast of the state, linking St. Augustine with Daytona and West Palm Beach. In 1894, Flagler constructed the Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, and Whitehall, his private, sixty-thousand-square-foot winter home. The development of these structures, along with the railroad line that reached them, established Palm Beach as a winter resort for the wealthy members of America's Gilded Age.
Palm Beach was meant to be the final point on the Flagler railroad, but during the winter of 1894-1895, central Florida was plagued with several hard freezes, during which the Miami area was unaffected. This caused Flagler to re-think his original plan to not continue the railroad south of Palm Beach. He continued to build, turning Miami into a boomtown and developing the Florida coast.
Flagler was widely praised for all of his projects, except for one. In 1905, he began what everyone considered his folly, a project doomed to fail: the extension of his railway to Key West. The Overseas Railway would become Flagler’s greatest challenge but he did not approach it lightly. Extending the railroad to Key West, 128 miles from the end of the Florida peninsula, was a solid business decision. He made his announcement about the railroad soon after the United States announced the construction of the Panama Canal. Key West, as America’s closest deep-water port to the canal, could not only take advantage of Cuban and Latin American trade, but the opening of the canal would allow significant trade possibilities with the West.
The construction of the railroad required many engineering innovations, as well as vast amounts of money and labor. At one time during the construction, 4,000 men were employed to lay the rails, pour the concrete and create the overpasses that took the railroad over vast expanses of water. During the seven years of construction, three hurricanes threatened to halt the project. Despite the many hardships, the final section of the Florida East Coast Railway was completed in 1912. On January 22, a proud Henry Flagler rode the first train into Key West, marking the completion of the railroad’s connection to Key West and the linkage by railway of the entire east coast of Florida.
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression were particularly hard on the Florida East Coast Railway, but it would be the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that destroyed the Key West Extension. Unable to afford to rebuild the ruined sections, the roadbed and surviving bridges were sold to the state of Florida, which built the Overseas Highway to Key West, using much of the remaining railway infrastructure. Today, U.S. Highway 1, following Flagler’s dream, continues to provide the link between mainland Florida and Key West, America’s southernmost point.
During Labor Day weekend of 1935, the Florida East Coast Railway was the only connection between the Keys and the mainland and there was little choice but to send a rescue train to bring back as many people as possible from the Upper Keys. It was nearing 8:00 p.m. when Old 447 approached the Islamorada station on Upper Matecumbe Key. There had been no power to the station lights or the approach signals for hours and with wind-whipped sheets of rain pelting the engine and waves sweeping over the seven-foot right-of-way, engineer J.J. Haycraft was traveling blind.
He was slow to stop when he approached the station. A group of refugees had gathered under the overhang of a cluster of buildings along the track but Haycraft feared that the station house, post office and warehouse were liable to come crashing down in the high wind. Despite the cries of those who feared he was leaving them behind, he ran the engine nearly a quarter mile past the station, finally coming to a stop at a point where the landmass of the island was the widest. He later told reporters that he believed if he had stopped at any other point, the train would have ended up at the bottom of the ocean.
Rain-soaked figures chased after him, dimly lit in the engine’s headlamp, fighting against the ferocious winds to get onto the train. Haycraft, with the train in reverse, watched as men, women and children struggled past his cab to the passenger cars, where his crew frantically pulled them aboard. For a few moments, Haycraft must have felt a glimmer of hope, that all of his efforts had been worthwhile, but then he felt a terrible rumbling under his feet and spotted a gigantic “wall of water” bearing down on the train.
As the hellish winds howled and the tidal surge rushed toward the train, Haycraft threw open the throttle in a desperate attempt to save those who were already on board. But the engine lurched forward only a few feet before it came to a sudden halt. The train’s conductor, J.F. Gamble, flung himself into the cab and blurted out the horrifying news --- one of the hundred-ton boxcars at the rear of the train had been knocked over by the wind and the waves, automatically locking the brakes on the entire train. There was no way to move as the huge wave advanced on them. Haycraft believed they were as good as dead.
The train, headed by Engine Old 447, was swept completely off the tracks.
As the water wall slammed down on the train, Haycraft felt a great lurch as the remainder of the eleven cars attached behind the engine toppled over. The linked cars went over sideways. The windows of the passenger cars shattered inward and the interiors were instantly filled with water. The scores of men, women and children inside, who thought they were safe, now found themselves trapped in what must have seemed like watery coffins. In the surging darkness, desperate parents groped for the children that had been torn from their arms. Panicked people flailed blindly against the water and a few did manage to escape from the cars through the broken windows. Ironically, most of them were swept out into the storm-tossed sea to die.
Engine 447, an old workhorse that had been built for duty and not for grace, was simply too heavy for the tidal surge to overturn. Haycraft and the crew in the cab, including conductor Gamble and fireman Will Walker, emerged alive from the battering of the giant waves. But for forty miles flanking that single, sixty-foot stretch of tracks where Engine 447 sat, the bed of the railroad had been completely obliterated. It was gone – as was everything else that had been in the path of the storm, including the station, the solidly built homes of the locals, and the nearby Long Key Fishing Camp. The islands had simply been wiped clean. Engine 447 was eventually returned to Homestead by way of a sea barge.
The Keys were a scene of total devastation. Survivors on the fringes of the storm told chilling tales of men disemboweled by sheets of metal roofing that had been torn loose in the wind, of skulls crushed by fifteen-pound rocks that were hurled through the air like pebbles. The darkness was often illuminated by flashes of “ground lightning,” a phenomenon generated by the wind lifting millions of bits of sand into the air, where they clashed and created eerie static charges.
Witnesses reported seeing an entire roof lift off a house on Windley Key. Moments later, the walls of the house collapsed, disappearing when hit by a tidal surge. Sofas, chairs, tables and household goods of all kinds churned away in the raging water, followed by a piano. This was strange enough but then the onlookers realized there was a desperate woman clinging to the piano. She was draped over it, clinging tightly to it as she rushed past at incredible speed. She was hurled two hundred yards inland before the wave crashed down against the railroad embankment. The massive piano fell onto the woman and crushed her underneath it.
The first doctor to arrive in the Matecumbes after the storm was G.C. Franklin of Coconut Grove. He discovered the bodies of 39 men in the first pile of debris that he encountered. Corpses were scattered everywhere, many of them swelling and decomposing in the heat.
A mind-boggling account of the hurricane’s aftermath described a victim who was found on the day after the storm. He was impaled by a two-by-four that had passed completely through him, just beneath his ribs and somehow missing his kidneys and surrounding organs. The man was still alive and appeared calm as a doctor prepared to remove the piece of wood. The doctor offered the man a shot of morphine to dull the pain but the man refused. He was sure the operation was going to kill him and he said that he would rather have two beers instead. He was given the beers and he ordered the doctor to pull out the board. The doctor yanked the timber out of the man’s body – and he died.
Victims of the hurricane at Lower Matecumbe Key
Ernest Hemingway, trapped in Key West by residual winds until the second morning after the storm, joined one of the first rescue parties to reach the Middle Keys. He later wrote a stunning article on what he found in New Masses magazine. Hemingway wrote, “When we reached Lower Matecumbe, there were bodies floating in the ferry slip. The brush was all brown as if autumn had come, but that was because all of the leaves had blown away. There was two feet of sand over the island where the sea had carried it and all the heavy bridge-building machines were on their sides. The island looked like the abandoned bed of a river where the sea had swept it.”
Soon, the rescue party found greater horrors: “The railroad embankment was gone and the men who cowered behind it were all gone with it. You could find them face down and face up in the mangroves… Then further on you found them high in the trees where the water had swept them.”
“On the other hand,” Hemingway also wrote, “there are no buzzards. Absolutely no buzzards. How’s that? Would you believe it? The wind killed all the buzzards and all the big winged birds like pelicans too. You could find them in the grass that’s washed along the fill.”
In a letter to his friend and editor, Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway presented the most disturbing things the rescue party found, in terms that would have made it impossible for any publication of the time to print: “Max, you can’t imagine it, two women, naked, tossed up into the trees by the water, swollen and stinking, their breasts as big as balloons, flies between their legs. Then, by figuring, you located where it is and recognize them as two very nice girls who ran a sandwich place and filling-station three miles from the ferry. We located sixty-nine bodies where no one had been able to get in. Indian Key swept absolutely clean, not a blade of grass, and high over the center of it were scattered live conchs that came in with the sea, crawfish, and dead morays. The whole bottom of the sea blew over it… we made five trips with provisions for survivors to different places and nothing but dead men to eat the grub…”
The official Red Cross death toll from the hurricane was four hundred and eight but most agreed that the official count was too low. The Islamorada coroner put the figure at 423 but the final tally will never be known. With an uncertain Keys census and scores of people being washed out to sea and vanishing without a trace, we’ll never know just how many residents and workers lost their lives in the storm. Some twenty years later, an Islamorada developer was digging out a rock pit when he unearthed three automobiles with out-of-state license plates dated 1935 – with the skeletons of their owners still inside. And to this day, those poking about on one of the hundreds of small, uninhabited islands in the region will still uncover remains suspected to be victims of “Hemingway’s Hurricane.”
Strange, haunting stories later began to be told about Islamorada and spectral memories of the 1935 Hurricane. One of the most frightening accounts involved sightings of a group of people that have been spotted wandering through the swamps and woods at night. Many locals believed these people were actually the spirits of those who perished in the storm.
For three weeks after the hurricane, the decomposing bodies of hundreds of victims were pulled from the swamps and creeks. Although the search was thorough, many bodies were never found, perhaps trapped under the roots of cypress trees or simply washed out to sea. To this day, government land workers and environmentalists will still find an occasional skeleton lodged in the swamp beds, a grim reminder of the storm. Eerily, though, there have been a number of reports of large groups of people trudging through the swamp at night. They are hunched over and slow, as if beaten down or injured. They always seem to disappear into a thicket – or simply vanish. The figures are always seen staggering to the north, as if trying to escape from the storm-wrecked Keys, and are perhaps re-living their final hours on earth.
And they are not only the ghosts of those who died in the Labor Day Hurricane. They also seem to seem to serve as a foretelling of future horror. Legend has it that they were seen several times just before Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead, Florida in 1992.
And these shambling spirits are not the only phantoms that remain from the hurricane. According to numerous accounts, witnesses have also spotted a ghost train lumbering along railroad tracks that no longer exist. Most believe this is a ghostly re-enactment of the Engine 447 rescue train as it tried in vain to save the residents of Islamorada on the night of the hurricane.
The Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway was never rebuilt after the storm but in the early 1940s, weird events began to be experienced along the old line. The sound of a steam engine and a train whistle could sometimes be heard later at night and occasionally, a headlight could be seen silently rolling by in the early hours of the morning. An old man once told of fishing near a railroad bridge and hearing a train whistle that was so loud that he had to hold his ears. He heard the rumble of the engine and actually felt the vibration of a train as it passed over the bridge – but there was nothing there. No train had passed over the bridge in years.