Flashback Friday: The Keys, the railroad and tragic hurricanes

Following Hurricane Irma and its impact on the Keys we look back at the building of the Overseas Railroad, the 1906 Keys Hurricane and of course the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

The building of the Overseas Railroad was one of great engineering feats in Florida’s history – in fact it might actually be one of the most amazing marvels in American history. Built thanks to Henry Flagler’s ingenuity and his deep pockets, the east coast railroad that had changed Florida was extended to the Keys to open up a potential tourist boom to one of the most remote parts of the country as well as an easier connection to Cuba.

In October 1906 the Florida Keys was struck by a major Hurricane. Coming just six years after the deadly Galveston Hurricane this storm did a similar amount of structural damage and also claimed lives unneccesarily.

Though not as famous as the Great Miami Hurricane (1926), Okeechobee Hurricane (1928) or Fort Lauderdale Hurricane (1947) or as intense as the Labor Day storm (1935) this Hurricane made its unfortunate impact on the state. The storm which first barreled into the Keys and made multiple Florida landfalls.

Wikipedia describes the meteorological history of the storm:

The system weakened into a tropical storm by October 14 but restrengthened into a Category 1 hurricane by October 16. As the hurricane began to turn northeastward, it continued to intensify, attaining Category 3 status by October 17.[11] The hurricane continued to approach Havana during the day, and the hurricane’s center passed east of Havana during the evening. The following morning, the hurricane was located over southern Florida moving northeastward, and passed east of the coast of South Carolina.[1] The hurricane began to weaken as it was forced to curve south-southwestward,[11] striking Florida again as the result of a high-pressure area.[1] The system eventually weakened to a tropical depression over Florida, and traced southwestward into the Gulf of Mexico. On October 23, the remnants of the hurricane struck Central America and dissipated on October 23.[11]  

It was a bad storm no doubt but in terms of winds or storm surge far from the worst to hit Florida in the first half of the 20th Century. This Hurricane however is remembered for other reasons.

WARNING: The portion of the article immediately “below the fold” contains graphic images. 

This storm killed over 200 people in Florida, most either on the Florida East Coast Railroad or at ships close to the coast. The FEC line that Henry Flagler had painstakingly worked to build opened up the Florida coast for development but also made storms even more dangerous in the primitive days of Hurricane forecasting and warnings.  The storm cost at least 104 FEC workers their lives due to accommodations on the water that weren’t suitable for withstanding tropical weather.

This storm led to better accommodations for FEC workers, better storm warnings for those at sea off the coast and ultimately to slightly stronger building restrictions.

Les Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean is a definitive history of the railroad told by a fiction writer. This gives the narrative perhaps more color and flow than some boring histories written by historians and political writers. The decision to build a railroad under harsh conditions with no natural staging ground cannot be overstated even today.

The history is pleasurable to read as are the numerous sidebars. The books ends with the tragic 1935 Labor Day Hurricane which ended the railroad project and began the quest to build the Overseas Highway. By the late 1930’s technology had made building a road over the water much easier than when the Railroad project began.

For anyone interested in Henry Flagler or the Overseas Railroad this is worthy read. The era of the railroad ended with the 1935 Labor Day Storm, the strongest to ever hit the United States which made landfall with a minimum central pressure of 892 MB.

One of the great tragedies of the Labor Day storm was the death of hundreds of World War I veterans who were building the Overseas Railroad as part of the New Deal’s WPA program. This was just a few years after General Douglas MaCarthur had authorized an attack on the bonus army in Washington DC. Many of those veterans who protested ended up in WPA programs and many were tragically killed in this storm. Like the 1906 storm, lives were unnecessarily shed on the rail line and amounted in some ways to government induced manslaughter.

The loss of life from this storm was entirely preventable but unfortunately the Weather Bureau in Jacksonville was late issuing warnings for the storm because of the holiday weekend and even after the warning were issued, the train that was to rescue workers on the WPA project left Miami several hours late.

Hardest hit were Craig Key, Long Key, Upper Matecumbe Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. The army veterans that were at camps in the Keys were hustled onto trains late – a clear case of bureaucratic inefficiency from a government that had largely maligned them. Caught on the train in the middle of the storm most perished. All toll about 480 people passed in the storm, almost 300 of which were veterans deployed to the area to work.

At the time of the Hurricane, many leading American newspapers including the New York Times and Washington Post had just written stories attacking the army veterans and urging the closure of the camps like those on the Keys providing employment to World War I vets. The indifference of many in government to the plight of these vets mirrored by those leading newspapers that were tied to the political class quite possibly contributed to the slow response to the storm track and then Hurricane Warnings. When President Roosevelt assigned an investigative committee to assess the storm response, the actual critical conclusion was never published. The portions citing three Federal officials based in Florida as negligent was suppressed.

The American Legion in November issued this statement regarding the storm:

the blame for the loss of life can be placed on “Inefficiency, Indifference, and Ignorance.” Inefficiency in the setup of the camps. Indifference of someone in charge as to the safety of the men. Ignorance of the real danger from a tropical hurricane. And these “I’s” can be added together and they spell “Murder at Matacombe” [sic].

[The] committee early in its investigation noticed a tendency on the part of some to reflect on the character of the men who were veterans in the camps. Several parties referred to them as “bums,” “drunkards,” “crazy men,” “riff-raff” and the like. They seem to think that “they got what was coming to them.”

How anyone could arrive at such a conclusion is impossible for us to determine.

If these men were “bums,” “drunkards,” “crazy men” etc. then it was all the more necessary that every precaution be taken to protect them. If they fell into this category they were subnormal men and should have been treated as such. If they were incapable of caring for themselves then the government should have placed them in hospitals and not have sent them to a wilderness in the high-seas on a so called “rehabilitation program.”

Others testified that the men were well-behaved and that a great majority of them would have preferred to have been placed under military discipline in the camps. But these observations are of no real value except to show that some people are trying to “cover up” the real guilt of responsible parties

On September 1, 2010 I took the day off work and drove to the Keys to pay homage to the men and women that perished in this tragedy 75 years earlier. It was an emotional journey that will always stay with me.

The storm when it was reclassified in 2014 as the the strongest to ever hit the United States, surpassed Hurricane Camile, the 1969 Gulf Coast storm whose center hit almost at the exact same location as Katrina would in 2005. But Camile was tight, powerful killer which hardly impacted New Orleans but ravaged the Mississippi coast. The storm also killed over a hundred people in small rural county in Virginia (Nelson County) when flash flood hit that area in the mountains.

The railroad was abandoned after the Labor Day Hurricane and replaced by a road which was gradually built over the next few years.

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