In the summer of 1935, much of the world was suffering through the Great Depression, an economic collapse that had begun in the fall of 1929. In the United States, men who had earned good wages just a few short years before during the Roaring 20s were lucky to get jobs paying $5 to $7 a week, and those who couldn’t find work stood in breadlines or begged for handouts on city sidewalks.
So when the government announced a massive road and bridge-building project in the Florida Keys to link Key West to the south with the mainland on the north, hundreds of jobless veterans of World War I were thrilled with the offer of $30 a month wages, along with free room and board.
The work was hard, and dangerous in the hot Florida sun, but the men were happy to get anything and considered themselves fortunate. But that good fortune would not last long and would end in tragedy for many of them.
In late August, a series of thunderstorms originating off the west coast of Africa made their way across the Atlantic Ocean on a beeline for the Florida Keys. What happened next was the stuff of nightmares. On Labor Day, September 2nd, the strongest hurricane to ever be recorded in American history came ashore as a Category 5 with winds of over 200 miles per hour, obliterating the temporary labor camps in the Keys and destroying everything in its path. With no shelter except for canvas tents or flimsy wooden barracks, the hapless veterans were impaled by pieces of flying debris and crushed by collapsing walls, and hundreds died in the storm surge that raked Islamorada.
A relief train that was sent from Miami to evacuate the workers wasn’t dispatched until it was too late, and then was delayed on its trip south as debris littered the tracks. When the full force of the storm hit, the passenger cars were tossed about like toys, only the heavy locomotive staying on the tracks.
When the storm finally cleared, the survivors looked around themselves in horror. Nothing they had seen on the bloody battlefields of France could compare to the terrible landscape in front of them. So many dead, so many maimed, so many missing. The stench of bloated bodies overpowered the island. An estimated 425 people perished in the storm, some 260 of them veterans. It would take months to clean up in the aftermath of what became known as the Great Hurricane of 1935, and many bodies were never recovered.
On November 14, 1937, the Florida Keys Memorial, known locally as the Great Hurricane Memorial, was dedicated in Islamorada, with the cremated ashes of over 300 victims of the disaster interred within it. A plaque at the memorial honors the lives lost in that terrible Labor Day tragedy.
Congratulations Bridget Wiemken, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Big Lake, the first book in my Big Lake mystery series. We had 30 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon. Note: Due to the high shipping cost of printed books and Amazon restrictions on e-books to foreign countries, only entries with US addresses and e-mail addresses are allowed.
Thought For The Day – When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another.