A small but largely ignored memorial service took place earlier this week on Labor Day in the small town of Islamorada in the northern part of the Florida Keys. It's an annual event there every Labor Day, a town known for celebrity residents such as Gene Hackman, former NFL football coach Jimmy Johnson, and baseball superstars Miguel Cabrera and Ted Williams.
In 1935, however, Islamorada (pronounced "aisle-more-odda") was known not for its celebrities but for being ground zero for the most ferocious hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States.
The ferocious Labor Day hurricane that struck the Keys on September 2, 1935, was a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. It is believed to be the only hurricane in recorded history ever to make landfall with winds exceeding 200 MPH! Its effects were catastrophic. Consider the following:
- The Labor Day hurricane was one of only 3
hurricanes ever measured to have a barometric pressure below 900
millibars of mercury. Its pressure checked in at 892 millibars. No other
hurricane that made landfall ever had a pressure reading below 900
- Like Hurricane Andrew, the Labor Day Hurricane
was fairly compact with only an 8 mile wide eyewall, but it was
- The Russell family from the Islamadora
area were among the earliest settlers of the Keys, having obtained a
land grant from the President of the United States in 1854. Prior to the
hurricane, there were 61 members of the Russell family; following the
hurricane there were only 11 left.
- Among the estimated 423
victims of the hurricane were 259 World War I veterans. These veterans
had been employed by the WPA in constructing a highway for the Keys.
They were living in ramshackle housing when the estimated 20 foot storm
surge struck their camp. Most were drowned or were killed by flying
- The deaths of the veterans prompted Florida
resident and writer Ernest Hemingway to write a scathing article very
critical of the U.S. government. It was entitled "Who Killed The Vet"
and very clearly laid the blame for the needless loss of life with
- Of the estimated 38 Category 5
hurricanes that have occurred since 1851, 20 have occurred in the month
of September alone, including the Labor Day Hurricane.
The monument erected to commemmorate the hurricane has a plaque on it that reads as follows:
The Florida Keys Memorial, known locally as the "Hurricane Monument," was built to honor hundreds of American veterans and local citizens who perished in the "Great Hurricane" on Labor Day, September 2, 1935. Islamorada sustained winds of 200 miles per hour (322 kph) and a barometer reading of 26.36 inches (66.95 cm) for many hours on that fateful holiday; most local buildings and the Florida East Coast Railway were destroyed by what remains the most savage hurricane on record. Hundreds of WWI veterans who had been camped in the Matecumbe area while working on the construction of US Highway One for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were killed. In 1937 the cremated remains of approximately 300 people were placed within the tiled crypt in front of the monument. The monument is composed of native keystone, and its striking frieze depicts coconut palm trees bending before the force of hurricane winds while the waters from an angry sea lap at the bottom of their trunks. Monument construction was funded by the WPA and regional veterans' associations. Over the years the Hurricane Monument has been cared for by local veterans, hurricane survivors, and descendants of the victims.
Among the earliest settlers of the Florida Keys--even prior to the Russell family referenced above--was the Goodyear family, who also were among the earliest settlers of New Haven, CT. Amasa Goodyear attempted to start a fruit and produce business there to supply northern states; however, he and several members of his family died from Yellow Fever in the early 1840s. His son, Charles, however, patented the process of vulcanizing rubber and went on to create the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, located in Akron, Ohio--far from the Yellow Fever and Category 5 hurricanes sometimes found in the Florida Keys!
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