Eighty years ago, hurricanes weren’t given human names. So the storm that devastated the Upper Keys in 1935 is known simply by the day it swept across Islamorada: the Labor Day Hurricane.
Islamorada in 1935 was a small village of a few hundred people, scraping through the Depression growing Key limes and pineapples. The village was also the site of a camp for hundreds more: relief workers building a highway. Most of those workers were World War I veterans.
In 1935, hurricane tracking and forecasting came from reports of ships at sea, relayed by radio and telegraph.
“Back in those days, you knew something was coming because the barometer was going down and the weather was bad, but you didn’t know to what extent,” said storm survivor Pete Perdue, who told his story on a recording made by the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys in 1989. “So you closed up your shutters and you secured your boat and you took your chances.”
Perdue was 5 years old in 1935. He and his family first took shelter from the storm in the Matecumbe Hotel.
“The wind started to come up and the place started to shake and the plaster started to crack and finally we could tell that the building itself was about to disintegrate,” Perdue said. “And it did — the top floor of it went totally off and of course the bottom floor collapsed, too.”
As the hotel was collapsing, Perdue’s family escaped to a school bus that was parked behind the hotel. The bus had been pushed up on top of a pile of construction rubble by veterans as a prank, Perdue said.
“We left the car and we got into that bus. And people started floating by,” he said. “So we were grabbing folks and pulling them in the windows. I don’t know how many people were in there, but I know we had six in our family — three generations, a dog and six pups.”
The Florida East Coast Railway, which ran the Key West Extension along the Keys, had sent a rescue train – but it was delayed. Les Standiford chronicled the creation and destruction of the Over-Sea Railroad in his book, “Last Train to Paradise.”
“Most people who worked for the company were on holiday,” Standiford said. And to make things worse, “the drawbridge across the Miami River was up when the train took off out of here, around noon time, so that delayed the rescue train getting down to Islamorada to try to get these workers and the citizenry out of there.”
The train finally reached Islamorada around 7:30 p.m. People were waiting to be rescued, and many had retreated to the railroad tracks as the highest point on the island.
“They were literally getting onto the train. The engineer had the engine fired up and was ready to pull out of there as fast as he could,” Standiford said. “And he looked and he saw a shadow off to the east out there. He wasn’t sure what it was. As it came closer, he realized it was no shadow. It was a wall of water 20 feet high.”
When that surge hit, the engine was the only part of the train heavy enough to withstand the force.
“It took all the cars off the tracks, the people in them and the people waiting on the platform to board, out to sea, most of them drowned and never seen again,” Standiford said. “Many of the bodies were never recovered.”
In the school bus behind the hotel, Pete Perdue and his family were trying to stay above the water. He remembered the water rising within a foot of the roof of the bus.
“We were standing on the seats. And my mother was holding me up. And I remember that Fern, who was a little on the religious side, told everybody we’d better say the Lord’s Prayer because this is it,” Perdue recounted in the 1989 interview. “And just about the time that she finished all that, all the causeways washed out and the water went down immediately and that was it.”
More than 400 people died in the Labor Day Hurricane. The railroad was never rebuilt; Standiford said it had never made the money from freight coming from ships using the Panama Canal that Henry Flagler had envisioned when he built the Key West Extension.
Instead, the Florida East Coast Railroad sold the right-of-way to the state of Florida and the railroad bridges were overhauled to carry the Overseas Highway. Many of them stayed in service until the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Even though Islamorada today bears little resemblance to the place it was in 1935, Standiford said the stories of that storm still have power.
“People in South Florida, who went though it, who were touched by it, still talk about Andrew, 25 years ago,” Standiford said. “Well, people in the Keys still talk about the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and that was 80 years ago. It’s become a mythic part of existence here.”
Every Labor Day, Islamorada residents hold a service at the Hurricane Memorial built at Mile Marker 81.5 on Upper Matecumbe Key. The memorial, dedicated in 1937, is also a crypt that holds the remains of many of the storm’s victims.