The Last Train to Key West
In the late summer of 1935, the United States was in the midst of The Great Depression, the "worst and longest economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world." The nation’s economists were cautiously predicting that the worst was over. Unemployment in the country had declined from an all-time high in 1933 when one-quarter of the American workforce was without a job. While drought was continuing to plague the central plains, the stock market was gradually recovering from its free fall in 1928. These were not the best of times, but there were signs that better days were on the way.
In Southern Florida, optimism was more widespread than in most other parts of the country. Millions of dollars had been invested in the state’s infrastructure. Over the previous seventy-five years, vast tracts of wetlands had been converted into a promising paradise that had begun to attract large numbers of tourists and retirees. The most prominent investor in Southern Florida was Henry Flagler, the former partner of John D. Rockefeller, who left Standard Oil to build another financial empire in the State of Florida. His vision called for extending the Florida East Coast Railway beyond its present termination in Homestead, stretching it even further than the existing highways in the upper Florida Keys until it reached a brand new terminus on the remote and isolated island of Key West, over 130 miles away. Once completed, he expected to control a shorter and a more profitable sea route to Havana, only 90 miles from Key West, and ultimately to connect beyond Cuba with the Panama Canal. The press called the venture "Flagler’s Folly", but it later became known as the "Overseas Railroad" when he, in his private rail car, completed the first official trip from Miami to Key West in 1912. In the end, Flagler’s feat was hailed as an engineering accomplishment on a par with the Panama Canal.
Sunday, September 1, 1935
On the eve of Labor Day, summer was about to officially end and most residents of Miami were anxious to make the most of what was left. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway placed ads in the major Miami newspapers to promote a spectacular holiday excursion: "Ride the Overseas Railroad from Miami to Key West on this Labor Day weekend for just $2.50 round trip." As a result, the FEC depot in downtown Miami began to fill early. The waiting room on Flagler Street was soon bursting with excited passengers. Children were running about. The sun was bright and the air was buzzing with lively conversations. Everyone shared the exuberance of escaping from the sweltering city for a day or two. Friends loudly greeted friends.
The travelers stood around in small clusters waiting for the boarding announcement. They were a mix of locals from the Miami area, visiting tourists, college students, and former inhabitants of the Keys that had resettled on the mainland. For some, this weekend would be their last chance of the summer to enjoy the cool Caribbean breezes, or their first day ever in paradise. For others, the weekend would be the final jaunt of their summer or a long-awaited trip home for a holiday visit with family. They all knew that they were not living in the best of times, but they had no idea just how much they would have to endure before they would see Miami again. Nearby, the stationmaster sat quietly in his office reading the Sunday comic strips while a radio behind him announced a storm developing in the mid-Atlantic.
Their Journey Begins
The passengers casually boarded for the four-hour ride to Key West. Most of them were still stowing luggage in the overhead racks or settling into their seats as the steam locomotive slowly pulled out of the depot. During the first twenty-eight miles to Homestead, the passenger cars buzzed with animated conversations about weekend plans or the latest newscast about the storm in the Atlantic. But as the train passed over Florida Bay onto Key Largo, all attention focused on the spectacular vistas passing by each window. Everyone knew this was the part that made their journey the most extraordinary train ride in the world. With foreheads pressed against the glass, the riders watched as the train rolled from island to island, from Key to Key, and across dozens of bridges spanning the deeper channels. What they could not see were the hundreds of landfills built to block the smaller channels and to convert many of the tiny islands into long, narrow land bridges. But they could see the majestic blue Atlantic Ocean on one side and the placid Gulf of Mexico on the other. For nearly half of the trip, the riders gazed over the emerald green water just 31 feet below their seats. They could imagine the train magically gliding across the surface of the ocean. Through their windows, they watched schools of fish darting about in the crystal clear water below and, once in a while, a pod of porpoise racing alongside.
The train stopped at every sleepy little town along the way to exchange freight, mail, and, occasionally, a few passengers. Two of the busiest stops were at the bustling U.S. Army Veteran’s Camps built several years earlier on Windley Key and on Matecumbe Key to house about 750 U.S. veterans who were known as the "Bonus Marchers." Discharged after serving in World War I, The Spanish War and, also, some "peacetime" duty, they all returned broke, jobless, and homeless. Years ago, they had rallied in Washington to demand their army bonuses only to be told that the country couldn’t afford to pay them right now. Instead, the government built camps to house them while they worked on various federally funded construction programs. Only a few of them boarded the southbound train on that particular Sunday. Many, it seems, were staying in camp, planning to enjoy a festive holiday weekend. For most of them, however, it would turn out to be their last hurrah.
Arrival In Key West
The Florida East Coast Railway terminal at Key West was built on a landfill called Trumbo Island in honor of Howard Trumbo, the company’s head engineer. The passengers began to gather their things as the train rolled into the station. They appeared happy the long ride was over and anxious to begin their holiday in paradise. Although the train arrived a little behind schedule, no one seemed to notice or to care. There was plenty of time left in the day. The sky was overcast and the streets were still wet from a morning shower that drenched the island. The passengers began streaming from the station. A gentle breeze made it pleasant to walk.
The Conch Experience
In 1890, Key West was the largest and richest city in the State of Florida but, after the completion of the "Overseas Railroad", the city finally had a solid, reliable connection to the mainland. During the twenty-two years that followed, the island continued to dominate as a major economic hub at the southernmost tip of the continental United States. Except for the native Seminole, everything, and everyone, in Key West had come from somewhere else. Early inhabitants migrated from the Bahamas and introduced a distinctive Bahamian flavor to the architecture. These long-time residents, known by their heavy Bahamian accents, were referred to as "Conchs" (pronounced "Konks") and they far outnumbered all of the other residents. Spanish was quite common throughout the city because of the influx of Cubans who found a refuge here from the political strife in their homeland or sought work in the thriving tobacco industry. As a result, Key West had become a multicultural experience with a unique past. Celebrity residents Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Edison blended well with a colorful heritage of rum runners and pirates.
Sunset On Mallory Dock
At the end of the day, large numbers of residents and visitors gathered on the waterfront in the Old Town section to watch the sunset. They strolled along the pier enjoying the view and social pleasantries. There was some small talk about the storm in the Atlantic being classified as a hurricane. Some of the tourists complained that rain would ruin their plans for the next day. A couple of old-timers at a bar on Duval Street agreed that the falling barometer was not a good sign. Still, almost everyone knew that hurricanes usually die over the cold waters in the North Atlantic and there had been no reports of the storm heading toward the US. Tomorrow was Labor Day, the last day of summer, and everyone was eager to make the most of it. Overhead, the clouds were dazzling shades of crimson as the waning sun touched the western horizon. And over near Trumbo station, nearly all of the passenger cars of the excursion train heading back to Miami were nearly empty when it went over the drawbridge at Garrison Bight.
Labor Day, September 2, 1935
On Monday morning, dark gray clouds hung over Key West. A constant breeze blew across the city from the North. There were periods of light rain and downpours throughout the morning, each growing stronger and more frequent as time passed. Unhappy merchants opened for business expecting it would be a disappointing day. The last official day of summer had turned wet and dreary. The rain did not let up. The first wave of shopping tourist never appeared. All hopes for a pleasant, or a profitable, holiday weekend were washed away with the rain. Concerns about the weather were rising as the barometer continued to fall.
The Last Train to Key West
Few noticed the Labor Day Excursion train as it arrived that morning. No one knew that this train was, in fact, the last train to ever make the run between Miami and Key West! Extra cars and additional crew were added to handle the volume of passengers expected to head back to the mainland that evening. The locomotive and tender were moved to the opposite end of the train. Oil and water were replenished and, by noon, it was parked on a siding prepared for the weekend travelers heading for home. But that return trip later in the day would not be as expected, however. Those home-bound travelers could not have predicted that it would take almost a week for all of them to get back to Miami. Nor, could anyone have imagined the fate of those who were still on the Keys to the north.
The Rescue Train
Around the time the excursion train was being prepped for the four-hour trek back to Miami, a construction foreman building a highway up north near Islamorada in the Middle Keys was on the phone with Florida East Coast Railway officials in Miami. Having received reports that the hurricane was heading in his direction, he requested a train to evacuate all of his workers and the local residents. The railroad issued an order to immediately assemble and dispatch a special train to Islamorada.
But it was, after all, a holiday weekend and the railroad was not prepared for an emergency. It took hours to gather a crew, to steam up locomotive #447, and to assemble the ten coaches and a baggage car needed for the mission. It was 4:30 in the afternoon when the rescue train finally left Miami and it still had to deal with additional delays on the way. When it reached Homestead, the last stop on the mainland, weather conditions had grown even worse. A decision to turn the locomotive around so the nose would be coupled to the other cars added another delay, but one that would make it easier to later move it to the other end of the train so it could pull the loaded cars back to the mainland with its headlight on the tracks. The blinding rain driven by winds gusting up to 150 mph made the visibility nil. Never the less, the rescue train pressed forward. The plight of those stranded in Islamorada depended on their skill and speed.
Delay Leaving Key West
Down in Key West, the Labor Day excursion passengers were ready to go home. While boarding, the conversation was generally light and friendly with an occasional complaint about how the weather had ruined much of the fun. Around 5:00 PM, the conductor announced a delay in the departure. The passing minutes grew into an hour. Talk of fun times turned into groans of impatience. As one hour became two, impatience turned into restless boredom. After awhile, the passengers grew quiet and slept. Outside, darkness closed in on them and the howling wind was rocking the train in the station. Once again, the conductor walked through the cars announcing that the hurricane was passing over the Keys in the north and that the train would not be leaving Key West until it was safe. A lot of the passengers complained that they needed to be back in Miami that night or had to be at work the next day. But their fates had already been sealed by the unpredictable fury of nature. They would not be in Miami that night, nor would they reach home the following night either. In fact, they were about to embark on a long and circular odyssey that would span the next four days.
The Fate of the Rescue Train
The category five hurricane struck the Middle Keys with a force not seen in this part of the world for nearly a hundred years. Wind gusts over 190 miles per hour crushed everything and everyone in their path. The barometer fell to 26.35, a reading never before recorded in this hemisphere. Still, the rescue train plodded south trying to overcome both the weather and exasperating delays. At Snake Creek, it took more than an hour to restore the damage caused by a loose cable lashing about in the gale force winds. Many of the residents in communities along the way refused to board the train choosing, instead, to ride out the tempest in their homes. Most of the veterans in the government camps continued their parties. The churning ocean washed away some of the landfills allowing the rising tide to reclaim a few of the deep channels that nature had designed to control the flow of the currents. Miles of track beds were eroded leaving twisted rails scattered along the right of way.
Without any warning, close to 8:20 PM, as the eye of the hurricane, passed over Matecumbe, a 17-foot storm surge swept over the rescue train, tossing the cars and occupants off the tracks. Passengers and crew members clung to the train, to the tracks, to each other, to anything they could find that was anchored down. Horrified and helpless, they watched as hundreds of people were washed away by the swell of water.
The heavy rain and the strong winds were still raging when the excursion train, packed with weary, worried passengers, set out from Key West late Monday night. Cautiously, the locomotive followed behind work crews that cleared away debris, inspected for track damage, and made repairs when needed. The progress during the night was painstakingly slow. By Tuesday morning, they had managed to cover only one-fourth of the distance to Miami. At Key Vaca, the train stood for hours. The train’s vendor had sold all of his sandwiches and snack bars. All of the water coolers were empty. The lavatories were beginning to smell. Whining children were creating cranky parents. Irate passengers grew more frustrated. The sound of hymns could be heard coming from the black passenger’s coach.
On Tuesday afternoon, the conductor announced that there was a huge washout ahead that had destroyed everything, including buildings and tracks. It was impossible to proceed any further and the train was going to return to Key West. Passengers groaned, cursed, and threw magazines in frustration as the train began to back up. Now in the daylight, the passengers and crew saw, for the first time, the extent of the damage in the communities they had passed through in the dark of the night before. The wind was still gusting as the train crept across Seven-Mile Bridge. There was nothing but water all around them. The train moved slowly through a panorama of destruction. Wrecks of fishing boats bobbed about in the water. The surface was littered with lumber. Large sections of houses were floating in the midst of furniture and all kinds of debris. One of the passengers said she saw a body and fainted. When the train finally pulled into Trumbo Island station, it was already dark. The passengers were hungry, tired, and some had nowhere to go. Their exodus had ended where it had begun the previous afternoon. They were back in the darkened, drenched, windblown city of Key West with absolutely no idea how they would get to their homes on the mainland.
Wednesday, September 3, 1935
Key West and the Lower Keys were completely cut off from the rest of the country. The telephones were out and the electrical service was intermittent most of the day. Hundreds of stranded passengers milled about the railway terminal trying to determine the best way back to the Miami. Fortunately for some, the railroad had a long-standing arrangement with the Peninsular and Occidental Steam Ship Company. Together, the two companies had established special excursion fares for round trips between Havana, Cuba, and Miami using the Port of Key West and the Overseas Railroad as the land link. Under their itinerary, a P&O vessel, the S.S. Cuba, was scheduled to arrive that day with a large number of passengers who were ticketed to go by train to Miami. The schedule called for the steamship to leave the Miami-bound passengers in Key West and then to sail to Tampa on the Gulf coast of Florida. But now, with the railroad crippled, the steamer was obligated to take all of her Miami-bound passengers, plus the railroad's stranded excursion ticket holders, north to Tampa by sea. Upon arrival, all would be transferred to trains that would carry them northeast across the state to connect with the Florida East Coast Railway for the final leg south to Miami.
Such was the plan as the S.S. Cuba, overflowing with Cuban and Key West passengers, sailed late Wednesday afternoon on what was supposed to be a brief and pleasant overnight cruise to Tampa. However, the Gulf of Mexico was still turbulent in the wake of the hurricane and the journey was anything but smooth. Seasickness was widespread. There wasn’t enough pillows, blankets, or deck chairs and those passengers who left theirs unattended ended up without them. Although the food was plentiful and well prepared, the seas were rough and passengers spent most of their time on deck leaning over the railings.
Thursday, September 4, 1935
By the next morning, the Gulf of Mexico became calm once more. At the Port of Tampa, streams of weary, unkempt passengers were ushered onto waiting trains for an arduous journey across the state of Florida. The trains stopped every few miles to service every small depot and hamlet on the route. Vendors did not have enough food and beverages aboard the trains to accommodate the unexpected crush of passengers, so every restaurant, market, and food purveyor at each stop along the way was invaded by hungry passengers desperate to buy something to eat. They ultimately connected with the FEC Railway about 275 miles north of Miami where they began the final leg south.
Their journey ended in the middle of the night, around 2:00 AM on Friday, September 5th, when the final contingent of exhausted, disheveled travelers finally arrived in Miami. Their Labor Day Weekend excursion to Key West had ended where it had begun some five or six days earlier in the FEC depot on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. Their $2.50 ticket had bought a ride on one of the greatest engineering achievements of their time. They had experienced first hand the incredible beauty and the awesome, destructive power of nature. They had witnessed a tragedy and shared a nightmare that would stay with them forever.
According to the most reliable data available, the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was the first of only three hurricanes to ever reach the U.S. coast at "category 5" strength. The others were Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992. Most estimates place the total death toll in 1935 between 400 and 500 while some go as high as 800. More than one-third of the 750 veterans stationed in the government camps on Windley and Matecumbe Keys perished that night. Sadly, the remains of most of those lost were beyond identification or were never recovered at all. During the days and nights that followed, rescue workers faced insurmountable problems while working around the clock to save the living and to bury the dead. Time and the bright glare of the sun were their enemies. It became necessary for the National Guard to use enormous funeral pyres and massive common graves to reduce the threat of epidemics.
The Overseas Railroad
More than one-half of the tracks and infrastructure of the Overseas Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway was lost within that single 24-hour period. The land and the bridges were later sold to the State of Florida for a reported $640,000 after the stockholders and the government decided not to rebuild. Although the Overseas Railway was never a big moneymaker, it was not the hurricane that caused its demise. It was the internal combustion engine.
Highway US1 was constructed over many of the original railroad bridges and rights-of-way. Some of the bridges not used by the highway still exist today as fishing piers and pedestrian walks. Since 1938, it has been Key West’s new link to the mainland. This uninterrupted highway stretches 2377 miles along the length of the US East Coast from Fort Kent in Maine to Key West, Florida. There, at the intersection of Whitehead Street and Fleming Street, there is a sign above mile marker zero that reads "End of US 1."
To Honor The Memory
Further north, on Highway US1 at Mile Marker 81.5 in Islamorada, there is a 65 ft by 20 ft limestone memorial marking the mass grave of many of those who died in the storm. It was dedicated November 14, 1937, and the U.S. Department of Interior placed it on the National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1995. The plaque reads "Dedicated to the memory of the civilians and war veterans whose lives were lost in the hurricane of September Second, 1935."