Southern FL The "Labor Day Hurricane," Sept 1935

Mass Burial of Hurricane Victims Cremation of the bodies, Southern Florida Hurricane

The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane is the strongest and most intense hurricane to make landfall in the United States and the Atlantic Basin in recorded history. The second tropical cyclone, second hurricane, and second major hurricane of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season, the Labor Day Hurricane was the first of three Category 5 hurricanes at landfall that the United States endured during the 20th Century (the other two being 1969's Hurricane Camille and 1992's Hurricane Andrew). After forming as a weak tropical storm east of the Bahamas on August 29, it slowly proceeded westward and became a hurricane on September 1. Northeast storm warnings were ordered displayed Fort Pierce to Fort Myers in the September 1, 9:30 AM Weather Bureau advisory. Upon receipt of this advisory the U. S. Coast Guard Station, Miami, FL, sent a plane along the coast to advise boaters and campers of the impending danger by dropping message blocks. A second flight was made Sunday afternoon. All planes were placed in the hangar and its door closed at 10:00 AM Monday morning.

The 3:30 AM advisory, September 2 (Labor Day), predicted the disturbance "will probably pass through the Florida Straits Monday" and cautioned "against high tides and gales Florida Keys and ships in path." The 1:30 PM advisory ordered hurricane warnings for the Key West district which extended north to Key Largo. At around 2:00 PM, Fred Ghent, Assistant Administrator, Florida Emergency Relief Administration, requested a special train to evacuate the veterans work camps located in the upper keys. It departed Miami at 4:25 PM; delayed by a draw bridge opening, obstructions across the track, poor visibility and the necessity to back the locomotive below Homestead (so it could head out on the return trip) the train finally arrived at the Islamorada station on Upper Matecumbe Key at about 8:20 PM. This coincided with an abrupt wind shift from northeast (Florida Bay) to southeast (Atlantic Ocean) and the arrival on the coast of the storm surge. Eleven cars were swept from the tracks, leaving upright only the locomotive and tender. Remarkably, everyone on the train survived. The eye of the storm passed a few miles to the southwest creating a calm of about 40 minutes duration over Lower Matecumbe and 55 minutes (9:20 - 10:15 PM) over Long Key. At Camp #3 on Lower Matecumbe the surge arrived near the end of the calm with the wind close behind. On Long Key it struck about midway through the calm. The waters quickly receded after carving new channels connecting the bay with the ocean. But gale force winds and high seas persisted into Tuesday, preventing rescue efforts. The storm continued northwest along the Florida west coast, weakening before its second landfall near Cedar Key, Florida on September 4.

The compact and intense hurricane caused extreme damage in the upper Florida Keys, as a storm surge of approximately 18 to 20 feet (5.5–6 meters) swept over the low-lying islands. The hurricane's strong winds and the surge destroyed nearly all the structures between Tavernier and Marathon. The town of Islamorada was obliterated. Portions of the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway were severely damaged or destroyed. The hurricane also caused additional damage in northwest Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

On the evening of September 4, 1935, Brigadier General Frank T. Hines, VA Administrator, received a phone call from Hyde Park, New York. It was Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary. He had orders from the President who was very distressed by the news from Florida. The VA was to: 1. Cooperate with FERA in seeing that everything possible be done for those injured in the hurricane; 2. See that the bodies were properly cared for shipment home to relatives, and that those bodies for which shipment home was not requested be sent to Arlington National Cemetery; and, 3. Conduct a very careful joint investigation with Mr. Hopkins’ organization, to determine whether there was any fault that would lie against anyone in the Administration. Hines’ representative in Florida was to take full charge of the situation and all other organizations and agencies were ordered to cooperate.

The President’s first order was straight forward and promptly executed. 124 injured veterans were treated in Miami area hospitals; 9 of these died. 56 were later transferred to VA medical facilities.[48] Uninjured veterans were removed to Camp Foster in Jacksonville and evaluated for transfer to the CCC; those declining transfer or deemed unemployable were paid off and given tickets home.All of the FERA transient camps were closed in November 1935.[50] In December 1935 FERA itself was absorbed within the new WPA, also directed by Hopkins.

The second and third orders, however, were almost immediately compromised. At a news conference on September 5, Hopkins asserted that there was no negligence traceable to FERA in the failed evacuation of the camps as the Weather Bureau advisories had given insufficient warning. He also dispatched his assistant, Aubrey Willis Williams, to Florida to coordinate FERA efforts and to investigate the deaths.[52] Williams and Hines’ assistant, Colonel George E. Ijams, both arrived in Miami on September 6. Ijams concentrated on the dead, their collection, identification and proper disposition.[53] This was to prove exceptionally difficult. Bodies were scattered throughout the Keys and their rapid decomposition created ghastly conditions. State and local health officials demanded a ban on all movement of bodies and their immediate burial or cremation in place; the next day Governor Sholtz so ordered.
This was reluctantly agreed to by Hines with the understanding that those buried would be later disinterred and shipped home or to Arlington when permitted by the State health authorities.

The cremations began on Saturday, September 7; 38 bodies were burned together at the collection point beside Snake Creek. Over the next week 136 bodies were cremated on Upper Matecumbe Key at 12 different locations. On Lower Matecumbe Key 82 were burned at 20 sites. On numerous small keys in Florida Bay bodies were either burned or buried where found. This effort continued into November. 123 bodies had been transported to Miami before the embargo. These were processed at a temporary morgue staffed by fingerprint experts and 8 volunteer undertakers under tents at Woodlawn Park Cemetery (3260 SW 8th St, Miami). The intention was to identify the remains and prepare them for burial or further shipment. With the embargo in force immediate burial of all the bodies at Woodlawn was mandatory. FERA purchased a plot in Section 2A. The VA coordinated the ceremony with full military honors on September 8.[56] 109 bodies were buried in the FERA plot: 81 veterans, 9 civilians and 19 unidentified bodies.

Some records claim 259 veterans were victims of the Hurricane:
47 civilians and 34 veterans cremated
61 civilians and 128 veterans {unknown} cremated
Total: 108 civilians and 162 veterans {cremated}
Of the rest:
42 civilians and 81 veterans known/buried
6 civilians and 9 veterans sent to relatives
7 civilians and 7 veterans unknown/buried
Total: 55 civilians and 97 veterans buried Total: 163 civilians and 259 veterans =422

Although the Congressional Record gives a report of 485 victims of the hurricane {257 veterans and 259 civilians} the Record also breaks down 694 World War I veterans by name and their status as:
443 number {437 living + 6 living, identification tentative}

251 broken down as:
2 listed as dead—dispositions of remains not listed
6 reburied in Hometowns
26 cremated
44 tentatively identified as dead
84 reburied in Woodlawn Cemetery, Miami
89 missing—believed dead

The Florida Emergency Relief Administration reported that as of November 19, 1935, the total of dead stood at 423: 259 veterans and 164 civilians.


1935 Labor Day Hurricane

This was a horrific event that the Keys will always remember. You can read more about this disaster at