From Bonus Marchers to bridge builders, vets connected the Keys

The Russell Arms Hotel later became the Matecumbe Hotel, which was destroyed by the 1935 Hurricane. (Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)
The Russell Arms Hotel later became the Matecumbe Hotel, which was destroyed by the 1935 Hurricane. (Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

President Woodrow Wilson ushered America into the First World War when he declared war on Germany in April, 1917. The Germans were fighting with France and Russia; they were also posing a threat to Great Britain.

The Germans went so far, in fact, as to send a secret telegram to Mexico in hopes of forming an alliance with our neighbors south of the border. Fortunately, the communiqué was intercepted and translated.

As a frame of reference, it was during World War I that Germany’s iconic flying ace, Baron Menfred von Richtofen, was shot down. Richtofen was the Red Baron. In any case, when the war was over, Congress passed the World War I Bonus Law that made accessible to every veteran of the war a certificate, a bonus check, eligible for deposit in 1945.

Unfortunately, when the roaring of the 1920s quieted and the country sank into the Great Depression, Americans needed work, food, money. The veterans knew they were due a payday and wanted to get paid early. In June, 1932, 15,000 veterans marched on Washington in hopes of influencing Congress to pass a bill authorizing early remittance of their cash. President Herbert Hoover had the Bonus Marchers, as the vets had been deemed, chased off the streets of Washington with bayonets and tear gas.

Hoover was voted out of office the following year. Hoover, by the way, spent a great deal of time fishing in the Upper Keys. His replacement, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did a little fishing here, too. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, winning on the platform of his New Deal promising relief, recovery, and reform.

FDR inherited the Great Depression and one of Roosevelt’s first orders of business was the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. FERA passed through Congress May 12, 1933. The agency’s purpose was to grant relief funds directly to state agencies. The following year, the program was divided into three divisions: social services, public works, and rural rehabilitation.

Florida’s first FERA administrator was Julius Stone. Stone kept an office in Key West and understood that while Flagler’s railroad tracks might have brought the train to the southernmost city, it was not bringing much of a tourist trade. Stone was convinced that, with a little bit of help, Key West could become the “Gibraltar of the South.”

Part of the problem was the island’s relative inaccessibility. While, by 1928, visitors were able to drive an automobile from the mainland to Key West, the drive was interrupted by a 41-mile expanse of water that had to be traversed by an automobile ferry. The ferry, capable of transporting 20 cars at a time, bridged the gap between Lower Matecumbe Key to the north and No Name Key to the south. The ride took about four hours.

Back in Washington, Roosevelt was attempting to revive the economy with a stimulus package that included a $4. 9 billion appropriation to fund work projects. To manage those funds, in 1935 the Works Progress Administration was created. In other news, Monroe County declared bankruptcy.

The Florida Keys received their fair share of funds allocated to Works Projects. Among a host of other Keys’ projects, the Key West Aquarium, touted as a tourist draw, was a WPA project. Another project was to have repairs done to the Civil War era Fort Jefferson down in the Dry Tortugas. Three-hundred veterans were assigned to the job, but the men had been held over in Jacksonville while Navy officials approved the project.

Julius Stone suggested that Key West be coupled to the mainland with a complete highway linked by a series of solid bridges. When the WPA accepted the Keys’ bridge job, the 300 veterans, as well as hundreds of others, were redirected to Islamorada and assigned the task of creating a series of bridges to eradicate the need for an automobile ferry.

Three works camps were established in Islamorada. Each camp was capable of housing up to 250 workers with eight men assigned to a tent. Camp 1 was on Windley Key, just across Snake Creek from Plantation Key. Two additional camps were created on Lower Matecumbe Key. FERA officers set up headquarters at the Russell Arms Hotel, which became the Matecumbe Hotel. The grounds where that building once stood are now occupied by MA’s Fish Camp.

One of the first projects undertaken by the vets was the construction of a bridge from Lower Matecumbe to Jewfish Bush Key (Fiesta Key today). The only physical evidence of the work the veterans had completed is a series of bridge piers that were under construction when the Great Labor Day Hurricane altered the history of the Florida Keys. The piers can still be seen from the Channel 2 Bridge near mile marker 73 and rise from the water, fittingly enough, like a row of coffins.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at