Death toll from historic storm could have been much worse

Federal Emergency Relief Agency Camp 1 on Windley Key. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)
Federal Emergency Relief Agency Camp 1 on Windley Key. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

World War I veterans were sent to Islamorada to begin working on a Federal Emergency Relief Agency project in 1934. Hundreds of vets were assigned the job of creating a solid bridge system that would create a continuous road from Miami to Key West.

The drive was possible and had been since 1928 when the first version of the roadway was completed. However, it was a bumpy ride and the road ultimately incomplete.

It was possible to drive south from Miami all the way to Lower Matecumbe. It was also possible to drive from Key West north to No Name Key. The intervening 41-mile wide gap, however, had to be traversed by boat, an automobile ferry capable of transporting up to 20 cars at a time. The trip took approximately four hours to complete; vehicles less than 14 feet were charged $3.50 and those longer than 16 feet, $6.50. The ticket included the driver, but excluded passengers who cost an additional one dollar each.

FERA’s plan to bridge the gap was not a new idea. In 1930, the Army Corps of Engineers investigated the costs associated with constructing a solid bridge system and estimated the price to bridge Lower Matecumbe to No Name Key at $7.5 million. In the meantime, by 1931, an additional 13.5 miles of roadway had been constructed on Vaca Key — as well as two additional ferry terminals, one on Grassy Key and one on Hog Key. The Dolphin Research Center is on Grassy Key. Hog Key used to exist in the shallows separating Vaca Key from Knights Key, but Flagler’s workers dump enough fill in-between Hog and Knights keys while building the East Coast Railway that one island became enveloped by the other.

By 1934, Monroe County had declared bankruptcy, FDR had taken office, and FERA had assigned the veterans the back-breaking task of creating the structures necessary to build a solid bridge system linking Miami to Key West. The project was managed by officials of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency who rented out the first floor of the Matecumbe Hotel for use as a base of operations.

FERA officers also leased the Snake Creek Lodge, once located on the Windley Key side of Snake Creek, for use as a hospital facility for the workers. The building is said to have stood approximately 1,000 feet away from the first of three work camps erected to house the veterans.

Each of the three camps consisted of approximately 30 housing tents. Camp 1 was the Windley Key camp. The vets were primarily used to quarry and transport fossilized coral bedrock extracted from Plantation Key and delivered to Camp 3. While the exact locale of the quarry is unsubstantiated, the site is said to have been just north of where the entrance to the Venetian Shores neighborhood exists today. While driving along the Overseas Highway it is hard to ignore the sheer demarcation visible in the bedrock while driving past the DOT’s weight station.

Two additional veteran work camps were pitched on Lower Matecumbe, Camp 3 and Camp 5. Camp 3 was the largest of the veterans’ work camps and was located at the southern end of the island near the site of the first bridge job undertaken by the work crews. The first bridge constructed was to have linked Lower Matecumbe to Jewfish Bush Key, called Fiesta Key today. Camp 3 stored equipment and building materials in addition to housing veterans and was the only camp to have a harbor accessible from the Channel 2 and Channel 5 bridges.

The other camp on Lower Matecumbe was Camp 5, located at the northern end of the island and used primarily as a housing barracks. The camp lacked some of the amenities of the other camps, a recreation hall, for instance. For the record, Camps 2 and 4 were located in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Also for the record, there were never any bridges built. A Category 5 hurricane, the strongest hurricane to strike North America at the time, and the third largest in history, intervened.

The Great Labor Day Hurricane, as it is remembered, decimated Islamorada. It is fortunate the killer hurricane struck on a holiday weekend. Had it not, the death toll might have been substantially higher. The arrival of the vets had doubled the population of the Upper Keys. According to the 1935 census, a total of 673 civilians lived here. By comparison, on Friday, August 30, 1935, a total of 684 veterans showed up at the office tent in Islamorada to get paid.

Fortunately, an estimated 350 veterans had gone to either Key West or Miami for the weekend’s Labor Day celebration. Eleven more were reported to have stolen a suburban truck and had set out on a trip north to see the President.

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