Hemingway’s account of great Islamorada storm

Author Ernest Hemmingway aboard his vessel Pilar. Hemmingway sued his boat to shuttle supplies in to survivors of the 1935 hurricane that devastated Islamorada. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)
Author Ernest Hemmingway aboard his vessel Pilar. Hemmingway sued his boat to shuttle supplies in to survivors of the 1935 hurricane that devastated Islamorada. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson/Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

Ernest Hemingway stockpiled his boat, Pilar, with all the supplies he could rally and, two days after the Great Labor Day Hurricane devastated Islamorada, he arrived to help. His initial estimate of the number of dead was between 700-1000; granted, writers can be prone to hyperbole.

Sept. 7, 1935, Ernest Hemingway penned a letter to his editor and friend, Maxwell Perkins. He wrote, “We were the first in to Camp Five of the veterans who were working on the Highway construction. Out of 187, only 8 survived. Saw more dead then I’d seen in one place since the Lower Piave in June of 1918.”He described Indian Key as, “absolutely swept clean, not a blade of grass, and over the high center of it were scattered live conchs that came in with the sea, craw fish, and dead morays. The whole bottom of the sea blew over it.”

He also stated, “we made five trips with provisions for survivors to different places, but nothing but dead men to eat the grub. Max, you can’t imagine it, two women, naked, tossed up into trees by the water, swollen and stinking, their breasts as big as balloons, flies between their legs recognize them as the two very nice girls who ran a sandwich place and filling-station three miles from the ferry.”

The actual death toll from the hurricane that is settled upon by most scholars is 423, 164 civilians and 259 veterans. There were other casualties associated with the storm, certainly bodies washed out into the Atlantic or into the backcountry that became tangled up in the mangroves and picked apart by sharks or crabs, or buzzards. After the coroner submitted his official report on the deceased, an additional 62 storm victims were identified. Some years later, an automobile was recovered during a dredging project containing two skeletons likely attributable to the hurricane.

The aftermath left food, shelter and water in short supply. The only thing there was plenty of was bodies. Approximately 110 veterans were buried in mass graves at Miami’s Woodlawn Cemetery. September 6, Florida governor, David Scholtz, ordered the remaining bodies be cremated to help prevent pestilence. Funeral pyres were erected and wooden coffins, stacked one atop of another, were doused with diesel fuel and set aflame. The first occurred on the north bank of Snake Creek.

As of today, the Great Labor Day Storm remains the third most powerful hurricane to strike North America. The Upper Keys section of tracks used by the Oversea Railway had been twisted and tossed as if they had been constructed by aluminum foil and Popsicle sticks. Ultimately, the storm also provided the last nail driven into the coffin of an already dying, bankrupt, Florida East Coast Railway.

A monument commemorating the Labor Day event was designed by the Florida Division of the Federal Art Project and built to memorialize both the civilians and the World War I veterans who lost their lives in the hurricane. It is located at Mile Marker 81, across the highway from the Islamorada library. Whether or not by coincidence, the obelisk’s 18-foot stature correlates to the approximate amount of storm surge attributed to the hurricane. The surge had been accompanied by what are speculated to have been 200 mile-per-hour winds.

The fossilized coral bedrock used in the monument was carved from one of Flagler’s old quarries, polished to a sheen and used as decorative art. The façade of the obelisk is referred to as Keystone; the tidal wave relief carved with coconut palms bent by extreme forces was designed by Harold Lawson and developed by Lambert Bemlemans as part of the Works Progress Administration in 1937. Other artists involved in the project were William Shaw, Allie Mae Kitchens and Emigdio Reyes. The cost of the Hurricane Monument was approximately $12,000.

The monument was unveiled on Sunday, March 14, 1937. Approximately 5,000 residents, officials and visitors gathered between the old road, State Road 4A, and what was in the process then of becoming the Overseas Highway to view the event. Nine-year-old Faye Marie Parker, assisted by two Boy Scouts, tugged at the cord that caused the sheet covering the obelisk to come fluttering to the ground.

At the base of the monument is a 22-foot long crypt, the top of which has been adorned by ceramic tiles created by Adela Gisbet in such a way as to represent the stretch of Keys impacted by the storm, the islands from Key Largo to the Marathon area. The crypt holds the cremated remains of an undetermined number of victims.

County Commissioner Harry Harris, who died in 1978, was interred in the crypt for a brief period of time before his ashes were removed and interred in their present site at Key Largo’s Harry Harris Park. The crypt has not been opened since.

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