By Jason Clingerman
The past Saturday, I was visiting the Florida Keys and took a bike tour of parts of Islamorada, a village which spans several islands. The meeting place for the tour was a memorial to the victims of the 1935 Labor Day hurricane located near mile marker 82 of U.S. Route 1. Our guide was very knowledgeable regarding the history of Islamorada and the Keys in general. However, much of the tour focused on the effects of the 1935 hurricane on the island and its residents.
This hurricane was one of the strongest and most intense hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. Wind speeds were estimated to reach up to 200 miles per hour, and the storm resulted in the deaths of over 400 people. Our tour guide told us that people tied themselves to trees if they couldn’t find suitable shelter. Winds speeds were so high that some people suffered damage to their skin as a result.
Residents of Islamorada lost most everything. Houses were swept out to sea or left in shambles. Boats and other property were utterly destroyed. After the storm, the American Red Cross provided aid to Keys residents who had suffered the wrath of the storm. One of the ways the Red Cross assisted residents was by building new houses for them that were hurricane-proof, elevated above potential flood levels and built with concrete walls to withstand the wind of a hurricane. Many of these remain standing today, still occupied by residents or converted to businesses. We saw a number of these on our tour.
Learning about and seeing the role the Red Cross played in providing relief to Islamorada after the storm prompted me to check and see what we had in our Collection ANRC, Records of the American National Red Cross, relating to these relief efforts. In the series “Publications, 1909-2002” (National Archives Identifier 5756557) I found a pamphlet published by the Red Cross entitled “Hurricanes 1935” (National Archives Identifier 6124810).
This pamphlet covers both the 1935 Labor Day hurricane and the 1935 Yankee hurricane. In describing the Labor Day hurricane as it was forming off the coast before making landfall, the pamphlet reads, “It is as though nature were drawing in her plumage of pomp in anticipation of onslaughts expected.” Onslaught it was. The pamphlet also discusses the building of hurricane-proof houses in the Keys after the Labor Day hurricane.
For these houses, as the pamphlet says, “Concrete was the solution.” Reinforced with steel rods, built into the coral rock foundation of the island, and fitted with cisterns to collect drinkable water, these houses provided their residents with “reasonable assurance” that they would be protected against future storms. In total, 29 of these houses were built for storm victims.
Little did I realize that, while soaking up the sun in the Florida Keys, I would be thinking about history and what I might be able to find in the National Archives relating to what I had just learned on a bike tour.
Where have you been on vacation that you would like learn more about from the National Archives?
See also The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.