Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

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Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
Storm path

Storm path
Duration Aug. 29 - Sept. 10, 1935
Highest winds 160 mph (260 km/h) sustained
Damages $6 million+ (1935 dollars)

$82 million+ (2005 dollars)

Fatalities 408 - 600 direct
Areas affected Bahamas, Florida Keys, Florida Panhandle, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina
Part of the 1935 Atlantic hurricane season

The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was a very compact and intense hurricane that caused catastrophic destruction in the Florida Keys. It was the strongest recorded hurricane ever to strike the United States, and one of only three known hurricanes to do so at Category 5 strength. It is also the third strongest hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic. This hurricane is sometimes called the "Storm of the Century".



The storm formed east of the Bahamas in late August and traveled due west through the islands. It then began a gentle turn to the northwest and headed straight for Islamorada in the Upper Keys, where it struck on Labor Day, Monday, September 2 around 8 p.m. The winds at landfall were thought to have reached 200 mph (320 km/h), but later estimates are now at around 160 mph (260 km/h). A central pressure was reliably reported as 26.35 inHg (892 hPa). This was the record low pressure for the Western Hemisphere until it was surpassed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and Hurricane Wilma in 2005. An unconfirmed report gave the minimum central pressure as low as 26.00 inches of mercury (880 hPa).

Most intense landfalling U.S. hurricanes

Intensity is measured solely by central pressure

Rank Hurricane Year Landfall pressure
1 Labor Day 1935 892 mbar (hPa)
2 Camille 1969 909 mbar (hPa)
3 Katrina 2005 918 mbar (hPa)
4 Andrew 1992 922 mbar (hPa)
5 Indianola 1886 925 mbar (hPa)
6 Florida Keys 1919 927 mbar (hPa)
7 Okeechobee 1928 929 mbar (hPa)
8 Donna 1960 930 mbar (hPa)
9 New Orleans 1915 931 mbar (hPa)
10 Carla 1961 931 mbar (hPa)
Source: U.S. National Hurricane Center

The main transportation route linking the Florida Keys to mainland Florida was a single railroad line, the Florida Overseas Railroad portion of the Florida East Coast Railway. A 10-car evacuation train sent down from Homestead was washed off the track by storm surge and high winds on Lower Matecumbe Key. The train was supposed to rescue a group of World War I veterans, who, as part of a government relief program, were building a new road bridge in the Upper Keys. The train did not reach the waiting veterans before the storm did.

In total, at least 423 people (164 residents and 259 veterans employed on the road project)(1) were killed by the hurricane. Bodies were recovered as far away as Flamingo and Cape Sable on the southwest tip of the Florida mainland. In a lucky coincidence, about 350 of the 718 veterans living in the Keys work camps were in Miami to attend a Labor Day baseball game when the storm hit.(2) If not for this outing, many more of the men, whose barracks in the Keys were flimsy shacks, might have been killed by the storm.

After striking the Keys, the hurricane continued up the west coast of Florida and landed again on the Florida Panhandle as a category 2 hurricane on September 4. It then passed over Georgia (where it continued to cause wind and flood damage), South Carolina, North Carolina and emerged back into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia. The storm then continued until it became extratropical south of Greenland on September 10th.

Ten most intense Atlantic hurricanes

Intensity is measured solely by central pressure

Rank Hurricane Year Minimum pressure
1 Wilma 2005 882 mbar (hPa)
2 Gilbert 1988 888 mbar (hPa)
3 Labor Day 1935 892 mbar (hPa)
4 Rita 2005 897 mbar (hPa)
5 Allen 1980 899 mbar (hPa)
6 Katrina 2005 902 mbar (hPa)
7 Camille 1969 905 mbar (hPa)
8 Mitch 1998 905 mbar (hPa)
9 Ivan 2004 910 mbar (hPa)
10 Janet 1955 914 mbar (hPa)
Source: The Weather Channel


The hurricane left a path of near-complete destruction in the Upper Keys centered on what is today the village of Islamorada. Nearly every structure was demolished; bridges and railway embankments were washed away. The links—rail, road, and ferry boats—that chained the islands together were broken.

The Islamorada area had been devastated, though the hurricane's path was less than that of many tropical cyclones. Its eye was eight miles across, and the fiercest winds extended only 15 miles right of the center, less than 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which was also a relatively small and catastrophic Category 5 hurricane. Many parts of the Keys, a chain of islands more than 125 miles long from south of Miami to Key West, were practically untouched. There was no damage in Key West, or in most of the lower and far upper Keys.

Craig Key, Long Key, Upper Matecumbe and Lower Matecumbe keys (from approximately mile 60 to 80 on today's highway mileposts) suffered the worst. In this area, hundreds of bodies were caught in wreckage and mangrove thickets along the shore. By the third day after the storm, corpses had swelled and split open in the subtropical heat, according to rescue workers. Public health officials ordered plain wood coffins holding the dead to be stacked and burned in several locations.

The U.S. Coast Guard and other state and federal agencies organized evacuation and relief efforts. Boats and airplanes carried injured survivors to Miami. The railroad would never be rebuilt, but temporary bridges and ferry landings were under construction as soon as materials arrived, and within a few years a roadway, for the first time, linked the entire Keys chain to mainland Florida.

The memorial

Standing on U.S. Highway 1 at mile marker 82 in Islamorada, near where Islamorada's post office had been, is a simple monument designed by the Florida Division of the Federal Art Project and constructed using Keys limestone by the Works Progress Administration. Unveiled in 1937 with more than 4,000 people in attendance, a frieze depicts palm trees amid curling waves, fronds bent in the wind. In front of the sculpture, a ceramic-tile mural of the Keys covers a stone crypt, which holds victims' ashes from the makeshift funeral pyres.

Personal observations

In the Florida Keys, the effects of the intense storm were reported by a number of survivors. One was J.E. Duane, caretaker of the Long Key Fishing Camp and a cooperative observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau. Duane recorded barometric readings and conditions during the passage of the storm, near where the exact center crossed the Keys on September 2.

At 6:45 p.m., he wrote, the barometer was 27.90 inches and the wind was backing to the northwest. "A beam 6 by 8 inches, about 18 feet long, was blown from north side of camp, about 300 yards, through observer's house, wrecking it and nearly striking 3 persons. Water 3 feet deep from top of railroad grade, or about 16 feet."

After the caretaker's house was destroyed, Duane and about 20 others at the camp took refuge in the main lodge building, and then in a cottage as structures failed in the intense winds and battering waves. At 9:20 p.m., Duane reported that the wind abated as the center of the storm passed over the island.

During this lull the sky is clear to northward, stars shining brightly and a very light breeze continued; no flat calm. About the middle of the lull, which lasted a timed 55 minutes, the sea began to lift up, it seemed, and rise very fast; this from ocean side of camp. I put my flashlight out on sea and could see walls of water which seemed many feet high. I had to race fast to regain entrance of cottage, but water caught me waist deep, although writer was only about 60 feet from doorway of cottage. Water lifted cottage from its foundations, and it floated.

After the eye passage, the winds resumed even stronger than before. Duane was blown out of the cottage and into the flood waters. " hung up in broken fronds of coconut tree and hung on for dear life. I was then struck by some object and knocked unconscious." He awoke the next afternoon and found himself "lodged about 20 feet above ground" in the tree.

In the Bogart/Bacall hurricane film Key Largo the character played by Lionel Barrymore describes his experiences in the great 1935 hurricane.


(1): Report of 1935 Hurricane Victims, George J. Rawlins, Coroner, Islamorada, Florida (from Congressional Inquiry H.R. 9486)

(2): Hurricane by Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Rinehart & Company 1958)

See also

External links


  • Hemingway's Hurricane by Phil Scott (ISBN 0071453326) International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2005.

Edit Florida Keys
Upper keys Key Largo, Islamorada, Tavernier, Plantation Key, Matecumbe Key
Middle keys Craig Key, Fiesta Key, Long Key, Conch Key, Duck Key, Grassy Key, Deer Key, Key Vaca, Boot Key
Lower keys Bahia Honda, West Summerland Key, No Name Key, Big Pine Key, Torch Key, Little Torch Key, Ramrod Key, Summerland Key, Cudjoe Key, Sugarloaf Key, Saddlebunch Keys, Big Coppitt Key, Boca Chica Key, Key Haven, Key West
Outlying islands Dry Tortugas, Marquesas Keys
Areas Florida Bay, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, National Key Deer Sanctuary, Biscayne Bay, Biscayne National Park
Other topics Overseas Highway, Overseas Railway, Seven Mile Bridge, Key Deer, Conch Republic, Monroe County, Hurricane Georges, 1935 Hurricane, Theater of the Sea
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