Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

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Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
Category 5 hurricane ( SSHS)
Relief train wreckage in Islamorada

Relief train wreckage in Islamorada
Formed August 29, 1935
Dissipated September 10, 1935
185 mph (300 km/h) (1-minute sustained)
Lowest pressure 892  mbar ( hPa)
Damage $6 million+ (1935 dollars)

$82 million+ (2005 dollars)

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

The Labor Day Hurricane was a very compact, intense hurricane that formed in the North Atlantic during August 1935. It remains the strongest hurricane on record to have struck the United States, and was for five decades the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever. Currently, it ranks third in lowest central pressure, behind Hurricane Wilma (2005) and Hurricane Gilbert ( 1988).

After striking the Bahamas, the hurricane made landfall along the Florida Keys on Labor Day, September 2, 1935 with Category 5 winds on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The storm devastated a part of the Keys, breaking the islands' road and rail connections to mainland Florida. More than 400 people were killed.

Storm history

Storm path
Storm path

The storm was born as a small tropical disturbance, due east of Florida in the Bahamas in late August. The disturbance drifted west through the islands toward the Gulf Stream, and U.S. weather forecasters became aware of a possible tropical storm approaching.

In the area of Andros Island in the Bahamas, on the edge of the Gulf Stream, the disturbance began to strengthen. It intensified without pause for a day and a half, while its track made a gentle turn to the northwest, toward Islamorada in the Upper Keys. On Labor Day Monday, September 2, it turned to the right. The storm was at its full intensity. It struck around 8 p.m. (units unknown).

Most intense Atlantic hurricanes
Intensity is measured solely by central pressure
Rank Hurricane Season Min. pressure
1 Wilma 2005 882 mbar ( hPa)
2 Gilbert 1988 888 mbar (hPa)
3 "Labor Day" 1935 892 mbar (hPa)
4 Rita 2005 895 mbar (hPa)
5 Allen 1980 899 mbar (hPa)
6 Katrina 2005 902 mbar (hPa)
7 Camille 1969 905 mbar (hPa)
Mitch 1998 905 mbar (hPa)
9 Ivan 2004 910 mbar (hPa)
10 Janet 1955 914 mbar (hPa)
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

The maximum sustained wind speed at landfall was originally thought to have been 160 mph. However, recent reanalysis studies conducted by the NOAA Hurricane Research Division (HRD) concluded that the maximum sustained winds were more likely around 185 mph at landfall . The central pressure (a standard of comparison for hurricane intensity) was reliably reported as 26.35 inHg (892 hPa). This was the record low pressure for a hurricane anywhere in the Western Hemisphere until 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) (Storm of the Century - Willie Drye).

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, 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 10.


The Labor Day Hurricane is the strongest hurricane known to have struck the United States, and one of the strongest recorded landfalls worldwide. It is the only storm known to make U.S. landfall with a minimum central pressure below 900 hPa; only two others have struck the U.S. with Category 5 strength (with winds over 155 mph). It remains the third-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, behind storms that weakened before making landfall.


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 the storm surge and high winds on Upper 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 engineer chose to back the train down the single track line, in hopes of saving time on the outward trip, and was unable to reach the waiting veterans before the storm did. Only the locomotive remained upright on the rails, and had to be barged back to Miami several months later.

Most intense landfalling U.S. hurricanes
Intensity is measured solely by central pressure
Rank Hurricane Season Landfall pressure
1 "Labor Day" 1935 892 mbar ( hPa)
2 Camille 1969 909 mbar (hPa)
3 Katrina 2005 920 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 Centre

In total, at least 423 people (164 residents and 259 veterans employed on the road project)(1) were killed by the hurricane. (The official National Hurricane Service estimate remains 408 deaths) Bodies were recovered as far away as Flamingo and Cape Sable on the southwest tip of the Florida mainland. In a fortuitous 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.

The supervisor of the veterans camps, Ray Sheldon, and director of all Florida work camps, Fred Ghent, have been criticized for their failure to ensure the safety of the veterans as the storm approached. They read the Weather Bureau predictions, which had the storm passing south of the Florida Keys through the Straits of Florida, as a literal and definite forecast of the storm's path. They failed to account for the unpredictability of hurricanes, especially considering the primitive nature of climatology in 1935. The federal government had an arrangement with the Florida East Coast Railway to provide a train to evacuate the men. However, due to miscommunication between the government and the railway, government officials believed that a train could be readied and sent to the Keys from mainland Florida more quickly than was the case. An official investigation conducted by Aubrey W. WIlliams, Harry Hopkins's top assistant, cleared those responsible for the camps of wrongdoing, categorizing the tragedy as an unfortunate act of God.(3) However, Ernest Hemingway, who toured the Matecumbes on his fishing boat two days after the storm, harshly blamed the government for the men's death in the September 17, 1935 issue of New Masses magazine, in an article entitled, "Who Murdered the Vets? A First-Hand Report on the Florida Hurricane". Hemingway wrote, "You're dead now brother, but who left you there in the hurricane months on the Keys where a thousand men died before you when they were building the road that's washed out now? Who left you there? And what's the punishment for manslaughter now?"(4)

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.

Florida East Coast Railway rescue train wrecked in Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 at Islamorada
Florida East Coast Railway rescue train wrecked in Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 at Islamorada

The Islamorada area had been devastated, though the hurricane's destructive path was narrower than that of many tropical cyclones. Its eye was eight miles across, and the fiercest winds extended only 15 miles right of the centre, 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 United States 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 (now called the Overseas Highway), for the first time, linked the entire Keys chain to mainland Florida.

The storm caused wind and flood damage at its mainland landfall along the Florida panhandle, and into Georgia.

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 centre 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 centre 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.


Cultural impact

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


The 1935 Hurricane memorial on Upper Matecumbe Key, Florida.
The 1935 Hurricane memorial on Upper Matecumbe Key, Florida.

Standing just east of U.S. Route 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. The memorial was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on March 16, 1995.

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