There was little advanced warning 79 years ago when a monster storm with winds approaching 200 mph and a storm surge of up to 18 feet pummeled a 40-mile swath of the Florida Keys, leaving in its wake devastating destruction and death.
Today, only a few survivors of the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 are still alive. But their stories and those of the approximately 500 people who were killed by the Category 5 storm will live on in black and white photographs collected over the years by Jerry Wilkinson, the longtime president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys.
For the first time, a large portion of the collection is being displayed for public view in an exhibit that will run through Nov. 9 at the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada, not far from where the storm blew a “relief” train off tracks that were built by oil tycoon Henry Flagler.
“It seems like people like disasters,” Wilkinson said about why people are interested in a hurricane that occurred before most were born. “I guess because it’s spectacular, like the Great Chicago fire [of 1871] and the earthquake now in California.”
The exhibit features 85 photographs, a few of them graphic. Wilkinson provided all but five pictures that came from the History Miami museum.
It also includes storyboards that provide a brief history of weather forecasting and details about the weather advisories given during the deadly weekend. There’s also a mid-1990s documentary Hurricane ’35: The Deadly Deluge, being shown continuously at the exhibit. It includes vintage footage and interviews with Wilkinson and several survivors.
And along one wall is a fascinating map created by the coroner’s office that documents several makeshift cremation sites and the scattered locations of the 423 bodies (each named) that were found in the direct aftermath. Some people’s remains were never found and others were exposed later, including a few skeletons found in a Ford that was uncovered during a dredging project.
Together, the exhibit provides a comprehensive display of a hurricane that remains the strongest ever to directly hit the United States. And it shows the destruction and horror it brought to a sleepy part of the Keys.
It’s a horror that Charlie Roberts described four years ago during a program for the 75th anniversary. He was one of seven survivors who told riveting first-hand accounts.
Roberts was just 7, living on Windley Key near the rock quarry where veterans from World War I were working on public works projects including building bridges for vehicles. At that point, there were only railroad bridges between some of the islands.
Roberts recalled the roof blowing off their row house and his father dragging him by the straps of his overalls into their family Ford. “Eleven of us got into the car,” he said. “That’s the only thing that saved us.”
The water flooded inside, but they had enough room to breathe. Roberts said, though, that he will never forget the plight of the veterans, who had taken cover in a rock pit dug six to eight feet deep.
“When the water came, they drowned like rats,” he said. “You could hear them screaming all night long. I mean just screaming and hollering for help, and we couldn’t get out and help them.”
Bertelli said he pored over hundreds of Wilkinson’s pictures about the hurricane, the Veteran Work camps and the aftermath to come up with a selection that told the complete story.
“There was some concern how graphic to go,” Bertelli said. “We were told we have to tell the story, and to do that we had to show some dead bodies because 500 people died.”
There likely would have been many more casualties, but since it was a holiday, many people had left the area to celebrate in either Miami or Key West.
Most who stayed put did not know until Labor Day morning and afternoon, on Sept. 2, that what had first been forecast as a relatively nondescript tropical disturbance was turning into a scary storm that was headed right for them. Some stayed, thinking they could weather the storm. Others did not have the means to leave. And the relief train sent to evacuate veterans and others was sent too late and then was struck directly by the storm. The railroad would never again operate along the island chain.
Relief workers arrived after the storm to face the huge job of figuring out how to handle all the dead.
One photograph shows wooden coffins about to be loaded on ships and taken to Miami, where they were sealed in copper caskets and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. Those coffins carried the remains of about 109 veterans.
Another photograph shows American flags placed upon the caskets as they were being put into the ground. The government paid $100 each to have those veterans from World War I properly buried.
But with so many bodies baking in the heat and humidity days after the storm hit, the governor ordered that the bodies be burned to prevent disease. One photograph shows a gun salute honoring the dead, which were placed in wooden boxes stacked on top of each other in four or five layers. After the ceremony, the bodies were cremated at several makeshift sites along the path of destruction.
One photo depicts the building of a monument to memorialize the dead, with a crypt that contains the cremated remains of hundreds. The monument is located near mile marker 82, a short drive from the exhibit.
Some pictures showed hope. As curator Brad Bertelli hung the exhibit, he pulled out one of his favorite newspaper photos that showed a young man, Alonzo Cothran, in a floppy hat holding his pet pig.
“His family went up to Miami to ride out the storm,” Bertelli said. “But before he left, he put the pig in a crate in the garage and let some ducks go free, figuring they could go under the house to weather the storm.”
When Cothran returned, his home was gone. “But he hears some squealing,” Bertelli said. “The pig had broken free from the crate and dug a hole. When Alonzo came back, the pig came running at him like a dog.”
Some of the ducks were found, too, albeit very thirsty with all the fresh water now contaminated with saltwater.
The exhibit hits home with Richard Russell, president of the Keys History & Discovery Center. His father, Warren “Bones” Russell, was just a boy when the storm hit.
Bones’ father told him to hold onto a coconut tree as tightly as he could. After the storm passed, Red Cross workers arrived and found the kid unconscious, covered in sea weed and palm fronds and thought he was dead. As they were pulling out a body bag, Bones moved.
But so many others were not so lucky, including 38 other members of the extended Russell family. Only 15 members of the family survived, Bertelli said.
Wilkinson said he did not spend endless hours and unknown amounts of his own money collecting the photographs for monetary reasons. Most are not originals but copies of pictures he took with his Nikon camera and a macro lens, steadying the shot with a “camera stand.” Wilkinson said he collected them for their historical value.
His house in Tavernier is filled with thousands of copied photographs put into binders that feature all aspects of Upper Keys history. His house also is filled with boxes of copied documents, original documents, diaries and newspaper clippings.
Some photographs were copies of Miami Herald originals that an executive in the newsroom had glued together in a collage to hang on his wall as art.
“He was ready to get rid of the collage because the pictures were getting old and he had a nice new Venetian Shores house,” Wilkinson said. “So he agreed to let me take them apart, and not worry if I messed them up.”
Wilkinson had a darkroom and knew which chemicals to use on the emulsion of the prints. He soaked them in a big flat tray for about two weeks, ending up with about 25 to 30 separate photographs.
“I had to give the photographs back because they came out so good, he wanted them back,” Wilkinson said.
It was not until 1996 that Wilkinson got a scanner, which made copying the photographs much easier and less expensive.
Many of them he collected during summer RV trips around the Southeast with his wife. They would stop at museums, universities, libraries and state archives scouring for any history related to the Upper Keys.
“History has no ownership,” said Wilkinson, who turns 86 on Monday. “I want to die knowing that these pictures hopefully will be saved in perpetuity.”