Florida Labor Day Hurricane of 1935
During the dark and treacherous evening of Monday, September 2, 1935 the most intense recorded storm in Florida’s history slammed directly into the Florida Keys. Hundreds of War Veterans at the FERA relief and rehabilitation camps #1, 3 and 5 were left in the path of this monstrous storm.
A call for an evacuation train from Miami was made too late, when it arrived it was minutes before a massive tidal surge engulfed the keys. The vicious winds were up to 183 mph, during this tornado like pass almost all ramshackle structures in the Upper Keys were destroyed, hundreds were dead, missing or injured. Killed by a powerful force that sandblasted, crushed, drown, or washed them out to sea, many never to be identified or found.
Numerous investigative stories written by local reporters were published, the FERA authorities would blame the weather service and call it an “act of God”, one of the first on the scene was Earnest Hemingway, he would write a scathing article “Who Murdered the Vets?” for the socialist newspaper The New Masses; attracting the attention of the FBI. National newspapers were filled with pages of gruesome images of the death and destruction. The nation was shocked.
Before the end of September the FERA closed all camps and shelters to new applicants and, by then end of November 1935, all transient activities were liquidated. Injured veterans were transferred to VA medical facilities. Employable veterans would receive jobs with various WPA projects, those who declined or were rated unemployable were returned to the States of their origin.
In 1936, there was a Congressional hearing for passage of a bill, H.R. 9486, regarding compensation for the widows, families and survivors of the veterans.
First Responders – CCC Company #1421
Between Sept. 2nd and 9th, inclusive, the labor of CCC Co. #1421 was diverted to relief activities in the Florida Keys. Their previous visit had been for sport and recreation, but this trip would be for search and rescue, a mission that would quickly turn to the gruesome task of recovery.
At least 120 bodies were recovered by the boys from CCC Co. #1421, it was a traumatizing experience.
The next edition, September 12, 1935, of their CCC camp newspaper, The Wanderer, used a haunting cover image drawn by camp artist and reporter Douglas W. Reynolds. Included were numerous articles on the CCC company’s response to the disaster and first person accounts.
COMPANY SPENDS NIGHT IN ARMORY . . . COMPANY AIDS IN CLEAN UP OF VETERAN’S CAMP . . . COMPANY SPENDS THREE DAYS IN STORM STRICKEN AREA . . . New Mascot . . .KITCHEN FOLLOWS COMPANY TO KEY LARGO
“Company 1421 was well prepared for the storm on September 2. When storm warnings were posted for the Miami area, Ensign Cain decided to place the company in the Dade County Armory during the storm. Each man carried his own pillow and blanket. The storm lasted the entire night so nearly everyone slept on the floor.”
The next morning the CCC boys answered a call to assist the Red Cross and Coast Guard for search and rescue on the Keys. They left Miami at 5:30 am arriving at Key Largo by 9 am. This was the furthest south they could travel; roads and bridges had been washed away.
The boys in the company who volunteered for relief work on the storm-stricken Keys were split into three different groups. One of the groups went searching for bodies on the Coast Guard cutters…one cutter was unable to find the channel at night and several enrollees spent the night on board… Another group were pressed into stretcher service and other group worked on a temporary bridge.. The temporary suspension bridge was thrown over the swollen Snake Creek…bridge was fifty yards in length . . . constructed by two strands of cable and salvaged lumber from the original bridge … the only means of communication with Windlass Island and the other lower Keys… Later in the day a group was sent across to Windless Island to search the debris for bodies.
“Heavy rains and wind kept them from sleeping during the night” . . . after “All the living had been transferred to places of safety… the entire company searched for the dead.”
“From then on it was something in a bad dream. The wind and a succession of tidal waves had tossed many of the bodies into trees or out to sea. Others were found under fallen buildings.” . . . bodies were badly decomposed, by Friday, due to the strong rains and the strong sun.”
“Practically the entire company had seen service on the relief work, as only a small work outfit was retained at the camp to care for necessary duties.”
“Though handicapped by almost primitive cooking facilities…the kitchen force worked from morning until late at night…feeding from fifty to two hundred men at a time…The menu was not varied…no one complained.”
“Hurricane Fanny, a small fox terrier is new mascot of Co. 1421. She was found on top of a house between Matecombe and Snake Creek. Fanny and a cat were the only living things left there.”
“Chaplin Neville made his bi-weekly call to the Miami CCC camp…but did not hold services. On Friday he went town to Snake Creek and conducted Services for the veteran dead.”
“Every man who had been on the island had worked and gone through an experience they never wish to have again, before they were finally relieved by FERA workers from Miami.”
“The storm . . . brought death to the remnants of the Bonus Army. They had survived the fury of the World War…May they find in death, the peace, which they seemed to have found but little of in life.”
A New Camp
“This excitement was hardly over when another hurricane struck with full force and utterly destroyed the Miami CCC camp on November 4, 1935.” Within months a new modern camp would be constructed, the new home of Co. 1421 became one of the most beautiful camps in the entire 4th CCC Corps area.
CCC ARTIST DOUGLAS REYNOLDS
Douglas Wolcott Reynolds, (b 1913 d 1995) was a resident of Jacksonville, Florida when he applied for admission into the CCC art program. He was a “graduate of Lee High School and attended a term at Ringling Art School, Sarasota, Florida, but was compelled to give up further training because of family financial difficulties.”
Reynolds was assigned, on December 30, 1934 to CCC Co. # 1421, then stationed at Myakka State Park in Sarasota, Florida. He would be somewhat prolific in the art he would send, as required, to the administrative offices of Edward Rowan, in Treasury Department of Painting and Sculpture, Washington, D.C.
Rowan was sometimes critical of the oil paintings Reynolds shipped. Reynolds was young and untried and requested critiques from Rowan who responded, in April 1936, that he saw “possibilities of very interesting pictures, but I do not believe that your technique is sufficiently developed or your palette satisfactory. May I suggest that for a period, at least, you discard black from your palette”.
Rowan would continue to counsel the young CCC artist Reynolds until he was honorably discharged in June 1936. A large number of Reynolds CCC paintings were allocated back to both the Myakka State Park and the South Miami CCC camp superintendents.
Reynolds fit in well with CCC Company #1421 and became a feature writer and cartoonist for the camp paper the Myakka Rattler and later The Wanderer. He got along well with the officers in charge and the technical staff. That is until a new commander was assigned to the Miami camp.
In an April 19, 1936 letter Reynolds writes Rowan . . .”The new Captain came. He seems to think that I am a cross between a tractor and a convict…I understood when I entered that I would be exempt from extra physical labor, while abiding by the rules and regulations. I do not object to sweeping out the barracks . . .but I do object to . . . swallowing insults from a commanding Officer who hasn’t enough fairness or decency to run a stock yard. If this labor was a punishment for some misdemeanor I would not write, but it is a regular duty and it interferes with my painting.”
On June 30, 1936, at his own request Reynolds received an Honorable Discharged from the So. Miami, Florida CCC Co. #1421. His manner of performance, as an Artist, was rated Excellent.
This oil painting titled “Florida Hurricane” would be transferred, in 1974, from the General Services Administration to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, where it is today. It appears Reynolds experience with the relief effort of his CCC company and a photograph, printed in the Miami Tribune, of the hurricane rescue by the Coast Guard and CCC boys was the inspiration.
While in the CCC, Reynolds, was awarded a scholarship to study art at the University of Miami. He would later receive his BFA from Yale University School of Fine Art and his MFA from Columbia University. During his long career as an abstract expressionist he became the Art Director at multiple universities and retired as Director of Art from Hampton University in 1978.
Douglas W. Reynolds died on February 11, 1995 in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The works and writing of Florida historian Jerry Wilkenson at can be found at the Jerry Wilkenson Research Library in addition to the stories and research he has written on the keyshistory website. His writings helped me better understand the three FERA veterans camps, #1, 3 & 5, decimated in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane. Thank you.