The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 is described as the most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall. It is listed as a Category 5 tempest; highest wind speed was recorded at 183 mph. Many of the hundreds of people in its path, on the Florida Keys, were World War I veterans. The vets were living in temporary relief camps while working on construction projects for the Florida Road Commission. The September 2nd storm was a horrific event, the vets should have been evacuated, instead they were sandblasted.
Sadly, over time there would be accusations and assumptions that would percolate, naive statements later reported that these Florida camps were Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) veterans’ camps. For decades, the CCC was blamed and shamed for the part they allegedly played in the disaster, and in some cases still is.
The truth and hard facts are documented – there were absolutely NO CCC camps, of any kind, south of Miami, Florida, during the summer of 1935. The morning after the historic storm passed the young CCC boys from Co. #1421 in Miami rushed to the scene of the disaster, they were among those first to arrive and what they encountered was shocking.
As we remember this storm 85 years later it is time to recognize, correct and honor the CCC legacy as First Responders.
Letter to Eleanor Roosevelt
On August 27, 1935, Albert C. Keith, composed a heartfelt letter about the Veterans relief and rehabilitation camps in the State of Florida. He sent a package to: Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, The White House, Washington, D.C. with a return address of Editor, Key Vt. News, Islamorada, Florida.
These veterans camps were organized as temporary emergency relief measure to assist unemployed World War veterans who had returned to Washington D.C., during the summer of 1933, demanding a promised “Bonus” payment for their services in World War I.
The Florida veterans’ camps were administered by the state of Florida Emergency Relief Administration. The state of Florida received funds through their Governor, the monies were allotted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in Washington, D.C., both confusingly known as the FERA.
The Florida Relief Administration employed civilians to administer the three veteran’s camps in the Florida Keys. These FERA administrations differed dramatically from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) junior and world war veterans’ camps, the CCC camps were administered by the Army and a separate CCC federal agency.
Keith, himself a World War I veteran was writing from the FERA Camp #1 Islamorada, Florida where he was Editor of The Key Veterans New. Included with his letter to Eleanor were ten copies of the FERA vets newspaper.
Keith described the extensive FERA work being done on the Florida Keys. He stressed how these jobs offered the many homeless men the opportunity to once again financially provide for themselves and their families. He spoke of the sanctuary it offered to those unable to “carry on”, and referred to the many veterans who were unable to enter the C.C.C. veterans’ camps “due to their physical handicaps.”
Concern was voiced over the rumor that these Florida FERA camps would be discontinued the following November. Keith stated, “in my opinion this would be a death sentence.”
Little could Keith realize that to stay on the Keys would be the death sentence; it was hurricane season in south Florida.
Within two weeks of Keith’s communication the camp he was writing from and two others would be obliterated in the historic and devastating Labor Day hurricane of September 2, 1935.
Keith’s parcel was received at the Congressional Mail Sub-Division in Washington D.C. on September 4, 1935, two days after the hurricane. It was forwarded to the Correspondence Division of the F.E.R.A, where it was stamped received on September 12, 1935.
Then it was answered on September 18, 1935 by Elizabeth Wickenden, assistant director of transient activities for the FERA at Washington. She addressed her response, sixteen days after the disaster, to Mr. Albert C. Keith, Editor, Key Veterans News, Islamorada, Florida, stating “Mrs. Roosevelt has asked that I reply to your letter of August 27th . . .Wickenden explains that the “federal relief grants will cease November 1… plans have been made to have veterans that meet the requirements sent to CCC camps and those that do not will be taken care of in other ways.”
In a 1992, interview (1) Wickenden states: My immediate boss was the deputy administrator of the FERA, Aubrey Williams. And much of our contact with the local and state administrators was handled by Aubrey Williams. I was his assistant, really his alter ego.
Immediately after the hurricane Aubrey Williams, assistant to the director of the FERA, along with Col. George E. Ijams of the veterans Administration, took off by seaplane to view the devastated area. They were directed to personally investigate the events leading up to the fatalities and destruction caused by the hurricane. Their preliminary report, sent to President Roosevelt, in essence, determined that “it was impossible for us to reach a conclusion of negligence or mistaken judgement” on the part of those responsible for the safety of the veterans on the keys. “the catastrophe must be characterized as an act of God.”
It’s troubling to learn that Aubrey Williams’ “alter ego” and personal assistant, Wickenden, posted a letter to Keith addressed to the very decimated location he had seen from the air and reported on, two weeks prior.
In March 1936, a Congressional hearing on the “Florida Hurricane Disaster” was convened. During this hearing, the total number of fatalities was stated as: 485 bodies recovered, 257 were war veterans. For years to follow remains would continue to be found.
Miraculously, Keith would be listed among those who survived from Veterans Camp #1 in Islamorada.
By 1940, Keith was living with his wife Mary, in Atlantic City, Georgia. His occupation was “W.P.A. Writer” on a “W.P.A newspaper”. Keith, who would become a U.S. Marshall, continued his letter writing. Many of his Letters to Editor of the Atlanta Constitution in support of politicians and also to champion the causes of those who suffered the injustices from poverty and homelessness can be found. He died in 1952 at the age of 53.
On the front page of the August 24, 1935 edition of The Key Veterans News sent to Eleanor Roosevelt was a blurb mentioning a baseball game to be hosted the next day by the All-Star Veterans. The All-Stars were a baseball team comprised of WWI veterans from the various FERA camps on the keys. The Vets had recently entered the Dade County baseball league. Their opponents would be, The Wanderers, a team from Miami C.C.C. Company # 1421.
This CCC company of junior of enrollees were new to Miami, having taken up residence on the east coast of Florida just five days earlier.
The Miami CCC camp had been abandoned earlier in the month of August by CCC Co # 264. Ironically, when Co.#264 was still in Miami they were planning a Labor Day baseball game with the All-Stars, but their CCC company was abruptly relocated to South Carolina. On August 20th, the new company #1421, formerly from Myakka State Park, arrived in Miami. They were more than pleased to be near the bathing beauties who frequented the beaches of Miami. The baseball game with the All Stars and the CCC boys was rescheduled for the following Sunday, August 25th and would be played at the Vets camp #1 in Islamorada.
A unique aspect of CCC Co. #1421 was an enrollee who was an official CCC artist, Douglas Wolcott Reynolds. He moved from Myakka State Park with them to Miami.
The war veterans in the Key West FERA camps looked forward to hosting visitors and teams to their improved ballpark, the Snake Creek diamond. They were proud of their baseball field built with seating for hundreds of spectators and worked hard to level off an adjacent lot which they had spread with loads of gravel to accommodate visitor parking.
It was a 90 mile journey from Miami to the FERA camp on the Keys. When the CCC boys and fans arrived the morning of the scheduled game they brought along their older bats, liniment, and mitts. The game was to be called at 2:30 pm. Prior to the cry of “play ball”, the junior CCC players were offered dinner at the Islamorada Camp #3, and after the game supper was provided at Camp #1.
The young C.C.C. ballplayers returned to Miami victorious, reporting in the next edition of their camp paper The Wanderer how they “came from behind to down the Key West Veterans by the very close score of 3-1.” The date of this CCC camp newspaper was August 29, 1935. Two days later ships in the vicinity of the Bahamas told of squally weather and strong winds; the season’s first tropical storm was developing.
PART II – Continued
The Great Labor Day Hurricane 1935 –
CCC First Responders
1 -Interview with Elizabeth Wickenden , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 23, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection