Rescue Train Swept off the Tracks by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane


On September 2, 1935, a powerful hurricane slammed into the middle Florida Keys. Known as the Labor Day Hurricane, it was the first Category 5 storm to strike the United States in recorded history. The hurricane claimed at least 485 lives, including about 260 World War I veterans working on a section of the Overseas Highway in a federal relief project. The veterans came from the ranks of the Bonus Army, a group of soldiers who camped at the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the early 1930s to demand compensation promised by the federal government, and who on July 28, 1932 were dispersed by U.S. Army troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Some of the veterans later were given relief jobs by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Works Progress Administration. On the day of the storm, officials sent a train to evacuate the men, but it failed to reach the camps located on Lower Matecumbe Key. This image is an aerial view of the ill-fated rescue train taken three days after the storm. High winds and an estimated 18 feet (5.49 meters) of storm surge swept the train off the tracks. Author Ernest Hemingway, then a resident of Key West, captured public outrage about the episode in an essay entitled “Who Murdered the Vets?” published just days after the hurricane. A government inquiry investigated both the mishandling of the evacuation and the shortcomings of forecasting work done by the Weather Bureau in the days leading up to the storm’s landfall. The official judgment ultimately assigned blame in both instances to nature, rather than to human error. Following the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the Weather Bureau established additional monitoring stations in southern Florida and took steps to improve disaster preparedness in vulnerable coastal areas. The Labor Day Hurricane still ranks as one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall in the United States, but it likely will be remembered mainly as the tragic conclusion to the story of the Bonus Army.

Last updated: October 17, 2014