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Pier - Asher Coelho.png

Pier by Asher Coelho from Vantage

The End of the Line at Islamorada

A tropical depression formed east of Eluthera in the last week of August. As it passed over Nassau and Andros, it looked as if it would stall out over the less populated regions of Cuba, leaving maybe a foot of rain at the most.

But, much to the dismay of Big Citrus and the Weather Service, it turned north and stalled over the warm waters between Bimini and what would one day come to be Freeport, before turning on towards Florida.

Everyone but Hemingway left Key West on the railroad, the only link the islands had to the outside, besides boat. And neither the ferry to Northern Monroe or Havana dared to brave the seas, even days before the evacuation was ordered.

Months prior, the huddled masses, unemployed WWI veterans, arrived in Upper Matecumbe to the sight of towering palms. They were there to build a road that would complement Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad. They lived in ramshackle huts and toiled in the sun, while hundreds of tourists passed each and every day, enamored with the tropical scenery and days of perpetual June.

In the hours leading up to the landfall of the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 in South Florida, the most hardworking and destitute of its inhabitants were the only ones (besides the half crazed-journalist-veteran-bullfighter-author) unaccounted for. They continued work so that the rest could pass through Largo and find refuge in the peninsula’s interior.

When someone of note further up the line in Miami finally remembered them, it was too late. They sent an engine and cattle cars south down the Keys as fast as they could to retrieve the stranded laborers. But it derailed before even picking them up, amid 200 mile an hour winds at the village of Islamorada. The Weather Service estimated that over 400 lost their lives stranded in paradise.

Today there are reminders of the storm’s impact; scars on the islands that Jimmy Buffet once evangelized, and later disowned once too many “tourists” followed his call the Keys.

The railroad was never rebuilt, but you can still see weathered segments of the bridges that once carried it from the road that now links the islands. Some that are connected to the land are now fishing piers or offshore gardens. Several are currently being reconnected to form a trans-island bike path.

On Upper Matecumbe there is a small, simple stone obelisk dedicated to the veteran workers. It has an engraved depiction of palm trees bending in the wind of the storm.

The train hit the end of its line in Islamorada, just as the workers hit the end of theirs a little further south on Upper Matecumbe. The Florida East Coast Railway replaced both. It bought another train. It hired more people.

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