Hurricane Words & Music by Steve Gillette
There’s a little museum in Key West devoted to the story of the railroad that Henry Flagler built in the first years of the twentieth century. So much of it was devastated by the hurricane of 1935 that it is no longer in existence. The bridges and trestles were all taken over by the highway which has replaced it.
This nameless hurricane (the practice of naming storms was not yet universal) was the most powerful ever to strike the North American continent. In that museum gift shop I found a wonderful book, The Last Train to Paradise, written by Les Standiford that detailed the construction of the railroad and the horrific scenes of the storm that destroyed it.
Henry Morrison Flagler met John D. Rockefeller in 1866. Flagler's stepbrother Stephen Harkness invested $100,000 in Rockefeller’s company on the condition that Flagler be made a partner in order to look after his interests. Rockefeller was working with a chemist and inventor named Samuel Andrews and the three formed a partnership which eventually grew into the Standard Oil Corporation.
It was Flagler's idea to use the rebate system, as well as some strategic bribes, to strengthen the firm's position against competitors. Flagler was in a special position to make those deals due to his experience as a grain merchant. The rebate scheme, which amounted to a 15 percent discount, put Standard Oil in a position to undercut other oil refiners. By 1872, SO (Esso, later Exxon) led the industry, producing 10,000 barrels per day.
Flagler was one of the richest men in America at the time that he decided to built the Western Extension to his Florida railroad and chain of hotels. As one of the partners in Standard Oil, he had earned a fortune equal to that of today’s multi-billionaires. He first came to Florida seeking better weather for his ailing wife, Mary.
In 1885, He began construction of the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel, and started to create his “American Riviera.” Two years later, he built a railroad bridge across the St. Johns River to gain access to the southern half of the state, and purchased the Hotel Ormond, just north of Daytona.
Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased short line railroads for what would later become the Florida East Coast Railway. An immense engineering effort was required to cut through the wilderness and marsh from St. Augustine to Palm Beach. The state provided incentive in the form of 3,840 acres for every mile of track constructed.
Flagler completed the 1,100-room Royal Poinciana Hotel on the shores of Lake Worth in Palm Beach and extended his railroad to West Palm Beach by 1894, founding both cities. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was at the time the largest wooden structure in the world. Two years later, Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn (renamed The Breakers in 1901), overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach.
Flagler originally intended West Palm Beach to be the terminus of his railroad system, but in 1894 and 1895, severe freezes hit the area, causing him to reconsider. Sixty miles south, the area today known as Miami was reportedly unharmed by the freeze. To further convince Flagler to continue the railroad to Miami, he was offered land in exchange for laying rail tracks from private landowners, the Florida East Coast Canal and Transportation Company, and the Boston and Florida Atlantic Coast Land Company.
Wikipedia provides this historical perspective, “Flagler built his tourist empire – and modern Florida — by exploiting two brutal labor systems that blanketed the South for 50 years after the Civil War: convict leasing and debt peonage. Created to preserve the white supremacist racial order and to address the South’s labor shortages, these systems targeted African Americans, stealing their labor and entrapping them in state-sanctioned forms of involuntary servitude ...
“Some 4,000 workers, including many as young as 15, became slaves in all but name. When an investigative journalist and the U.S. Justice Department uncovered the practices, Flagler and his allies successfully mobilized to whitewash the findings in Congress and white-owned Florida newspapers, some directly controlled by Flagler himself.”
In 1904, Flagler began the project of connecting the mainland with Key West. Key West was at that time the largest city in Florida and an important deep-water port, the closest to the Panama Canal. The 128 miles of track were completed in 1912, when the aged Flagler rode into Key West amid a parade of well-wishers. The railroad stood for 22 years, and was described as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” I wonder how many ‘eighth wonders of the world’ there have been. Dozens, I’m sure.
In 1935, as part of the National Recovery Act, President Roosevelt had authorized the creation of paid work crews to build a highway alongside the railroad and they used the trains to bring in their equipment and supplies. These crews were made up of veterans of World War I, who like so many in the Depression years were glad to have any work at all.
The workers lived in flimsy shacks, temporary housing on the string of islands in the Florida Keys, none of which stood higher above sea level than a man. When the hurricane struck, they were completely defenseless. Their only hope was that the company in Homestead, fifty miles away, would send a rescue train.
It was Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1935, when the nation’s first-recorded Category 5 hurricane struck the Florida Keys. It’s estimated that the winds that it generated were between 200 and 250 miles per hour. The system produced a storm surge of 18 to 20 feet above sea level, knocking down trees and buildings on Matecumbe, Islamorada and other nearby Keys.
The rescue train managed to arrive in the Keys in the evening. Many veterans boarded the train, but it was too little too late. The storm swept the train off its track. The hurricane destroyed much of the track, and the railroad was never rebuilt. Some of the structures of the railroad were used for the road.
Ernest Hemingway visited the veteran's camp by boat after weathering the hurricane at his home in Key West; he wrote about the devastation in a critical article titled “Who Killed the Vets?” for The New Masses magazine. He implied that the workers and families were unwitting victims of a system that appeared to lack concern for their welfare. He wrote:
“Wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months, they know the danger ... But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives. Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?”
J. J. Haycraft, engineer of an 11-car rescue train that had been dispatched from North Miami earlier in the day to pick up the workers, was greeted by a terrifying sight. As he peered from the engine's cab into the howling storm, he saw a wave 20 feet high illuminated by the locomotive's headlight, rapidly tumbling toward his train. As he pulled back on engine No. 447's throttle, he could only utter: “Lord have mercy.”
In his book, Les Standiford quotes the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ozymandias’ Epitaph."
"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
I was enthralled by the book, and we were able to visit the remnants of the work camp on Pigeon Key and the small exhibits there. And as often happens a book or a visit to an historic place can be the start of a song. I won’t say this song wrote itself, but there was an enthusiasm that propelled me along in the process.
There are some discrepancies of geography and some of the details of the events, especially the numbers of victims, but I like to think that the urgency and the spirit of the disaster are conveyed in the song.
The last line of the chorus, “Four hundred souls on Mr. Flagler’s train” is clearly reminiscent of John Prine’s song “Paradise.” The song laments the loss of the happy place his family used to visit for camping and swimming in his youth. The last line of his song is, of course, “Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
I wasn’t stealing, although normally I would avoid anything that hearkened so obviously to another person’s song. But in this case I intended it as what they used to call ‘a tip of the hat’ back when, I suppose, they wore hats. I envisioned John getting a smile out of it, and I think he did.
Cindy and I recorded “Hurricane” on our Compass Rose CD Being There.
Nathaniel Parke played cello, Scott Petito played bass, Cindy played accordion and sang harmony, and I played guitar and sang. I also experimented with a MIDI bass part which you will hear in tandem with Scott’s acoustic bass.
Here’s my video of the song:
"Hurricane" from Being There.
Video by Steve
“Hurricane” — Words & Music by Steve Gillette
You’ve got to
It was a
They put together a special at Homestead Yard
With plenty of room for everyone aboard
They backed her all the way down the western extension
But with the bridges out, there was no way to reach the men at Matagorda
There were people runnin’ everywhere, shouting above the wind
The wailing of the wires and the rumble of the engine
Save as many as you can, and reach for the throttle
And the wave, like a mountain, rose up and swept them all away.
It was a hurricane, a hurricane
With nails in the wind and rocks in the rain
And the wall of water, that took out forty miles of road bed
Four-hundred souls on Mr. Flagler’s train.
It was a hurricane, a hurricane
With the howling wind and the drowning rain
And the wall of water, that took out forty miles of road bed
Four hundred souls on Mr. Flagler’s train.
© 2006, Compass Rose Music, BMI