September 2, 1935: Great Labor Day Hurricane hits the Florida Keys

Ernest Hemingway was at home in Key West when the storm hit:
“This is the way a storm comes. On Saturday evening at Key West, having finished working, you go out to the porch to have a drink and read the evening paper. The first thing you see in the paper is a storm warning. You know that work is off until it is past and you are angry and upset because you were going well.

“You go down to the boat and wrap the lines with canvas where they will chafe when the surge starts, and believe that she has a good chance toKey-West-1935-1 ride it out if it comes from any direction but the northwest where the opening of the sub-basin is; provided no other boat smashes into you and sinks you. There is a booze boat seized by the Coast Guard tied next to you and you notice her stern lines are only tied to ringbolts in the stern, and you start belly-aching about that.

“The wind is bad and you have to crouch over to make headway against it. You figure if we get the hurricane from there you will lose the boat and you never will have enough money to get another. You feel like hell.

“But a little after two o’clock it backs into the west and by the law of circular storms you know the storm has passed over the Keys above us. Now the boat is well-sheltered by the sea wall and the breakwater and at five o’clock the glass having been steady for an hour, you get back to the house. As you make your way in without a light you find a tree is down across the walk and a strange empty look in the front yard shows the big old sappodillo tree is down too. You turn in.”

The eye of the hurricane storm passed and Papa was able to ride out the storm. To the east however, on the low lying unsheltered islands of the Florida Keys, a thousand World War I veterans had been building a road as a part of the Public Works for Veterans program.

They never had a chance. When he got there, this is what Hemingway saw:

“The railroad embankment was gone and the men who had cowered behind it and finally, when the water came, clung to the rails, were all gone with it. You could find them face down and face up in the mangroves. The biggest bunch of the dead were in the tangled, always green but now brown, mangroves behind the tanks cars and the water towers. They hung on there, in shelter, until the wind and the rising water carried them away. . .”

“Camp Five was where eight survived out of 187, but we only find sixty-seven of those plus two more along the fill makes sixty-nine. But all the rest are in the mangroves. It doesn’t take a bird dog to locate them. On the other hand, there are no buzzards. Absolutely no buzzards. How’s that? Would you believe it? The wind killed all the buzzards and all the big winged birds like pelicans too. You can find them jn the grass that’s washed along the fill. Hey, there’s another one. He’s got low shoes, put him down, man, looks about sixty, low shoes, copper-riveted overalls, blue percale shirt without collar, storm jacket, by Jesus that’s the thing to wear, nothing in his pockets. Turn him over. Face tumefied beyond recognition. Hell he don’t look like a veteran. He’s too old. He’s got grey hair. You’ll have grey hair yourself this time next week. And across his back there was a great big blister as wide as his back and all ready to burst where his storm jacket had slipped down. Turn him over again. Sure he’s a veteran. I know him. What’s he got low shoes on for then? Maybe he made some money shooting craps and bought them. You don’t know that guy. You can’t tell him now. I know him, he hasn’t got any thumb. That’s how I know him. The land crabs ate his thumb. You think you know everybody. Well you waited a long time to get sick, brother. Sixty-seven of them and you got sick at the sixty-eighth.

“And so you walk the fill, where there is any fill and now it’s calm and clear and blue and almost the way it is when the millionaires come down in the winter except for the sand-flies, the mosquitoes and the smell of the dead that always smell the same in all countries that you go to—and now they smell like that in your own country. Or is it just that dead soldiers smell the same no matter what their nationality or who sends them to die?

“Who sent them down there? I hope he reads this—and I hope he reads this—and how does he feel?

“He will die too, himself, perhaps even without a hurricane warning, but maybe it will be an easy death, that’s the best you get, so that you do not have to hang onto something until you can’t hang on, until your fingers won’t hold on, and it is dark. And the wind makes a noise like a locomotive passing, with a shriek on top of that, because the wind has a scream exactly as it has in books, and when the fill goes and the high wall of water rolls you over and over and then, whatever it is, you get it and we find you, now of no importance, stinking in the mangroves.”

Source: “Who Murdered the Vets?” The Masses September 17, 1935

September 1, 1921: The Battle of Blair Mountain

Sid Hatfield was Sheriff in Mingo County, West Virginia. He was also one of “those” Hatfields and didn’t think much of how the coal mine operators ran their company towns.

Albert and Lee Felts were the brothers of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency’s founder Thomas Felts. They carried out the wishes of the coal mine owners.

Blair Mtn When Albert and Lee arrived in Matewan, WV in May 1920 to evict striking miner families from their company houses, Sheriff Hatfield stood with the town mayor to block the evictions. After a tense moment, gunfire erupted in the streets of the company town. The mayor and three miners, and seven detectives, including Albert and Lee Felts, were killed.

‘The Matewan Massacre’ hit the national news. With a Hatfield involved, the story of feuding mountaineers was fodder for the tabloids. Locally, the miners admired Sid Hatfield for standing up for their rights and the following year the United Mine Workers gained strength in Mingo County, while the coal operators got their backs up. Each side bolstered their arsenals and miners began waging guerilla warfare while the mines posted armed guards and replaced striking miners with scabs.

On the first of August in 1921, Sid Hatfield was summoned to the McDowell County Courthouse for allegedly dynamiting a coal tipple. As Hatfield, his friend Ed Chambers, and their wives walked up the courthouse steps a group of Baldwin-Felts agents gunned them down.

Miners poured out of the mountains to take up arms. In the recent years of labor strife they had accumulated a large store of weaponry including machine guns and high-powered rifles. Miners began gathering near the state capitol of Charleston. By August 24th they had grown to roughly 10,000 men and with red bandanas tied around their necks they started to march on Mingo County to end martial law, free imprisoned miners, and organize the county.

However, the coal operators’ private army stood directly in the “red necked” miners’ way. Don Chafin, the Sheriff of Logan County, had set up a defensive line along ten miles of ridges around Blair Mountain, with machine gun nests dug in overlooking the hollows that rose to the gaps.

By August 28th, skirmishes between the miners and the coal operators’ army began to break out around Blair Mountain. On the morning of the 31st, the miners started an all-out assault on the mountain. Intense fighting broke out at Blair Gap, Crooked Creek Gap and Beech Creek Gap, with the miners attempting numerous assaults, but machine gunfire held them back. On September 1st, 500 miners assaulted Craddock Fork, a hollow that runs to Crooked Creek Gap. A three hour firefight ensued until one of the machine guns jammed, and the miners rushed and broke through the lines.
Before sunrise on the 2nd of September the miners were less than a mile from the town of Logan. The coal operators hired private planes which dropped homemade bleach bombs and gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I.

As the battle escalated President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Martin MB-1 bombers. On the 2nd of September, federal troops began moving into position behind both armies while General Billy Mitchell ordered the bombers sent in for aerial surveillance. By the fifth of September, the whole warfront was quiet.

During the five days of fighting, it is estimated that over one million rounds were fired. The true number of casualties remains unknown because the miners carried away all their casualties and kept silence regarding their dead and wounded.

In the aftermath of the battle the coal operators and the state of West Virginia felt they could deal a deathblow to the union. 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia. A lengthy trial drained the UMW’s funds and by the end of the1920s only 512 union miners remained in West Virginia.

In April 2008, Blair Mountain, the site of the largest armed conflict in the U.S, since the Civil War, was chosen as a protected site on the National Register of Historic Places. This decision was contested by the state of West Virginia, allied with two of the largest coal producers — Arch Coal, Inc., and Massey Energy Company, which held permits to strip-mine the upper slopes and ridge of Blair Mountain.

In October 2012, a federal judge ruled against a coalition of preservation groups, and in favor of the coal companies that want to mine the historic site.

 

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