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Key West: Hurricanes

Key West: The Old and the New


THE greatest authority on West Indian hurricanes was Rev. Benito Vines, a Jesuit priest, who was director of the magnetic and meteorological observatory of Belin College, Havana, Cuba. The accuracy of his prognostications is remarkable because he worked with few, if any, of the modern instruments for observing atmospheric conditions. So accurate was he, however, that his warnings of the approach of a hurricane -the signs of which no one else could see were regarded by the people as supernatural predictions. Mr. E. B. Garriott, professor of Meteorology, in 1900 published a paper on West Indian hurricanes which, on the recommendation of Mr. Willis M. Moore, chief of the United States Weather Bureau, was issued as a bulletin of that bureau. Professor Garriott quotes largely from Father Vines, whose data concerning these storms extended as far back as 1493.

Key West, although in the zone of West Indian cyclones, has rarely been visited by one of first intensity. Father Vines says that cyclones in August have never passed near Havana, and that October cyclones rarely ever passed near Puerto Rico. He says: "The ecclesiastical authorities from time immemorial wisely ordained that priests in Puerto Rico should recite the prayer Ad Repellendat Tempestates during the months of August and September, but not in October, and that in Cuba it should be recited in September and October, but not in August. The ecclesiastical authorities knew from experience that the cyclones of September and October are much to be feared in the vicinity of Cuba, but that those of August were not of a nature to cause apprehension."

The history of the three severe cyclones that struck Key West supports this theory. One occurred on October 11, 1846, one on October 11, 1909, and one October 17, 1910.

The first hurricane of any intensity of which there is any record, occurred on the 15th, 16th and 17th of September A . D. 1835. The Enquirer, a newspaper published in Key West at that time, in describing it says: "We remember seeing sometime since the prognostications of an officer in the English army or navy who predicted that the visit of Halley's comet now expected, would cause the year 1835 to be remarkable for the frequency of gales and other atmospheric phenomena, and whether it may be considered a strange coincidence or not, we cannot say, but there has certainly been an undue number of severe storms, tornadoes, gales, etc., for the last few years."

In 1909 Halley's comet again visited us, and in 1909 and 1910 two of the severest hurricanes ever experienced, struck the island.

In the hurricane of 1835 the light-ship Florida, stationed near Carysfort Reef, was severely damaged, the wooden covering to her deck was partly demolished, her lanterns stove in, and her boats blown away. Twelve or fourteen large vessels were stranded on the reefs near Key West, and most of our wrecking vessels suffered much damage. An article from the pen of Mr. Stephen R. Mallory tells of the damage done to our home craft, and the courage which their masters and crews showed in the face of their losses. Ile says: "In considering the extent and violence of the late gale, the severest with which our coast was ever visited, we dwell with satisfaction upon the courage of our people for the preservation of lives and property. In the ordinary course of maritime pursuits the loss of all the masts of a vessel, her boats, anchors, cables, etc., is considered an event of some consequence, and generally claims most of the time and undivided attention of her crew to repair damages, but the rapidity and apparent ease with which much greater disasters were overcome by the wreckers, when upon their celerity depended the fate and property of the shipwrecked, offers us another proof of what man may accomplish when all his energies are brought into action, stimulated by powerful motives and under the guidance of sound judgment. One of the schooners was driven by a gale upon a bank, which, when the wind had somewhat abated, was left high and dry, but her persevering master with eleven men actually cut a canal two hundred yards long, and in twenty-four hours after it was commenced the ship was again at sea and obtained a cargo. Another one lost both her masts, all her anchors, cables, boats and rigging, but the conviction that he had nothing else to lose seems to have aroused her stout-hearted master to greater exertion, and with the aid of two small jury-masts, and an old gun for an anchor, he succeeded in reaching a wreck and relieving her of a large and valuable cargo. Such exertions Eire worthy of commendation, and verily they will meet with their reward."

At that time there were not over seven or eight hundred people in Key West. They had no telegraphic communication with the outside world, and the mails were about a month apart.

Practically the same conditions prevailed after the hurricane of 1846, and in each instance our people, with prayers to God, but dependence on their own exertions, rallied from the effects of these storms without financial assistance from the outside.

Key West had its severest hurricane in 1846. Colonel Maloney in his history says it was "the most destructive of any that had ever visited these latitudes within the memory of man."

On Saturday, October 9th, there were light squalls of wind and rain which increased during the night, and on Sunday the wind was blowing fiercely and the rain was almost constant. Sunday night it was blowing a very severe gale, but it was not until Monday morning that the hurricane reached its intensity. It blew all day from the northeast. Trees were uprooted, fences blown down, and houses unroofed. All of the families residing in that part of the city northwest of Eaton street abandoned their homes and sought refuge on higher parts of the island, in the neighborhood of Southard and Simonton streets, which was then thickly wooded. The light-house, which stood on the point where the large sand battery now stands, was washed away and seven persons lost their lives. The residence of Mr. William Curry, which stood near the corner of Caroline and William streets, was washed from its pillars and floated to sea. It carried away with it an old colored servant whose body was never recovered.

Again our people pluckily went to work to overcome their misfortunes. They asked no outside help, and to quote again from Colonel Maloney: "They did not stop to shed tears over their misfortunes. The sun rose the morning after the storm to behold active limbs and stout hearts clearing the ground of the debris, and the waning moon of the next night shone upon the bright hammer of the mechanic as he drove firmly home the nails in the reconstruction of their homes and business houses."

The trees that had been blown down were replanted, and to the energy and indomitable will of those old citizens did we owe the beautiful cocoanut palms and Australian pines that once beckoned a welcome to the coming guest, and waved a farewell to the departing. Most of these were destroyed in the hurricanes of October, 1909 and 1910, and the next generation will best be able to answer the question: How does the new Key West compare with the old?

On October 19 and 20, 1876, another hurricane of minor intensity visited Key West. At one a. m., on the 19th, the barometer stood at 29.55, and continued to fall, until at eight p. m. it registered 28.73. The wind, which reached a velocity of only sixty-six miles an hour, blew from northeast to east until about nine o'clock, the night of the 19th, when it died down to a calm which lasted nearly an hour. It then suddenly sprang up from the southwest, and blew with great intensity until about one o'clock in the morning, when it began to abate. The City of Houston, one of the Mallory steamers, went over the reef without striking, and grounded on the shoals near Saddle Bunches, about twelve miles from Key West.

The damage to the city was slight. A few tin roofs were torn off, fences blown down, and trees uprooted, but again our people pluckily replanted trees and repaired their property, and the effect was soon forgotten.

In September, 1894, the center of another severe hurricane passed over Key West, but the damage was slight.

A number of hurricanes of minor intensity have passed over and near Key West, but it was not until 1909 that a hurricane of first intensity again visited us.

For several days the weather had been threatening, but not until Sunday night did the barometer begin to fall sufficiently to indicate the proximity of a hurricane. This accounts for a great deal of the loss to shipping, as our people had gone to their beds with no warning, and boats were lying at their usual moorings and not secured for a hurricane.

At six a. m., the 11 th, the barometer stood at 29.42 and fell rapidly until eleven-thirty a. m. when it reached the minimum, 28.42. During Sunday night the wind was moderate, at about sixteen miles, but at six a. m., Monday, it suddenly increased to a gale and by nine a. m. had reached hurricane force. The wind blew steadily at about seventy-five miles per hour, but in the gusts which are characteristic of West Indian cyclones, it reached a velocity of over one hundred miles. The gusts increased in frequency and force until about noon, when the wind went to the northwest and began to moderate, and by two p. m. the storm was over. The wind blew first from southeast, then went to northeast, at which point we were nearest the center of the storm, which, however, did not pass over Key West.

When the storm first broke over Key West it was traveling north, but before the center reached here it veered to the northeast, which accounts for the three directions of the wind. The rainfall was unprecedented, 8.12 inches in five hours. There were only two lives lost; Frank Gray, a young photographer, who was drowned while trying to save his boat, and Andrew Cooper, second mate on the schooner Medford, who was struck on the head by the falling of the coal hoist at the naval station.

The buildings wholly destroyed were the cigar factories of The Ruy Lopez Company; The Martinez Company; George W. Nichols & Company and Aurelia Torres; St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Sparks Chapel, English Wesleyan church, Bethel A. M. E. Church, No. 1 Engine Room, Wolfson's building, at the corner of Simonton and Greene streets, Markovitz' five and ten cent store; the city bell tower on Division street, condensing plant and pumping station at the United States army post, and many small structures. Nearly all sheet metal roofs were blown off. Buildings with wooden shingles weathered the storm best, and those with metal shingles next.

The Elks home was blown from its foundations and damaged to the extent of several thousand dollars. The United States army post sustained some damage, the principal injury being the loss of the distilling plant. Every dock in the city was badly damaged, several being almost totally destroyed. Craft of every kind were jammed together or sunken along the water front. Many boats broke from their moorings and went crashing into other boats and docks.

At William Curry's Sons Company the dock was destroyed and the smokestacks of the ice plant carried away. The schooner Magnolia sunk at the dock.

The Mallory warehouse was badly damaged and much merchandise ruined. The dock was not injured, and the Mallory steamship Lampassas weathered the storm at the dock, and escaped uninjured.

At Taylor's dock the coal runs and warehouses were badly damaged and two launches were lost. The schooner Frontenac, loaded with gravel, dragged her anchor and went ashore on the banks.

The coal conveyors at the naval station broke loose, and plunged through the dock.

The pile driver and plant of the Penn Bridge Company was ruined. The four masted schooner George W. Wilson, loaded with coal, rode out the storm at her anchorage. The schooner Medford, Captain Richardson, loaded with two thousand tons of sand and gravel for the Penn Bridge Company broke away from her moorings at the government wharf and was blown about five miles towards Sand Key, where she sank. The crew abandoned the schooner and were brought in by the Massasoit, having clung to the rigging all night.

The revenue cutter Forward was at the wharf when the barometer began to fall, and her commander, Captain Dodge, undertook to get her into Hurricane harbor. He dropped two anchors, but the cables snapped as soon as they hove taut, and she was blown on one of the banks across from the city, where she stayed nearly a month until the sand was dug out around her, and she was floated into deep water.


In roulette playing there is what gamblers call a "repeater" -that is that a certain number will come twice in succession. The chances against it are about 1,296 to 1. The chances against a "repeater" of a hurricane of first intensity, while not so great as against one in roulette, are sufficiently so to make the occurrence one of extraordinary import. In 1910 Key West got a "repeater."

For a week prior to October 17th the weather had been threatening, with heavy squalls and rains. Cautionary advice was issued the morning of the 13th by the United States weather bureau, and later in the day storm warnings were issued for South Florida. On the morning of the 14th the storm warnings were changed to hurricane.

On the 15th it was reported that the hurricane, which had been to the south of Cuba, had passed westward through the Yucatan passage. The weather continued threatening, however, and experienced old sailors who had seen many hurricanes, shook their heads in doubt of the weather bureau's statements and did not relax their preparations to meet the blow, should it come on Sunday, the 16th, was partly clear with light winds. The weather bureau reports that night were quieting and our people went to bed early in fancied security. About ten o'clock the barometer began to fall rapidly and Weather Observer C. J. Doherty sent out bulletins advisory of the rapid 'approach of the storm.

Northeast winds varying in velocity from thirty to fifty miles with gusts of sixty miles an hour prevailed from midni y to eight a. m. of the 17th, and shifted to the southeast after eight a. m. and increased in velocity from forty-eight to eighty miles an hour. At twelve twenty-five p. m. the wires to the anemometer cups at the weather observer's office were torn down, when the wind had a velocity of seventy-two miles an hour. From three to four p. In. the wind was to the south, and then shifted to the southwest and continued steady on the 17th. The wind reached its greatest force between. two-thirty and four-thirty p. m., on the 17th, when it was es imated at over ninety miles an hour, and gusts of one hundred and ten miles an hour were frequent.

The wind lessened slightly after five p. In. until three a. In., on the 18th, with a velocity of over sixty miles an hour, after which it gradually diminished. The storm lasted thirty hours. The tide and sea swell were unusually high. At seven a. In. of the 17th the waves were dashing over the southern and western sections of the island.

The rainfall during the storm was estimated at 3.89 inches up to eight p. m. on the 17th. There was no way of knowing exactly, however, as the rain gauge at the observer's office was carried out to sea at one-fifty p. In. The lowest barometer reading was 28.47 at two-thirty p. m. Six miles away, at Sand Key Light the barometer dropped to 28.40, the lowest ever recorded in the United States.

The three-story concrete factory of the Havana-American Company, which had been damaged in the hurricane of 1909 was entirely destroyed. The power plant of the Key West Electric Company was damaged to the extent of about fifty thousand dollars. The United Wireless station was completely destroyed. Seven hundred feet of a new concrete dock, which was being built by the War Department at Fort Taylor was destroyed. The residences of Mr. M. B. Darnall and Mr. N. B. Rhoads, at the southeast end of Duval street, were washed from their pillars and floated about fifteen feet into South street. La Brisa, the pleasure pavilion of the Key West Electric Company at the southeast end of Simonton street, was washed from its pillars and dashed to pieces. The Olivette and the Miami Jay at the P. & 0. S. S. company dock, and rode through the storm uninjured.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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