This is a continuation of a series on the history of hurricanes in our area if you missed part you can find it online at coastalbreezenews.com under Tales told Twice archives.
“The Calusas deemed Marco Island sacred because the hurricanes which came howling up from the Caribbean Sea spun counterclockwise and always seemed to move around the Island.”
Really? This quote, taken from a local newspaper article several years ago, repeats a local myth and belief held for many years by Southwest Floridians. There is nothing true about it and the statement reveals more about a local need to try to provide logic for a thirty year period of low hurricane activity than it does about the Calusa Indians, of which there is no recorded information about their beliefs on hurricanes. We do know that the Calusa, and the Archaic Indians who preceded them, lived primarily on shell mounds and the higher ground they chose was the best protection against storm surges. Prior to 1851 there was no U.S. official data kept on hurricane activity; the Spanish recorded some information, and Lloyds of London kept records starting in the late 1700’s, but the track or power of these early hurricanes is uncertain due to rudimentary technology.
Even the U.S. information kept after 1851 was, for the most part, obtained from ships who managed not to sink and from the towns and settlers who survived the impact of these storms. The National Weather Service was formed in February of 1870 but, without any of today’s sophisticated equipment, little advance warning was given, leaving the pioneers, like the Indians before them, in the dark and on their own when it came to any preparation for hurricanes.
Pre-1870 the future area to be known as Collier County was almost unpopulated, except for Seminole Indians who resided primarily in the interior, and had little or no communication with the outside world and did not report any storm activity. Even during the 2nd and 3rd Seminole Wars,1835-1858, the impact of hurricanes was not a factor to the military because those wars were primarily fought during the “healthy season,” the winter months, as the U.S. Army, remarkably as it sounds now, took off the summer months declaring an unofficial truce because of “summer diseases” thought to be prevalent in the tropics.
In 1873 a hurricane hit on October 7th and flooded Everglades City with 6 feet of water, putting several feet of water inside of George Allen’s home, now known as the Rod & Gun Club, which was raised after the storm by an additional four feet. The storm passed Naples with a high storm surge, 110 mph winds and moved on shore at Ft. Myers hitting them with 115 mph winds. A government vessel (a revenue cutter) that drew 8 feet of water was found lying on the high ground after the storm in Ft. Myers. Most likely this is the storm that caused W.T. Collier and his family to move from the low lying area now known as Hideaway Beach, where they had built a home in 1870 that was destroyed by a storm to Key Marco (now Old Marco), to where the shell mounds at the time provided higher protection. The 1873 storm that passed Collier County off shore would now be rated as a Category 3 storm and, as severe as it was, would be tame compared to the massive 1910 Hurricane that hit Collier County dead on. It is now the 100th anniversary of that storm, a storm that for exactly 50 years would be considered the worst hurricane of SW Florida until Hurricane Donna hit in 1960.
To Floridians, the October 1910 Hurricane started after notice that it had hit Cuba and was passing the Keys to the west and north of Key West when it looped back and hit Key West for over 30 hours. The loopmade by this hurricane was so unusual that for years it was debated if there were really two storms. Winds reached 90 mph on October 17th with gusts up to 100 mph and by 7 a.m. of that morning waves were washing over the southern and western sections of Key West. The U.S. Weather Bureau, which had unadvisedly been placed in Key West, was entirely submerged by 9 a.m. and completely useless. By 3 p.m. there was 7 feet of water in the building. The U.S. army dock and marine hospital dock were swept away and, at times, the waves were over 15 feet high and pounded debris against office buildings.
The hurricane moved north and hit Cape Sable next, destroying the buildings at Flamingo and salting and killing the roots of the sugar cane planted on the Cape. James Thompson resided on Highland’s Beach and in order to save his family, he put his wife and child into his fishing skiff and rode out the storm in the mangroves with the baby secured under a tin tub. The four families who lived on Wood Key just north of the mouth of Lostman’s River rode out the storm in their boats on the lee side of the island as water broke over it. Twenty-two clam diggers working near Plover Key lost all but three of their boats and survived because Plover Key stands 7 or 8 feet above normal high tide. After the storm, the clammers made their way back to Caxambas.
The 1910 Hurricane continued north and the lethal upper right quadrant of it hit Chokoloskee Island. Ted Smallwood reported that he and a group were staying in a house that was 9 feet above sea level, but on the night of October 17th the water got so high that they left the house and waded across a valley that was knee deep in water to reach a 30-foot shell mound where they sat outside inthe weather for the duration of the storm. The next day he found about 100 drowned chickens under his house, which decayed there for several months until he could get help to raise the house. The hurricane killed mullet that lay about one foot deep around the beach and rotted; meanwhile, two people on the island were reported dead. Smallwood’s description of the last quarter of 1910: “It was a bad time.”
It is estimated that the hurricane hit land around Cape Romano as it headed north as a Category 4 hurricane. The storm was so large that parts of it were still over Key West when, at 6 a.m. on October 17th it reached Marco Island with winds at 115 mph. The residents of Caxambas sought shelter in the Heights Hotel on top of Indian Hill, at a 52 foot elevation, and the highest place in Southwest Florida. The hotel had opened two years earlier in 1908 by James Barfield and his wife, Tommie. While everyone at the hotel was safe from the destructive storm surge, the community lying below them was not. Fred Ludlow, the owner of the Ludlow Fruit Company who employed 20 workers and had over 100 acres of property under cultivation, discovered after the storm passed that his factory for packing and shipping had been destroyed, as well as over a million pineapple plants were lost. Even one corner of the Ludlow home was moved off of its foundation (which was located on a ridge at the west end of the current Ludlow Drive in the estates section of Marco Island). That was the end of Ludlow’s farming operation and he got a new job as manager of the Burnham Clam Factory.
On October 18th the storm, now reduced to a Category 3, moved into Naples from the south with winds over 100 mph and a high storm surge. It continued its destructive path north, with seven men drowned in Punta Gorda as four Cuban fishing schooners wrecked, a black man drownedcrossing the Peace River, and it was widely reported that survivors escaped the storm surge by climbing trees. The hurricane moved up the center of the peninsula of Florida entering Georgia west of Jacksonville on October 19th. The 1910 Hurricane impacted the entire state, including destruction along the east coast as well. Part of the Florida East Coast Railroad was washed out, a schooner wrecked at Boca Raton, killing three on board, and towns like Fort Pierce were in ruins.
The 1910 Hurricane storm surge salted much of the farming lands of Southwest Florida which could not be re-cultivated until rain washed the salt out of the soil. Local folklore says that the pioneers learned to taste the soil to see if it had too much salt. If farmers were lucky, desalting would occur in the final phases of a storm but only if heavy rainfall continued after the storm tide subsided; obviously nothing would bring back the current crop. The farmers at Cape Sable chose to replant and obtained usable sugar cane root stock from Mr. Watson’s plantation at Chatham Bend, south of Everglades City. In an unrelated incident, Mr. Watson had been killed shortly after the 1910 hurricane in a gun fight outside of the Smallwood store in Chokoloskee, so his sugar cane root was apparently free for the taking.
Never calculated was the amount of damage throughout Florida, nor were the total numbers of deaths ever totaled. Cuba estimated that at least 100 people died from the storm before it hit Florida and they sustained over $1 million in damages in Havana alone. The Hurricane of 1910 is rated as one of the most destructive in history.
Read the next issue for a continuation of the history of hurricanes in S.W. Florida.
Craig Woodward moved to Marco Island in 1968 and has practiced law in Collier County since 1980. For many years Craig has led a history tour of the Island for the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Marco program. He has a home in Everglades City and a deep interest in local and Florida history.