A look back at the Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896

Cedar Key was popping back in 1896.

Turpentine mills, the fishing industry, timber, and salt works kept the ships busy in the port and trains coming and going.

According to Anna Hodges, executive director of the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, chickens roamed freely in the horse and buggy-filled city streets, and boarding house owner Nicholas Schlemmer built a walkway over Second Street so pedestrians could avoid the traffic and walking in the mud.

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The Suwannee Hotel had 150 rooms, and the city had raised enough funds to implement an improvement plan for D Street. In February 1896, Cedar Key councilmen voted to move $300 from the general account to grant employment for teachers in the newly extended public school system.

When news of an encroaching storm traveled, sponge fishing fleets took refuge in the coves of Cedar Key. But that storm, reported as the West India Hurricane by the Monthly Weather Review‘s October 1896 edition, put an end to prosperity.

While Cedar Key has felt the effects of numerous hurricanes over the years, usually from storm surges, direct hits are rare. As the community braces for Tropical Storm Elsa, it will likely see no more than a Category 1 hurricane—but the path Elsa is charting bears a striking resemblance to the monster storm of 1896.

Path of the Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896

The locals call it the Cedar Keys Hurricane and an oral history collection, letters and maps from the museum tell the story of the deadliest hurricane to hit Cedar Key.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archives, accounts of the events lasting from Sept. 26-30 start with the headline: “Hurricane of 1896 Strikes with a Fury.”

According to a summary of the event, “Cedar Key received a storm surge of 10.5 feet above mean sea level (MSL) and Yankeetown, FL received the brunt of the storm surge, with about 12.6 feet above MSL. Sustained winds of 70 mph were recorded in several locations, and damage estimates in Florida from timber alone totaled $1.5 million. Some estimates indicate wind speeds of 125 mph just north of Cedar Key, FL.”

The summary documents the official death toll at “around 100,” mostly caused by the storm surge. 

Excerpts from the Monthly Weather Review released that November painted a clear picture of the destruction:

“Evidence of unusually violent winds were observed on every hand throughout the storm’s course,” reads the article. “In the counties of Levy, Alachua, LaFayette, Suwannee, Columbia, Bradford, and Baker, Fla., the destruction of pine timber was enormous… During the early part of the storm the trees were torn up by the roots, but as the force of the wind increased they were broken and twisted off and thrown forward in a confused mass.”

The article reports the storm’s path continued through Jacksonville, where winds reached 70 mph and averaged 52 mph.

According to historical accounts published by the World Digital Library (WDL), more than 450 recorded tropical storms and hurricanes have reached Florida’s coastlines since European exploration began.

“The hurricane of September 1896 destroyed most of the residential area of the town of Cedar Key on the upper west coast of the Florida peninsula, killing dozens of residents and destroying most of Cedar Key’s industries,” according to WDL. “Before making landfall, the storm and its tidal surge overwhelmed more than 100 sponging boats, killing untold numbers of crewmen. The hurricane then crossed the peninsula, leaving a wide swath of destruction until it reached the Atlantic coast at Fernandina, before heading north to Virginia.”

Hodges said that locals reported seeing a wall of water was at least 20 feet tall when the Cedar Key Hurricane took over the town. It was an event that shaped the history and resilience of the fishing community.

The Tampa Tribune Weekly wrote about the aftermath.

“Many of the corpses were dug out of the mud where they were buried by the tidal wave, which swept the town last Tuesday [September 29, 1896],” the Tribune reported. “The town…had no protection and went to pieces when the West India hurricane with the velocity of 80 miles per hour came roaring from the Gulf. At seven o’clock an immense tidal wave came in from the south carrying destruction with it. Boats, wharves, and small houses were hurled upon the shore…”

The event earned mention in many books. A comprehensive account was written by Alvin F. Fickle in his novel titled, The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn.

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