The Florida Railroad Company Inc.
Hurricane of 1896 at Cedar Key Florida

August 11, 2004 - By John A. Leynes Jr. - Jacksonville Florida.

This is a story that my Grandmother, Velma Crevasse Leynes, of Cedar Key Florida, gave for a newspaper article that originally appeared in the Florida Times Union on April 4th, 1965. I have heard her tell the story many times during visits with her at family reunions and other gatherings. The hurricane and tidal wave of September 29th, 1896 ended an idyllic life for all of the families living on Atsena Otie Island. The resulting destruction of homes and businesses on Atsena Otie Island and on Cedar Key signaled the end for this jewel of Florida's Gulf coast, as a major port for business and shipping.

One of only a few know pictures taken on Atsena Otie Key
The caption reads:
Eberhard Faber Cedar Mill - Atsena Otie Island - circa 1894
Children on right, right to left, Pearl Crevasse, Velma Crevasse, Margaret Corrigan
Leynes Family Archives - Photoscan by John A. Leynes Jr. May 1998

Cedar Key and the small group of associated islands, is located on Florida's central west coast, approximately 45 miles southwest of Gainesville, just below where the Suwannee River reaches the Gulf of Mexico. The present town of Cedar Key was originally known as Way Key, and the small island of Atsena Otie, directly across from Cedar Key, was known as Depot Key, as explained later in this article. When you see pictures from Cedar Key, looking toward the Gulf, Atsena Otie is the island that you see. Atsena Otie, loosely translated is Native American for Island of Cedars. Velma was born on Atsena Otie Island, November 27, 1885, ten years before the disastrous hurricane. She died June 8, 1980 in Gainesville. She had four brothers, John, Arthur, Lamar and Hale, the first two from whom my name is derived, and Velma was one of many Crevasses living on Atsena Otie.

At the time of the hurricane they had no satellites or radar and had no real understanding of the basic storm structure. They called the wave of water that swept over their island and home a tidal wave. I suppose it doesn't matter what you call it, but the important part for readers to understand is that the tidal wave referred to in her story, is what we know today as the storm surge. That morning when they went outside after the storm had subsided, just prior to the tidal wave, was during the passing of the eye of the hurricane directly over Cedar Key. I don't have any official record of the barometric pressure of that storm, but there are many articles describing the destructive power of that hurricane. Someone in my family has the early barometer that Captain Crevasse had at the time. I have seen it once, and I remember that it was still stuck about as low as it could register as a result of the storms extremely low pressure. It truly must have been a ferocious hurricane.

The Updated Original Story
It has been over 100 years since a 10 year old girl living on Atsena Otie Key fled with her family to higher ground as the menacing waters of a tidal wave pounded toward her home. Yet Mrs. Velma Crevasse Leynes of Gainesville remembered the storm and the devastation it wreaked, not only on Atsena Otie but also on neighboring Sea Horse and Way Keys. She remembered especially the evening before the storm, when an unnatural calm settled over the keys at sunset and her brother, restlessly aware of it, went to secure her father's boat as well as his own. Her father, a sea captain whose schooner utilized Atsena Otie as homeport, had come by his love of the sea through generations of ancestors who were also sea captains. Her brother, then a teenager, was proud of his own craft, the fastest sailboat in the area which he often used as a taxi to meet trains when members of his family traveled to and from nearby keys.

The sun was a brilliant red smear along the horizon, traced here and there with dark shadows but otherwise a typical Florida sunset. The family, Mrs. Leynes recalled, went to bed as usual at an early hour, her father planning a run to Key West the following day.

Screaming Wind, Lashing Rain
About three A.M., Mrs. Leynes remembered being awakened by a screaming wind, which shook the house. Her father roused the other two children and his wife, then shepherded them to the kitchen toward the rear of the house for safety. By this time, the wind had shattered most of the windows across the front of the house and a lashing rain filled the rooms with widening puddles.

A partial lull eased the noise and excitement at daybreak. Mrs. Crevasse, (Frances Elizabeth Curry-Crevasse-Butler), prepared breakfast for the family, hoping that now the day would return to normal and she could go about her usual routines. Her front parlor was a shambles of stained and dampened furniture, carpeting and draperies. It would take at least a week to get the house in order.

It wasn't to work that way. A few minutes after sunup, Velma was sitting on the kitchen steps when she suddenly screamed, "Look at the water coming!" The family ran to the windows to see a surging tide rushing toward the house from the sea. Grabbing up the baby, Mrs. Crevasse hurried the children out to the house next door, where higher ground offered more protection. Helplessly, the Crevasses huddled together on the third story of the house on the hill, and watched as raging seas poured through their home, twisting it from its foundations. The water came well up into the second story of three story house they were in.

Hours Of Destruction
The pounding waters continued their destructive upheaval for the next several hours. Finally they subsided. Sickened and exhausted, the Crevasses returned to their home, which leaned to one side of its lot like a giant cardboard box. Many of their favorite possessions were scattered or smashed beyond use: China, furniture, books, and personal belongings. Together they salvaged what they could from the wreckage. By the following Christmas, Captain Crevasse had built a home for his family at Morriston, a small community safely inland.

The Crevasses were one of several families on Atsena Otie Key who were almost destroyed financially by the wave. One citizen from neighboring Way Key, W. M. Anderson, told a reporter for The Florida Times-Union, as he looked from the second story of his house toward the Gulf about seven a.m. that day, "it seemed about normal. But in an instant this was changed and a wall of foamy water came plunging over the town. Buildings went down like sticks."

Just as the tidal wave was passing, fire broke out in the Bellini Hotel, one of the most elaborate structures on Cedar Key, which is made up of 30-odd keys, among them Atsena Otie and Way, and spread to the Schlemmer Hotel. It then roared across to the Customs House, taking a devastating toll and leaving charred wreckage. All three buildings went down under the onslaught of fire and wave.

News Delayed
Within three hours, the worst was over. The waves subsided and citizens of the keys began to pick their way home through the mounds of twisted ruins. The wave had hit on the morning of September 29 but it was more than two days until the state's newspapers had the entire story, so widespread was the damage.

In keeping with the newspaper make-up of the 1890's, the Times-Union utilized 10 types of headlines to indicate the importance of the wave. Each bore a different size type: "Cedar Key Crushed," "Town Almost Wiped Out," "Long is Death List," "Tidal Wave Hit the Town," "Waters of the Gulf of Mexico Came With a Savage Roar" and "One Hundred Schooners Caught" were among the most prominent.

The Tragedy's Massive Impact Pounded Through All The Keys
On October 3, the same prominence was given the disaster, which again was featured on the front page with 10 headlines. The tragedy was far-reaching throughout the keys. Of the 100 or more sponge boats anchored by the reef south of Cedar Key the night before the disaster, 20 had gone down with all on board. Their crews numbered from four to 10 men. After the wave subsided, the lost bodies had to be dug from the pyramids of mud. Four miles of track belonging to the Florida Central & Peninsular Railroad on Way Key were completely washed away. Twelve hundred packages of processed cedar, the area's chief export, were destroyed, along with hundreds of logs still waiting to be processed. Boats of all sizes and shapes, including a two-masted schooner, were lying in the streets of Way Key on the following morning, mute evidence of the might of the wave.

Velma's father, Captain John W. Crevasse, occasionally piloted the Belle of Suwannee, a 100 foot-long stern-wheel steamboat. The Belle made runs from Cedar Key up the Suwannee River carrying passengers and freight. Although Captain Crevasse was not on the Belle at the time of the hurricane, several of the men from Atsena Otie were aboard her. Everyone was certain that the Belle and all her crew must have been lost during the storm. In a hand-written account, my grandmother described the tears of joy the survivors shed upon hearing the familiar steam whistle as the Belle returned safely to Cedar Key the day after the storm. She had been some distance up the Suwannee when the storm struck and had escaped the watery fate that many of the other ships met.

The Tampa Tribune echoed the Times-Union's story of destruction. It graphically described the disaster to a fleet of sponge boats anchored near the bar to the south of Way Key as "a score of masts visible above the water mark the burial place of their crews." The Tribune report stated "it is miraculous that a single person is alive in Cedar Key today. The tidal wave caused the principal loss of life, and Cedar Key is a place of desolation and death."

Wave Sweeps Away Prosperity
The violence of the wave and its aftermath transformed Cedar Key. Formerly a prosperous aggregate of islands, famed as a resort, fear razed its popularity and left it a ghost area. Generally associated with the Suwannee River and shipping, the Key's collection of islands was soon deserted. Its history had been rich and colorful. Sea Horse Key, inhabited in 1896, the year of the wave, was noted mainly for its lighthouse and reef. General George Meade, the hero of Gettysburg and its controversial Union commander-in-chief, as a young lieutenant of artillery during the Seminole War supervised the building of the lighthouse. Just beyond Sea Horse, oceangoing ships found water deep enough to load and unload on lighters or barges during the golden years of the Key.

Atsena Otie Key was for a time known as Depot Key because it served as a vital supply depot for troops during the Seminole War. Author Ryder Randall was a tutor in the home of Atsena Oties' most prominent citizen, Judge Augustus Steele, and it was here that Randall later wrote "Maryland, My Maryland."

Way Key, nearer the mainland where most of the businesses and homes were located, is the location of present-day Cedar Key. Then it was the western terminus of David Yulee's Florida Railroad Company, which crossed Florida from Fernandina on the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. It transported goods from the Atlantic to be transferred for shipping to the Gulf ports and also served as a central shipping agent for cotton, which was then produced in abundance in Alachua and other central Florida counties. Hundreds of barrels of turpentine and tar from the state's virgin forests also arrived and were dispensed throughout the state and other states via the company.

Oasis For Travelers
The railroad was also popular with passengers, who arrived at Cedar Key from as far as New York and as near as Florida's northern east coast. Often the visitors were en route to New Orleans, Havana and Caribbean ports and utilized the railroad as a convenient way to make the longer part of the journey before joining their ships at the Key. The large and elaborate hotels were filled with guests most months of the year and provided formal ballrooms and extensive cuisine to satisfy all tastes.

Registry records of the United States Bureau of Navigation for 1896 show that over 30 ships, sailors, schooners, sloops and steamers, some over 100 feet long, designated Cedar Key as their home port. Two-thirds of these ships were built at the Key, and a regular steamship line from New Orleans to Havana used the Key as its homeport as well.

The Keys had been developing into thriving communities principally from the enormous numbers of cedar trees, which covered them and lined the shores of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers. Pencil making plants sent employees to man factories there, and huge lumber companies realized lucrative profit from the trees. Cedar logs, transported by raft from the Keys and rivers to the plants, and often totaled $10,000 in profit on one raft alone. From a census of 1,984 in 1870, Cedar Key had grown to a population of 5,631 by the year of the tidal wave until the roaring fury from the sea devastated both commerce and townspeople's' confidence and left the Key as it had been long before the white men came, bleak, barren and nearly empty of inhabitants, with only the sound of the surf breaking the silence.