On Sept. 2, 1935, after two weeks of fishing in Key West, Shedd’s five-man collecting team was set to head home. Heavy rains had plagued the beginning of the trip, but lead collector Max V. Mayer and his crew—Lee H. Ayres, Patrick J. Lally, Alphonse Stitils and Oliver G. Smith—made up for lost time with long workdays. Now the sixteen 200-gallon cypress transport boxes and 20 smaller metal tubs aboard the Nautilus, Shedd’s custom-built Pullman railroad car, were filled with 2,000 reef creatures, including yellow tangs, bluehead wrasses, black-and-white pennant butterflyfish and colorful corals and anemones.
If there was a disappointment, it was that they hadn’t found any small tarpons. Nonetheless, in an Aug. 29 telegram to Shedd director Walter H. Chute, Mayer wrote, "Load rounding out. Expect to leave Monday … Nice lot now."
Although that Monday was Labor Day, a switch engine was scheduled to arrive to haul the Nautilus to Miami on the Key West extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. The FECR was an engineering wonder of 153 miles of track, much of it over open water, stringing together the Florida Keys and the mainland. It was over the FECR that Shedd had shipped 160 tank-car loads of salt water―a million gallons―for its 1930 opening. Since then, the Nautilus had made several collecting trips to the outermost key. This one turned out to be its last.
The archived brown letters and telegrams between Mayer and Chute don’t indicate that the crew was aware of the hurricane bearing down on the Keys that weekend. But storm warnings had been posted, from the front page of the local newspaper to the red-and-black hurricane flags snapping over Key West harbor. Experienced locals kept an eye on the plunging fluid in their barometers as they boarded up and battened down their properties and then waited to get slammed.
Only the fringe of the hurricane passed over Key West, lashing it with gale-force winds and sheets of rain from midnight Labor Day until early Wednesday, when the slow-moving storm headed up Florida’s west coast. At 3:05 a.m. on Sept. 4, Mayer wired a terse but emotionally charged message to Chute: "Marooned at Key West. Length of time unknown. Rails out. Everyone safe. Will try to hold fishes. Please notify crews wives of safety. Will keep in touch. No direct communication. May need more money. Investigate return transportation."
Initially, Mayer thought 20 miles of track had been destroyed and that they might be stranded for a week or so. What he―and the rest of the United States―didn’t immediately know was that the full force of the hurricane had devastated the Middle Keys, 80 miles northeast.
The hurricane was compact, with a small diameter, but it was described as having "phenomenal violence." Winds gusted between 155 mph and 200 mph―making it a Category 5 superstorm―and carried a wall of water over the low-lying coral islands. It pummeled the Matecumbe Keys and their neighbors from 5 p.m. Monday until 5 a.m. Tuesday and left a wake of gales and heavy rain. Whole islands were scoured of vegetation and buildings. Eyewitness accounts of the carnage were horrific. The official toll of dead and missing was 408, but local estimates ran as high as 600.
At least 259 people were drowned or swept to sea when an 11-car rescue train on Lower Matecumbe Key was toppled and inundated by a storm surge. Only the 160-ton locomotive remained upright―the sole thing visible for 40 miles. The FECR tracks that it―and the Nautilus―had traveled on from Miami were almost completely demolished.
To this day, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935―the practice of naming hurricanes didn’t begin until 1953―is one of only three Category 5 storms to make landfall in the United States, and it ranks strongest, ahead of Camille (1969) and Andrew (1992). (2005’s Katrina was a strong Category 3.)
Soon after Chute got Mayer’s telegram, he replied, "Wives notified. Return transportation okay. Wire financial requirements. Good luck."
Mayer and his crew now had the task of keeping their collection alive while they figured out how―and when―they could get back to the mainland. The $40,000 Nautilus was the most technologically complex car Chicago’s Pullman Car Works had ever built, with pumps, air compressors, electric refrigeration coils for coldwater fishes and steam heat for tropical fishes. It could be piped for both marine and fresh water. Chute had called it "a miniature traveling aquarium."
But it was designed for transporting aquatic animals for four or five days, not holding them for weeks or months. Water could be aerated, but there was no filtration system. Animals in transit were not fed so that they would not foul their water with toxic levels of waste.
The Nautilus was parked on a slip in the harbor. The crew lowered "live cars"―submersible fish cages―out the door and into the water, tethered them to the train and filled them with compatible species. For the fishes remaining onboard, they had to pump fresh seawater directly from the harbor into the tanks, making frequent changes.
Slowly news of the extent of the disaster reached Key West, and Mayer realized that moving the Nautilus by rail would be impossible. In a telegram he suggested that Chute arrange transportation on the ferry from Havana to New Orleans, where they could hook up with the Illinois Central. But due to the railroad car’s size, Chute learned, it would cost at least $2,000. "Must be patient," he counseled in a Sept. 6 wire, not fully comprehending the situation. "Wait until tracks repaired. Secure more fish if necessary."
Mayer sent Chute regular updates, usually two-page letters that went out by mail boat. On Sept. 23, he wrote, "Most of the fishes are doing nicely except the shellfish and the small stuff." He reported that a ferry landing was going to be built at Port Everglades. "No date has been set for completion, but [FECR officials] say it will require at least thirty days." He also shipped home parts from a gasoline-powered pump to be repaired or replaced. Fortunately Mayer had backup equipment because the Nautilus’ life-support machinery was already beginning to wear from nonstop use.
Hurricane season had not passed, and on Sept. 29 Mayer wired, "Another blow here yesterday. Water chalky with surge. Have fish on car. No news of movement…. Am broke. Wire funds. Also send Delco fuses with pump parts." On Oct. 2, a month after the crew should have started home, Mayer wrote, "This trip is sure turning out to be a mess. Between storms, broken machinery and indefinite moving orders, I don’t know what to expect next."
After outlining the latest breakdowns and repairs, he continued, "So far the majority of medium and large fishes are doing well. Even the large barracuda stood handling four times and is in perfect shape and eating well." But the smaller fishes, he added, were decimating each other. As for the crew, they were well, "but just a little anxious for some action."
They continued to collect, making forays to nearby reefs and keys to replace their losses and add a few more species. Mayer built additional live cars to better suit the habits of some of the fishes. Meanwhile, the FECR informed Chute that the Nautilus would be ferried to Port Everglades by mid-October, and Chute relayed the news to the crew in a letter and package that included the pump parts and "all the Delco fuses we had in stock."
Mayer immediately wrote back on Oct. 10, "Your welcome letter dispelled the thought that we were among the ‘Forgotten men,’ or the ‘Lost Car Crew.’ Perhaps we were a little over anxious, knowing you had been in Miami, with a chance of getting some official word as to the car movement. Here, no one seems to know and cares less."
The crew continued to collect, and Mayer had a lead on some small tarpons if he could rent a car. In his Oct. 16 update, Mayer wrote, "I have rented a Buick sedan for the remainder of our stay, at six dollars a week. This will pay for itself, as we can get about, to collect food for the fishes and also secure some specimens with the seines." They had recently collected small rays, flounders, pompano and albacore, although five tarpons got away. "Well, there is always the consolation that I know where they live," he wrote.
Mayer ended, "Things are tough on most every body here in Key West and the public stormed the [Florida Emergency Relief Administration] offices yesterday. They had armed naval guards and mounted machine guns at the gates." Also, the Nautilus’ departure date had been pushed back to Nov. 1, but Mayer had grown skeptical about anything that the FECR promised.
All five men must have been weary of living in limbo, far removed from family and colleagues. Two-thirds of the 83-foot Nautilus was dedicated to fish tending, and the remaining accommodations for the crew were spartan at best. Money was tight, supplies on the island were limited, and the only fresh water came from rain.
Mayer began his Oct. 21 letter to Chute, "It seems as though all of my letters to you bear some kind of ill news, so here is another." It now looked like they would be stuck in Key West well beyond Nov. 1. And the tide had turned on the animal collection. To date, Mayer’s biggest problems were a large yellowfin grouper chasing other fishes over the top of the live car and a barracuda bullying the grunts and snappers. But now the collection was infested with Epibdella, a fluke that attached to the fishes’ gills and skin. "I am doing what I can to save them," he wrote, "but lack of fresh water makes it difficult to give them a daily bath," which would kill the parasites. The good news was that he had caught two small prized tarpons that were doing well.
Chute responded kindly to his beleaguered "lost crew": "I have no worries about the car or the fishes because I know that you could do as well with them, if not better, than I could myself, and if you lose the shipment before you get to Chicago I shall be perfectly satisfied that nobody else could possibly have saved it anyhow. So don’t worry, and keep up the good work. Regards to all the gang."
Mayer was able to combat the Epibdella epidemic and keep the tarpons healthy, changing their water every 12 hours. The crew was collecting aggressively again with the expectation of moving in early November. A week and a half of strong winds had kept them from collecting on the reef, but shoreline seines netted lots of baby fishes, including snappers, filefish, pipefish, barracudas, pompanos, jacks, lizardfish, shad and rockfish, all slated for Gallery 2. Mayer still had his sights on more tarpons. Things were starting to look up.
On Oct. 30, he wrote Chute, "Received your encouraging letter, and also, the good news that we are to leave here Sunday, November third…. I still have what I think is a good load of fishes, but would like one day at the reef before we leave. The wind is still strong and I doubt if it will let up before Sunday."
He added that he would use the last of their rainwater to dip the fishes that day but would try to get a few hundred gallons from the relief agency for a final freshwater bath to treat the fishes for flukes before loading. Considering the weather, the seawater they’d be taking on from the slip was "fair" and would get them back to Chicago. "I feel confident that we will get a good load thru. Hoping to be home in a week," Mayer concluded.
That same day, a freakish hurricane began brewing east of Bermuda. It came down the U.S. Atlantic seaboard and on Nov. 4 hit Miami with 75 mph winds, then moved along the Keys and up into the Gulf of Mexico. But this "Yankee hurricane," so called because it blew in from the north, merely delayed the car ferry coming for the Nautilus.
At 2:14 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6, Mayer stood in a Western Union office in Ft. Lauderdale and wrote his final message from the collecting trip that had begun nearly 12 weeks earlier: "Will arrive Chicago Seminole Saturday morning. All well. Fair load. M.V. Mayer."
The Atlantic tarpons that Mayer was able to collect only because the crew was marooned for so long were the first on display in a public aquarium. One of them, a female later named Deadeye, lived at Shedd for 63 years.
Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor