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New England’s Killer Heatwave Of 1911

July 25, 2016
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By Paul Homewood




Jason Samenow is worried that Washington might hit 100F today.

It’s just as well he was not around in 1911, when an 11-day heatwave is estimated to have killed 2000 people in the northeastern United States. It has been described as “The Worst Weather Disaster in New England History.” 

The heatwave most affected the area from Pennsylvania up to Maine, with a top temperature of 106F recorded at Nashua, NH. (The Weather Warehouse have data back to 1988 for Nashua, which shows that the highest temperature recorded there since was only 103F in 2011. In the meantime, of course, Nashua has been transformed from a small town to a highly urbanised environment).


The New England Historical Society has this history of the 1911 heatwave:




In July 1911, a heat wave killed thousands of New Englanders and sent many over the brink of madness.

During 11 hellish days, horses dropped in the street. Babies didn’t wake up from their naps. Boats in Providence Harbor oozed pitch and began to take on water. Tar in the streets bubbled like hot syrup. Trees shed their leaves, grass turned to dust and cows’ milk started to dry up.

In every major northeastern city, the sweltering heat drove people to suicide.

On July 4, temperatures hit 103 in Portland, 104 in Boston (a record that still stands), 105 in Vernon, Vt., and 106 in Nashua, N.H., and Bangor, Maine. At least 200 died from drowning, trying to cool off in rivers, lakes, ponds and ocean – anything wet. Still more died from heat stroke. It was possibly the worst weather disaster in New England’s history, with estimates of the death toll as high as 2,000.



Trying to cool off in Hartford. Photo courtesy Hartford Courant.

Trying to cool off in Hartford. Photo courtesy Hartford Courant.

A Giant Wail

June weather had been normal, but in July hot, dry air from the southern plains flowed into Canada and then swept south and toward the coast. The hot wind suppressed cool ocean breezes, and the temperature rose 11 degrees in a half hour in Providence.

In Hartford, crowds gathered around the Thermograph near City Hall to watch as it fluctuated between 110 and 112 degrees in the shade. At Colwell’s store in Cumberland, R.I., the thermometer hit 130. A farmer in Woodbury left his field when the temperature reached 140 degrees in the sun.

Ice and electric fans were luxuries, air conditioning unknown. Pedestrians fainted from the stifling heat. At night, the streets were filled with exhausted mothers walking up and down, trying to comfort their crying babies. They feared leaving them in their beds, lest they fail to wake up.  One police officer described the night as a ‘giant wail.’

The City of Hartford flushed fire hydrants and ferries and trolleys allowed people to ride free. Some rode all day. Others went round and round on carousel horses for the slight breeze. The Heublein family donated water barrels to the parks, and the Trout Brook Ice Co. refilled them.

Throughout the region, factories closed and mail delivery was suspended.

Parks and beaches were opened for sleeping. In tenement slums, the sidewalks were lined with blankets and mattresses. Sleeping outside had its dangers, as thieves commonly stole hats, coats and wallets.


Sleeping in the park in New York during the 1911 heat wave. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Sleeping in the park in New York during the 1911 heat wave. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.


5,000 Sleep on Boston Common

Boston Common was described as the ‘biggest boardinghouse in New England.’ Five thousand men, women and children slept there on the ground at night.

Some people slept on roofs. John Merlo, a 28-year-old Italian immigrant, rolled over in his sleep on the tin roof of his boarding house in Hartford’s slum. He crashed through a 10-inch guard and fell to his death on the concrete below.

It became a daily ritual to read the morning newspaper to see how many died. Workers died digging holes. Women fell over picking blueberries. A teamster fainted and fell off his wagon, only to be trampled to death by the horses pulling it. A woman sitting up in bed talking suddenly keeled over, dead.

A week after it started, the heat was broken by a line of thunderstorms. The next day the temperature shot to 95 degrees. People started to go mad. In Hartford, a crazed man tried to climb a utility pole. Two police officers and three bystanders subdued him and wrestled him into a straitjacket. In Springfield, a man suddenly threw off his coat and ran through a pharmacy. In New York, a crazed drunk ran after a police officer with a meat cleaver.

The New London Day reported Jacob Seegar, an aged resident of Roxbury, Mass., was so crazed by the extreme heat he killed himself with a revolver.


Boys licking ice in New York City. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Boys licking ice in New York City. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.


Train Wreck

The heat bent rail lines, causing derailments. But it was probably excessive speed that caused the wreck of the Federal Express train carrying passengers from Washington to Boston.

At 3:30 a.m. on July 11, the train derailed as it approached the station in Bridgeport, Conn.

The engine and six cars fell 20 feet to the street below, killing 14 and injuring 47.

The St. Louis Cardinals were sleeping in a Pullman car at the back of the train that remained on the tracks. They were on their way to Boston to play the Braves. Hall of Fame catcher-manager Roger Bresnahan directed the team’s rescue efforts, credited with saving many lives before ambulances reached the wreck.



Bangor, Maine, had already suffered from one inferno two months earlier:  the worst fire in its history. The city suffered from temperatures above 100 degrees.

A 69-year-old African-American woman, Mrs. Myra Hudlin, had been burned out in the fire and lived in a room with a bed, six chairs and a stove. She collapsed in the heat after washing clothes all  one morning and died the next day.


The New York Tribune's estimates of the death toll from the heat, undoubtedly understated.

The New York Tribune’s estimates of the death toll from the heat, undoubtedly understated.


People seeking relief slept on porches and roofs. Most men walked around town without wearing a coat. Moviegoers showed up at the un-air-conditioned theatres at night in various states of undress.

On July 6, the heat was interrupted by a terrific thunderstorm that killed carpenter Harry Mower by toppling a barn on top of him. The storm damaged property throughout the city, felling the charred walls of buildings that still stood after the fire.

From early morning to late at night, people hoping to catch a breeze jammed into the open cars of the Bangor Railway and Electric Company’s open trolley cars. Six thousand people besieged Riverside Park at the end of the trolley line in Hampden so they could cool off in the Penobscot River.

Even swimmers couldn’t escape the heat. David Kerr, a waiter on the steamer Belfast, was overcome by heat while swimming near the ferry terminal. He appeared too dazed to grab on to a line thrown to him.

After 11 days of searing heat, another severe thunderstorm brought the temperature down to bearable levels — and killed five more people.

  1. Joe Public permalink
    July 25, 2016 3:17 pm

    Following your posting yesterday: “Kerry: Climate Change as Dangerous as Terrorism” regarding the dangers of aircon & refrigeration, Marc Morano (Climate Depot) points to this petition to remove air conditioning from all US State Department property:

    • 1saveenergy permalink
      July 25, 2016 3:57 pm

      Signed & forwarded

  2. A C Osborn permalink
    July 25, 2016 4:09 pm

    Paul, we all know that those historic Newspaper articles are works of fiction, because NASA tell us they couldn’t read thermometers properly back then, so the temperatures were no where near as high as that really.
    Therefore the people couldn’t possibly have had heastroke and died.
    Do I need a sarc tag.
    If what NASA ar doing wasn’t so damned serious it would be aboslutely laughable, especailly when you see papers like this.

  3. John F. Hultquist permalink
    July 25, 2016 4:22 pm

    Temperatures of ~100° F. are a problem where they are not common. Likewise with freezing temperatures when your water lines are not protected.
    When such + or – temperatures are common, folks deal with them just fine. Fun it may not be but we do it every year. I remember a hot summer week in the 1950s (western Pennsylvania) but it wasn’t such a big deal that anyone worried about it. Maybe the Pittsburg Press would have taken note.

    Looking for 95° today. (WA State, USA)

  4. John Peter permalink
    July 25, 2016 4:28 pm

    I remember being in Saudi Arabia during summer. 45C and I am still alive, so 100F should not be a big problem except for A/C using Americans.

    • July 25, 2016 5:22 pm

      In fact, many countries, such as Kazakhstan have summer extremes of +40C and winters of -40C and survive these extremes well. As John Hultquist says above, the worst situation is when temperature deviates largely from normal: the UK inability to cope with a little snow is a good example of this.

    • Sara Hall permalink
      July 25, 2016 5:51 pm

      In 1976, I spent some time in the Persian Gulf where the temperature reached 124F. Even walking out onto deck at 2am for cargo watch was like stepping into an oven…but I survived.

  5. July 25, 2016 6:11 pm

    In Australia it gets so hot in summer our chooks lay hard boiled eggs.

  6. Broadlands permalink
    July 25, 2016 6:21 pm

    On July 3rd, 1898, in Washington DC the official temperature reached 105°F on Pennsylvania Avenue.

  7. Bloke down the pub permalink
    July 25, 2016 7:24 pm

    ‘. Most men walked around town without wearing a coat’
    The brazen hussies.

    • AndyG55 permalink
      July 25, 2016 9:44 pm

      The guy on the left on bench seat still has a jacket, a waistcoat, a long sleeved shirt and a tie, and probably a singlet under that (all poms wear singlets).

      Is it winter ???

  8. July 25, 2016 8:04 pm

    The high-pressure system described for the 1911 event looks very much like the high-pressure system currently moving into the eastern third of the U.S now.

    Here in Oklahoma this system was sitting on top of us for a little while and has now moved a little to our east and this has dropped the tempertures from 101 to around 94, and the hot center of the high is moving east, which is why the temperatures are climbing there and dropping here.

    The worst of the heat lasted here for about a week, and that’s probably what will happen to the east coast, they will get a week’s worth of real hot weather, and then the high-pressure system moves on out.

    Make no mistake, these are very high, dangerous temperatures, but fortunately we have air conditioning today which reduces this to a minor problem.

    Think about going through this kind of weather without airconditioning. It would be real bad. And as someone else said, especially bad for those not used to these kinds of temperatures normally.

    in 1911, there were 11 days over 100 degrees (I assume that is in a row) during this particular heatwave.

    In 1936, in Oklahoma there were 65 days over 100, and 36 days in a row over 100, just to put things in perspective. The difference here is the 1911 high-pressure system only hung around for about two weeks, whereas the 1936 high-pressure system was there for years.

    The longer a high-pressure system sits on top of you, the hotter it is going to get. This is what is causing the extreme highs in the Middle East right now.

    So far this year, the weather systems have been moving rather steadily west to east across the U.S., because of how the jetstream is oriented. As long as this does not change, the temperatures should not get too hot for too long at any location.

    Other times, the jetstream will push higher to the north and will not push the weather systems across the central U.S. but will rather push them across southern Canada. That’s when we can get big high-pressure systems building over the central U.S. that will hang around a while and really heat things up.

    So far, everything is moving in the right direction, and maybe we will have a mild summer this year, if the ole jetstream keeps pushing things along across the U.S..

  9. Moderately Cross of East Anglia permalink
    July 25, 2016 9:17 pm

    But it wasn’t just NewEngland – back in the UK 1911 was also exceptionally hot and for the first and only time government departments in Whitehall were closed because the conditions were unbearable. There were walkouts in factories because the workers couldn’t stand the heat and also clearly didn’t understand that they weren’t really feeling any heat because there were no Greedpeace activists around to explain they were merely delusional as it wasn’t due to get warm until after 1980. Gosh, could this hot 1911 have really happened and not just on a local scale?

  10. tom0mason permalink
    July 26, 2016 5:17 am

    You know it makes sense — air conditioners are as dangerous as suicide bombers according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry. They must be stopped…
    Here’s a petition you can support: Do it for the children, for their future.
    Hopalong Ginsberg started this petition, and 2,500 people have spoken up already. To sign the petition go to here…

    From the story at Joanne Nova site

    • AndyG55 permalink
      July 26, 2016 6:05 am

      Post to every forum you can

      I’ve advertised it on all the forums I hang-out on… notice the h/t on Jo Nova 😉

      More the merrier.

  11. Wayne Moore permalink
    July 26, 2016 6:48 am

    I do not know that Bade Powell was in the US at this particular time, but when he was in New York trying to popularise the then new Scout Movement but I have read that he was astounded that people were still wearing their heavy clothes, in particular the New York police officers, with their then uniform coats

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