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New England’s Heat Wave Of 1911

July 28, 2018

By Paul Homewood


We often get carried away by climate statistics, but here’s the human story behind the deadly 1911 heat wave in New England:



The July 1911 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. The 1911 heat wave 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 during the 1911 heat wave. Photo courtesy Hartford Courant.



The 1911 Heat Wave

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 during the 1911 heat wave 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 during the 1911 heat wave.

Some people slept on roofs. John Merlo, a 28-year-old Italian immigrant, rolled over in his sleep on the tin roof of his boardinghouse 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 1911 heat wave was broken by a line of thunderstorms. The next day the temperature shot up 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 1911 heat wave 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.



Bangorians seeking relief slept on porches and roofs. Most men walked around town without wearing a coat. Moviegoers showed up at the un-air-conditioned theaters 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. But the 1911 heat wave was finally over.

  1. Broadlands permalink
    July 28, 2018 1:25 pm

    New England’s maximum mean temperatures were even warmer in the mid-1950s.

  2. Chris, Leeds permalink
    July 28, 2018 1:46 pm

    and of course this also coincided with a very hot summer in the UK and Europe – the 1911 maximum temperatures for August in England have only been slightly exceeded in recent years. Present day reporters if writing then would have been saying “the whole world is scorching”.. (sarcasm)

  3. Keitho permalink
    July 28, 2018 2:02 pm

    Yikes! Good to know nothing has really changed much. Maybe still a bit cooler today.

  4. Edward Pryce permalink
    July 28, 2018 4:26 pm

    Interesting that you should mention 1911. The heat was clearly over a large part of the northern hemisphere, as commented by Chris, which the warmists are claiming is so unique about the current heat. My grandfather’s farming records for 1911 reveal that the drought started early and 100 (unfertilised) acres of Shropshire land produced only one load of hay. The farm totalled over 300 acres, which was divided into 100 aces arable, 100 acres grazing and 100 acres for hay winter feed. This year, in the same locality, 12 acres (unfertilised) produced four loads of hay and the tractor drawn trailer would likely carry over twice the capacity of the 1911 horse drawn version. My recollection of 1976 is that it was considerably worse for crop yields than 2018, but nowhere near the disaster of 1911. Incidentally, I would not credit modern grass varieties for the difference. We have a pasture field which was last seeded prior to 1911 and which has produced favourably, this year, when compared with relatively recently seeded grassland.

    • Chris, Leeds permalink
      July 28, 2018 9:01 pm

      Edward Pryce… interesting perspective. My knowledge is also of the Midlands of England and I know that for Leicestershire the all-time record temperature maximum of 95F/35C was recorded on 9th August 1911 and this still has not been beaten in the county – although it has been equalled in 1990 and again in 2003. July 1911 also had only 2mm of rain, so it was hot and dry. On another matter the other summers that were probably pan-Northern hemisphere heat were the consecutive warm summers of 1932 (at least for August), 1933 and 1934 (particularly July). These were hot in the UK and Europe and also the peak of the hot ‘dustbowl’ years in the US.

  5. July 28, 2018 9:45 pm

    Reblogged this on WeatherAction News and commented:
    OMG the globe is on fire…. 107 years ago!

  6. A C Osborn permalink
    July 29, 2018 10:13 am

    History is being totally ignored, Tony Heller is one of the only forums to find & maintain historic accounts of weather and disasters.
    Each time we have the disaster mongers out in force he just rolls out newspaper articles that shoot them down in flames.
    Australia also had a massive heat wave, but theirs was in the late 1800s, anecdotal evidence by UK authorities based in Australa at the time reported thousands of birds falling out of the air dead of heat stroke plus many animals and humans dying as well.
    The Australian BOM stops their data at 1910, they do not want to include data that disproves the current CAGW meme.
    The same applies about historic Fires & Floods, also ignored when it suits the press.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      July 29, 2018 10:16 am

      Having said that they still make the odd mistake by saying the Hottest, Wettest, Floodiest, Firiest SINCE (add date) or For (add decades). Which gives away the whole story that there is nothing new in what they are reporting.

  7. mkelly permalink
    July 30, 2018 1:19 pm

    A really sad part of this heat wave is that only 15 yrs earlier there was another heat wave that killed near as many and set records some of which still stand.


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