In 1911 An East Coast Heat Wave Struck That Was So Searingly Hot It Had Deadly Consequences

It’s July 1911 and a terrible heat wave has descended on America’s East Coast. From New York to Boston, citizens struggle to go about their business in temperatures topping 90°F. But as the mercury continues to climb, the crowded cities descend into a chaos unlike anything the country has ever seen.

Today, summer in New York City is almost as sweaty, with people often navigating the streets in 84°F heat. However, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to rise to the levels seen in 1911. In fact, in July 2011, the city hit a sweltering 104°F.

In this day and age, heat waves are not nearly as threatening as they once were. And with the advent of air conditioning, most American citizens can wait out the hotter days in relative comfort. But back in 1911 they were not so lucky – and much of the East Coast suffered greatly as a result.

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Almost half a century earlier, the Union had won the American Civil War, ushering in a period of unprecedented growth across the country. And while the south of the country remained relatively undeveloped, the northeastern states became a hive of activity, with most of the country’s industry focused in the region.

By 1911 the population of the United States had hit almost 94 million, with nearly five million of those living in New York City alone. However, the bustling metropolis was growing at a rate quicker than its infrastructure could support. And in areas like Manhattan, residents were struggling in cramped and crowded conditions.

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Each summer, the warm weather made challenging conditions in the city even more difficult to bear. And even though June 1911 hadn’t been too uncomfortable on the East Coast, the following month was a different matter. After a rush of hot air arrived from the south, the temperatures topped 90°F – the start of a heat wave that would last for 11 days.

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Without the electric fans and air conditioning that make such conditions bearable today, many of New York’s inhabitants struggled with the heat. Moreover, the situation was exacerbated by issues such as badly ventilated buildings and overcrowded accommodation. Desperate, many residents left their apartments to seek shade under the trees of the city’s parks.

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But despite these attempts to escape the heat, rising temperatures soon took their toll on the population of the city. And soon, bedlam reigned through the sweltering streets. According to a New-York Daily Tribune article published on July 7, 1911, one “partly crazed” individual even used a meat cleaver to attack a passing policeman.

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Meanwhile, in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, one worker became so overwhelmed by the heat that he grew suicidal, attempting to jump into the path of an oncoming train. And just a few miles south, a man reportedly shouted, “I can’t stand this any longer,” before throwing himself off a nearby pier.

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As the days passed, conditions grew worse and the death toll began to rise. While the elderly struggled to survive in the intense heat, babies as young as two weeks faced a similar fate. Meanwhile, some of the city’s thousands of horses dropped dead from exhaustion, their decaying bodies abandoned in the street.

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However, it wasn’t just the heat that was claiming casualties across the city. When temperatures finally began to drop, a deadly humidity kicked in that caused even more fatalities. Apparently, most of the victims died in the mornings, when the conditions overwhelmed their worn-out bodies.

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“The monstrous devil that had pressed New York under his burning thumb for five days could not go without one last curse,” explained a particularly florid article in the New-York Daily Tribune, “and when the temperature dropped called humidity to its aid.” In fact, by the time that the fatal weather had eventually receded, 211 people had lost their lives across the city.

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Elsewhere on the East Coast, the situation was even worse. In Boston, temperatures hit 104°F, and thousands of people grew so terrified of suffocating indoors that they slept out on the city’s common. In Maine and New Hampshire, the mercury crept up another two degrees. Railway tracks across New England, meanwhile, became twisted and misshapen in the heat.

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In Connecticut, some of the streets became a mass of boiling tar. And out in Rhode Island’s Providence Harbor, the resin that had been used to seal the boats began to melt, causing the vessels to leak. At their wits’ end, the authorities began resorting to extreme measures in order to keep the population cool. They activated fire hydrants and provided breezy ferry rides free of charge.

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But despite these efforts, more than 2,000 people died as a direct result of the 1911 heat wave. As well as succumbing to ailments such as heat stroke and exhaustion, some of the victims drowned. They were attempting to escape the unbearable conditions in seas, lakes and rivers across the region.

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Finally, two weeks into July, a thunderstorm brought the deadly weather back under control – although five more people died after being struck by lighting during the squall. But across the Atlantic Ocean, the trouble was just beginning. By then, the United Kingdom was in the grip of its own deadly heat wave. This disaster would continue until September and result in the loss of many lives.

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Since the scorching summer of 1911, heat waves have continued to wreak havoc across the globe. For example, in 1936, North America was plunged into extreme weather once more. In some places, the temperatures even exceeded 120°F, creating fatal conditions that caused the deaths of over 5,000 people.

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In New York City, heat waves have continued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries – with the most recent hitting in the summer of 2018. However, the number of people dying from heat-related conditions in the city has decreased drastically. And according to a 2014 study published in the medical journal Epidemiology, this could mean that humans are beginning to adapt to warmer temperatures.

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According to the study, the increased popularity of air conditioning is also likely to be a major contributing factor in the decrease of heat-related deaths. In fact, incidences of the latter began to wane in the 1970s – around the same time that the technology was beginning to become more widespread.

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Certainly, it is far easier to keep cool in the New York City of the 21st century than it was back in 1911. However, luxuries like air conditioning are in no way guaranteed, and the study points out that natural disasters and power outages could easily leave the city without access to them in the future. And without the opportunity to wait out a heat wave in an artificially cool environment, how long would it take for the weather to turn deadly once more?

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