July 15, 2024


Historic Highlights: Illinois baked in the summer of 1936

Tom Emery

The last week has brought the usual summer heat to Illinois. Fortunately, it’s not as brutal as the summer of 1936.

That year, records fell across Illinois as residents, already struggling with the Great Depression, sweltered amid temperatures that hit triple digits for a week or more at a time.

In a time before air conditioning, no corner of the state was safe from the misery. On July 14, several Illinois locales broke records that still stand, nearly nine decades later.

The mercury hit a searing 112 in Rockford, Olney and Danville, 111 in Moline, 110 in both Dixon and Charleston, and 109 in both Marshall and Paris, all-time highs in each city. The eastern Illinois town of Windsor also set a record at 114 degrees that day.

It was even worse in Mount Vernon, which recorded a sizzling temperature of 114.5 degrees, the hottest in the state that day and an all-time record for the city.

A newspaper account called it “one of the most torrid in the nation.” Four residents died of the heat in Mount Vernon from July 13-14.

It was 112 in Salem and Palestine, 111 in Centralia and Jacksonville, 110 in Springfield and Decatur, and 108 in Urbana.

The heat kept pounding the following day, July 15, as Bloomington (114), Peoria (113), Lincoln (113), and Rushville (113), Mt. Sterling (113), Beardstown (113), Galesburg (112), and Effingham (111) suffered through their hottest days on record. It was also 113 in Carlinville, which tied a record.

Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1936

The highs reached 100 or greater each day from July 4-17, 1936, in Bloomington, Decatur, Galesburg, Jacksonville, Lincoln, Peoria and Rushville. That was actually cooler than the string of highs that hit 105 each day from July 6-15 in Charleston, Olney and Palestine.

The top temperatures in Jacksonville each day from July 4-11, 1936, are still the worst in city history. There, the peak temperatures on July 13 and July 15 were 108 and 110, respectively. The city set record highs on 29 days that summer.

Springfield recorded highs of 100 or better on 29 days in 1936, and three of the four hottest days on record in the capital occurred on consecutive days from July 12-14. Fifty people died from heat-related causes in Springfield in 1936.

High temperatures in the capital city never dipped below 100 from Aug. 12-28 – a span of 17 days. By comparison, Springfield never reached 100 in 16 straight years from July 1995 to September 2011.

Mount Vernon extended Springfield’s streak in 1936 by a day, as the city topped 100 degrees on 18 straight days from Aug. 12-29.

Peoria residents suffered through 23 days of 100 or better that summer. A total of 93 deaths occurred in the Peoria area by July 16, including 36 in one span of 30 hours. The three hospitals in that city were reported at near capacity.

Five of the six hottest days on record in both Peoria and Bloomington-Normal Twin Cities occurred consecutively from July 11-15, 1936. The highs in the Twin Cities in that stretch, respectively, were 109, 110, 109, 111 and 114 degrees.

To the north in Moline, the mercury hit 100 or above for 11 straight days from July 5-15, including the all-time record for the city, a high of 111 degrees on July 14, 1936.

Chicago was hammered as well, with triple-digit highs each day from July 7-14. The city received only a third of an inch of rainfall for the entire month of July.

On July 14, some of the Chicago livestock markets closed early, as one newspaper reported “it was considered advisable to withdraw both men and cattle from the protracted punishment of exposure.”

That same day, two factories in Jacksonville closed early, including one facility where the inside temperature reached an unbearable 120 degrees at noon.

Crop losses in Illinois that summer were in the tens of millions, decimating the state’s agricultural economy.

By July 16, a reported 480 Illinois residents had lost their lives in the heat. One victim was the last remaining Civil War veteran in Shelby County, 92-year-old B.W. Sturgis, who died on July 8. The cause was given as “heat prostration.”

On July 15, the Decatur Daily Review printed a list of 34 heat-related deaths in central Illinois from July 13-15 alone.

Near Litchfield, a 54-year-old man died on July 13 while operating a thresher. That same day in Vandalia, the local ice plant cut off home deliveries, while businesses received only half their normal amount. The ongoing heat was blamed for the lack of supply.

The summer of 1936 came on the heels of the misery of 1934, when temperatures regularly hit 100 or greater in much of central and southern Illinois. The summers of 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1939 also had stretches of searing temperatures.

In all, the decade of the 1930s produced record-high temperatures, which still stand, on over half of the 92 days of meteorological summer (June, July and August) in countless locales in Illinois.

Illinois was not alone in the misery of the hot Depression summers, particularly in 1936. At least 13 states from New Jersey to Louisiana recorded their warmest-ever temperatures that year.

Children on Mulberry Street in the Lower East Side turned a WPA street excavation site into a temporary swimming hole using water from a fire hydrant as temperatures rose to the highest point in New York City history on July 9, 1936.

Many were in neighboring states, including at Wisconsin Dells (114 on July 13), Mio, Michigan (112 on July 13), Moorhead, Minnesota (114 on July 6), and Iowa (117 in both Atlantic and Logan on July 25).

On July 15, 1936, the average high for all 113 weather stations in Iowa charted at 108.7 degrees. An estimated 4,500 to 5,000 deaths nationwide were attributed to the heat in 1936.

Residents of Kansas City and Madison, Wisconsin, resorted to sleeping on park benches in 1936, desperate for relief from sweltering buildings. St. Louis recorded 479 heat-related deaths that summer, including 29 children.

While warm winters sometimes lead to warm summers, that was not the case in 1936. The Upper Midwest actually was in a deep freeze for much of the previous winter, and February 1936 remains the coldest February on record in our nation’s history.

The hottest day on record in Illinois, however, was on July 14, 1954, when a whopping 117 degrees was recorded in East St. Louis.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.