Detroit's killer heat wave of 1936

Crowds lined up at Maybury and Myrtle in Detroit to get a block of ice for one cent from the Detroit News-Salvation Army Penny Ice Fund in 1938.

Edison Fountain in Grand Circus Park was a popular cooling off spot for city youngsters.

When Detroiters began to die on the first day, the list was easily contained on the front
page of the paper.
Dora Brady, 89, in her home on Sanford. Nathan Derby, 97, in his home on West Philadelphia. A
worker at Dodge Main, collapsing on the line. A man working in a laundry, another in a restaurant
downtown. A night watchman found dead when the office was opened. An elderly man found in a field at
Telegraph and Ann Arbor Trail. Another beneath the street sign at Burlingame and 14th.

There were 10 in all on the first day. No one could have known that it was only the beginningof one of the greatest and deadliest disasters in the history of Detroit.

Sixty years ago, the most terrible heat wave ever recorded fell upon the city. At its end, oneweek later, hundreds were dead and the daily lists started on the front page and filled an entirecolumn inside the paper.

Healthy men and women would start off for work in the morning and never come home, falling inthe streets or at work when they were overcome by the sun and heat. Weeping relatives besiegedReceiving Hospital and the morgue, where the dead were lined up in corridors since no space remainedon the slabs. Doctors and nurses collapsed at their stations, overcome by heat and fatigue. “It’s asif Detroit has been attacked by a plague out of the Middle Ages,” one observer wrote.

And yet this disaster of 1936 is almost forgotten. Ask Detroiters who lived through it andthey probably could not recall the dates or even the year. Those too young to have firsthandrecollection very likely have never heard of the July when the summer turned killer. There was nogreat destruction of property, no visible aftermath, as is the case with most disasters with a deathtoll that high. Heat depends upon a cumulative impact to make an impression, not one quick andterrible strike that is seared into the memory. After it has passed, it blends in with all the otherhot spells of a lifetime.

This one was different, though, not only in the number it killed but in the very intensity ofthe heat. Records for high temperatures set during that summer still stand in 15 states, includingMichigan. In Kansas and North Dakota, it reached 121 degrees, marks surpassed in this country only inthe deserts of the Southwest. In Mio, Mich., the mercury leveled out at 112. In Duluth, Minn., whichhad never topped 100 degrees before, stifling, incredulous residents camped out on the Lake Superiorshore. Detroit had counted only seven days of 100-degree readings in the 63 previous years since theU.S. weather station started official readings here. That mark would be equalled in the space ofseven days.

It was a Detroit tradition to camp out on Belle Isle when oppressive heat moved in. But on theweekend July 10-12, 1936, the island looked like a massive gypsy camp, with hundreds of thousands offamilies sleeping out in the open. Police reported traffic was backed up from the bridge along EastGrand Boulevard all the way to Kercheval.

      In many regards, it was the last terrible blast of the climatic conditions that created theDust Bowl of the Depression. The ’30s are generally remembered as a time of heat and drought in theMidwest, as if the weather itself had malignantly altered along with the economy.

A mounted policeman refreshes his horse with a bucket of water in Detroit. On Wednesday, July 8, 1936, the temperature registered 104.4 degrees. It would stay in the 100s for seven consecutive days.

In the summer of 1936, as Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared to run for his second term againstGov. Alf Landon of Kansas, there were indicators that the Depression was nearing its end. The JulyFourth holiday was described by the New York Times as “the most freespending since the Crash.”Long-vacant hotel rooms filled up in resorts throughout the country. The Ambassador Bridge reportedrecord crowds going into Canada. Finally, it was a holiday of the heart as well as the calendar.

The Fourth fell on a Saturday and it was perfect weather across most of the country, warm andclear. That in itself was unusual because 1936 had already made its mark as a year of violent,unpredictable weather.

February brought record snow levels. After the snow came the cold. In North Dakota, thetemperature never rose above zero for 18 consecutive days. The month’s mean temperature was 11 below.In St. Louis, it was only 12. The Arkansas River froze at Little Rock for the first time in memory.

When the thaw came, it was alarmingly quick. A mild March sent snow-swollen rivers raging outof control. Every tributary of the Ohio overflowed and by month’s end there were 171 dead and 430,000homeless.

Then came the tornadoes. On a muggy April 5, a band of twisters careened through Tupelo, Miss.,rural Alabama and Gainesville, Ga., killing 419. No tornado system since has taken such a death toll.

Unwelcome winds were also blowing farther west. The soil began to move on the Plains for thefourth consecutive year, destroying farms, blotting out the midday sun, ending a way of life for anentire section of the country. In the spring of 1936, from Oklahoma to the Dakotas, many Dust Bowlfarmers who had tried to hold on decided they could stand no more and left the land for good. Thereare dozens of counties in these states that have never regained the population level of the 1930Census.

A certain anxiety accompanied all this, as if the turbulence of the weather mocked the hopesfor better times. Yes, the politicians quoted statistics and things seemed better. But could anyonebe sure? The Depression had shattered so many certainties. Was everything really back in place or wassomething else about to happen? This strange uneasiness pervaded America, and much of it focused onthe weather.

The fountains a Belle Isle got a workout in the summer of ’36. Home air-conditioning was still a pleasure of the very rich. Only a few department stores and movie theaters were air-conditioned.

Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace spoke of establishing a fireline at the 98th meridian toprotect farmland to the east. Another New Dealer, Rex Tugwell, predicted that if deteriorationcontinued, “St. Louis will become the capital of a new American desert.” Sermons and editorials drewparallels between America and the vanished civilizations of the ancient Middle East. One analystwrote that the greatest task facing Americans was to “make this a permanent land.”

Finally, in July, came the heat, rolling up slowly from the Southwest, as if the door to theMojave furnace had swung open. A massive high pressure system off the Pacific coast pumped the hotair into the nation’s midsection. On July Fourth, as crowds frolicked on the beaches in Chicago andNew York, it was already 98 degrees in North Dakota. Two days later, it would reach 121 in the townof Steele. The temperature swing of 182 degrees, from the Feb. 15 mark of 60 below, would beunprecedented in U.S. Weather Bureau annals.

“I was driving home that morning and there was some work going on along the road,” retiredfarmer Ed Williams recalled years later. “You had to take a detour to the south. I got to the top ofthe first rise and the wind just stopped me. It felt like a blast from a furnace. I thought I’d felthot weather before, but this was just awful hot, awful hot.”

On Wednesday, July 8, the heat reached Detroit. By 4:50 p.m., the mercury registered 104.4degrees. And the dying began. The health department published some tips: Add a pinch of salt to eachglass of cold water. Avoid over-exertion in direct sunlight. Eat lightly and avoid fats. Don’t swimafter excessive perspiration.

The old-timers wore a cabbage leaf under their hats, but some golfers, more modern in outlook,used a cold towel under theirs.

For those without refrigerators, keeping the ice box well supplied was vital to keep food from spoiling.

Beyond that, what else could you do? Air-conditioning was still a pleasure of the very rich.Hudson’s had become one of the first department stores in America to install such a system andCrowley’s followed a few years later. But even their crowds were down, because few people wanted tobrave the heat to get there. Many movie theaters were air-conditioned and ran ads that showedshavings of ice clinging to a sign that said, “It’s cool inside.” Some stayed open all night andpeople slept inside. The sleeping cars on many railroads also featured air. But home units werealmost unknown.

“The rest of us,” intoned The News editorially, “like Joe Louis from the fourth round on muststay in there and take it.” Many homeowners went down to their basements, spending the days in thecooler confines there.

On Thursday, July 9, it was 102. A man was caught stealing an electric fan from Kinsel’sdowntown and demanded that it accompany him to his jail cell. The judge declined.

On McNichols and Livernois, the pavement buckled and formed a concrete mound, four feet high,stopping traffic in all directions. The wrestling show was canceled at the Naval Armory and 22 weredead in the city.

Friday was the first time in history that three consecutive 100 degree days had been recordedin Detroit. It reached 101. As the weekend began, crowds began to throng to Belle Isle. It was aDetroit tradition to camp out on the island when oppressive heat moved in. But never in such numbers.Police reported that there was not a parking space to be found on the island and traffic was backedup from the bridge along East Grand Boulevard all the way to Kercheval. The island looked like amassive gypsy camp, with hundreds of thousands of families sleeping out in the open, wherever therewas an open piece of grass. The scene was duplicated in neighborhoods across the city as people tookbedrolls out on their lawns to spend the night.

By now, the heat wave had reached the East. In New York, the Olympic trials were being held andathletes were rushed to nearby hospitals after collapsing. All the bridges over the East and Harlemrivers stuck in the open position when the metal joints expanded, trapping thousands of motorists onManhattan. Heat records fell in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland, in West Virginia, Wisconsinand Indiana.

Pets’ lives also were endangered by the heat, but this one had the problem licked.

      In Detroit, the death toll took a sudden jump as news came in from Eloise Hospital that 63previously unreported victims had died during the weekend. Hospitals were not air-conditioned andheat-stroke victims brought in often found no relief. Heroic efforts were made to treat them as allrooms filled up. Doctors and nurses, working 18 hours without a break, administered treatment on cotsor on benches in the waiting rooms. Hysterical relatives crowded the lobby, trying to find news ofmissing loved ones. Newborn infants died in the delivery room. Old people succumbed to heat-inducedheart attacks. In a house on Magnolia, a mother and daughter died within 12 hours of each other. Themorgue reported 90 deaths in the previous 24 hours.

A girl leaves the Penny Ice Fund site at Canfield and 12th Street with several blocks of ice and her baby sister in tow.

Still, the heat held on. It was 101 both Saturday and Sunday and 100 on Monday. Rain wasexpected anytime, moving in from the west. “The city looked like a deserted village,” reported theDetroit Times. Nothing moved on the downtown streets as offices closed down. A schedule of sandlotbaseball games went on but played to empty stands.

Suddenly, on the seventh day, it ended in Detroit. The temperature reached 104 at 2:15 p.m. onTuesday, July 14, then started to slide. A massive thunderstorm swept across the city. Crowds onBelle Isle were drenched by the sudden deluge as they ran for buses and cars. By midnight it wasbelow 70 for the first time in a week, and at 5:30 a.m. it bottomed out at 61. It was over.

There were 364 dead in Detroit, 570 dead in Michigan. Only Ohio had a higher death toll.Medical experts said the deaths were so numerous because the early summer had been mild and peoplehadn’t had a chance to be gradually acclimated to the heat. Tourist officials used the death toll asan odd verification of Michigan’s status as a summer resort. “People can’t cope with heat becausethey’re not used to it here.”

Elsewhere, the heat lingered until August. The Dakotas finally found their rainmaker, in theperson of FDR. While Republicans grumbled about “Roosevelt luck,” the long-awaited presidential tripbrought with it rain and cool to the parched heartland. The final national toll was 5,000 deaths.

The weather mechanics that produced the intense heat and drought of the ’30s are still a puzzleto climatologists. There have been other such cycles since then, but never one so widespread or sointense. Or so deadly.

We are a far less vulnerable land now. This disaster led directly to the conservation andeconomic measures that have cushioned the impact of severe heat and drought. Air-conditioning haschanged the suffering equation. When the South baked for weeks in 100-degree heat in 1980, the deathtoll was half of the 1936 figure. Soon the memory receded and blended in with other heat waves. Justas the memories and fears raised by the Depression receded to the back of the minds of those who wentthrough it.

“It wasn’t the best of everything,” said Sam Phillips, a retired Detroit roofing contractor.”You ask about that record heat. Most people just wanted to get rid of it. We really didn’t careabout records. Those are good days to forget and I mean that.”

This story appeared in The Detroit News on July 6, 1986.

People were charged one penny for up to 50 pounds of ice so that they were purchasing the icerather than receiving charity.

The Detroit News-Salvation Army Penny Ice Fund

By Becky Baulch / The Detroit News

After a series of dangerously hot summers, The Detroit News-Salvation Army Penny Fund waslaunched on May 15, 1938, to distribute ice to city residents.

The fund was created and administered by The News, and with it ice was purchased and distributedthrough the agencies of the Salvation Army at a price of one penny for blocks running up to 50pounds. The penny charged for the ice was not an effort to add to the fund but to remove the stigmaof charity and to allow the purchaser the feeling that he was a buyer rather than the recipient of agift.

Babies were the chief sufferers in the summer from the lack of ice. Spoiled food wasresponsible for many deaths and illnessses. The elderly and sick suffered greatly from the lack ofcool drinks and chilled foods. Health statistics in cities where penny ice funds had been establishedshowed immediate beneficial results.

In 1940, The Commissioner of the Detroit Department of Health, Dr. Henry F. Vaughan, wrote aletter of thanks note to The News, saying, “We know that the great saving in infant lives made inDetroit during the last twenty years has in a large measure been due to the protection of children’sfood. Pasteurized milk and adequate refrigeration have prevented infant deaths. It is more thanhelpful when twenty-five pounds of ice may be obtained for one cent by those who would not be able tohave this protection for food without your program.”

The commissioner of Detroit’s Department of Health wrote this letter of thanks to The Detroit Newsfor the Penny Ice Fund, citing its contribution in preventing infant deaths.

By George Cantor / The Detroit News