History column: 1934 heat wave prompted weatherman to bring temp gauge inside to keep it from breaking

The summer of 1934 frequently has been considered to be the hottest ever experienced in Ohio and throughout much of the mid-west. Not only were temperatures bordering on the unbearable, the severe drought that plagued the Great Plains was beginning to contribute to the creation of the infamous “Dust Bowl” that dominated the entire decade of the 1930s.

The average summer temperature in Ohio for June, July and August of 1934 was 75.7 degrees, the highest average since 1901. Temperatures during June were above normal on all but two or three days. There were 21 days in June with high temperatures of 90 degrees or higher and four other days reached 100 degrees or more.

In July, only four days in Hamilton had high temperatures below 90 degrees and nine days had torrid heat above 100 degrees. There was little rain, only 2.22 inches for the entire month, to alleviate the heat. Statewide, July 1934 was the hottest month ever recorded. During the month, heat records of 106 degrees or higher were set in Bowling Green, Chillicothe, Cincinnati, Columbus, Defiance, Delaware, Findley, Fremont, Gallipolis, Hamilton, and Wilmington.

Sizzling mid-summer heat blistered the central part of the country from Texas to New York and Georgia to Nebraska. During July, record highs were reported for Chicago, Ill. (105º), Emporia, KS (115º), Indianapolis, Ind. (104º), Kansas City, Missouri (108º), Minneapolis, Minnesota (104º), Muscatine, Iowa (120º), Omaha, Neb. (106º), Okla. City, Okla. (106º), Pierre, SD (113º), and Quincey, Ill. (109º).

The worst of the July heat wave in Hamilton occurred during July 19-26 when high temperatures were greater than 100 degrees in the shade for eight consecutive days. Daily highs starting on the 19th were 101º, followed by 107º, 111.5º, 110º 106º, 111º, 110º, and 107º on the 26th. The official gauge used to report temperatures topped out at 112 degrees and Alvin B. Heath, the local weatherman, pulled the gauge indoors to prevent it from breaking. Consequently, the two days with 111 degree temperatures may actually have been hotter than reported. The average temperature during the entire month of July was 97.16 degrees.

There were few places where people could get relief from the heat and humidity levels greater than 40%. Many residents visited Hamilton’s Eastview swimming pool at Hensley and Parrish Avenue and some took to the Great Miami River or Erie Canal for relief. The Paramount and Palace movie houses advertised their “scientifically cooled to 70 degrees” theaters where patrons could spend a few hours watching either a Joan Crawford, Warner Baxter or Ralph Bellamy film in relative comfort. There was also a chance to see western movie star Harry Carey who was featured at the Barrett Brothers 3-ring circus playing at the county fairgrounds.

With homes having no air-conditioning, people deserted their bedrooms to seek cooler spots on their porches, roofs, back yards or the city’s parks for sleeping. The Journal-News reported that people were comparing the number of mosquito bites they received and telling of their encounters with bugs, stray cats and dogs during the night.

More than 95 million gallons of water was pumped by the city’s water department. It was reported that water usage was so high that the water level in the reservoir dropped by more than two feet. The combined output of 550,000 pounds of ice manufactured by the Valley Ice Company and McGreevy Dairy and Ice Company, the town’s two ice makers, was consumed by residents. The demand for ice was so great that Valley Ice was rushing to reopen a second plant that it had closed in 1932.

The heat and drought took a major toll on crops, livestock and people. Local garden crops and area farms were all greatly damaged, primarily from the drought rather than the high temperatures. Gilbert W. Douglass, director of the Butler County Rural Recovery Board, indicated that the drought had shortened the life of nearly all crops or worked against their full development.

Throughout the Midwest, livestock losses were great but less so in Ohio. It was reported that horses were falling dead in fields and cattle were perishing in pastures. In Texas, more than 1,000 cattle were being killed daily by ranchers because their herds were malnourished or without water.

In Butler County, hundreds of persons were prostrated by the heat and taken to hospitals or their homes for proper care. People collapsed while working in factories, shopping in stores, working their gardens and simply walking the city’s streets. Major symptoms were intense headaches, extreme exhaustion, convulsions, and fainting.

In Hamilton, 13 people ranging in age from just 11 months to 85 died from the heat during the ten days between July 18 and July 27. The Journal News reported 1,368 people died from the heat nationwide. Precise death counts for each state were not reported but it was clear that the hardest hit states were Missouri, with at least 378 dead; Illinois, with 362 dead; and Ohio, with 174 fatalities including 139 in Cincinnati. The remaining 454 deaths were spread across 23 states and the District of Columbia.

The heat wave and its impact on crops, livestock and people was front page news in the nation’s newspapers. Reports of the rising national death counts and scorching temperatures were on the same page with other news of the day including the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss by Nazis, the death of movie star Marie Dressler from cancer, major labor strikes in the Minnesota and San Francisco and the killing of gangster John Dillinger in Chicago. Dillinger was gunned down outside the Biograph Theater after viewing the film “Manhattan Melodrama” on July 22. It might be that Dillinger was using the theater to escape the heat. The Biograph was an air-conditioned movie house and the temperature at Chicago’s Municipal Airport that day was 108º.

The heat wave in Hamilton lessened after July 28 when daily highs were in the low 90 degree range. High temperatures dropped to 88º on July 31. Unfortunately, relief from the heat did not last long. On Aug. 8, scorching temperatures returned when the high reached 97 degrees and the next day it hit 102º in the shade. Most days after August 15th, however, had highs ranging from 78º to 91º. As it turned out, the heat wave of 1934 was a harbinger of what was to come in 1936.

Relatively mild winters were experienced from 1930 through 1934 in substantial parts of the United States including the Butler County area. The six months from October 1935 to March 1936, however, had temperatures across the nation well below normal in what was the most intense cold wave in the history of North America. January and February 1936 were exceptionally cold but thawing temperatures arrived in March. Over the next three months hot weather returned to the country with a vengeance.

During the period of July 6 through July 18, 1936, fourteen states tied or broke their all-time high temperatures and three other states had new high temperatures by Aug. 12. According to the National Weather Service, all 17 of these high temperature records still stand. July 1936, with an average temperature of 76.8º, is the warmest month ever measured in America since 1895.

A massive dome of heat became locked in place over the central and northern Great Plains in July and remained there for an entire month. During this month, Hamilton had high temperatures greater than 100 degrees for eight consecutive days from July 8 through July 15, 1936. Record high temperatures also were reported for many sites in the Ohio Valley, Upper Midwest and Great Plains.

All in all, nothing comparable to the summer heat waves of 1934 and 1936 has occurred before or since in the United States. Record high temperatures were reported for Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. It is hard to grasp how people survived and recovered from such intense heat and drought with so few ways to get relief.

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