Heating Up

“It is hot,” began a story on the front page of the New Haven Evening Register on August 5, 1896. That simple statement marked the beginning of one of New Haven’s worst recorded heat waves. Over the next eight days, at least six New Haveners died as a result of the heat, most of them men working as laborers. Many others were “prostrated.” On August 8, a thermometer at the corner of Chapel and Church was reported to have registered 107 degrees at 1 p.m. “Early this afternoon a genuine exodus to the shores began,” the Register reported, “and those who remained anathematized the weather.”

The heat hung on. The Daily Morning Journal and Courier reported a temperature of 98 degrees “in the streets” on August 12. “Oak Street had a deserted appearance,” the Register reported that day, one week in. “The women had discovered that the cellars under the stifling tenements were cool in comparison, and they and their multitudinous children disappeared from view while the sun shone.” Meanwhile, the temperature in cells at the county jail was reported to be “about 100 all day and all night. The men, in trying to sleep, lie entirely nude and gasp the night away.” The newspaper’s primary source of information on when this madness would end was a man identified only as “Weather Observer Myers,” who dispatched forecasts from his “cool office at the top of the Insurance Building.”

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But if New Haveners thought they’d seen the worst of the heat, 1911 showed them how wrong they were. A heat wave that July was “possibly the worst weather disaster in New England’s history,” as the New England Historical Society describes it. Connecticut reported 71 deaths between July 3 and July 13, when the heat finally subsided, leaving behind dried and ruined crops. The temperature reportedly reached 112 degrees in the shade in Hartford one brutal day. “Ghastly Trail of Death and Suffering,” the front page of the Register lamented on July 5. Pre-air conditioning, people relied on ice to keep cool; its price jumped 33% overnight.

By 1936, when another brutal heat wave struck, the Register was taking a more global approach to the news, and banner headlines proclaimed a national death toll that eventually topped 500. Some died “from heat stroke or lung ailments, others from accidental drownings as nonswimmers desperately attempted to cool off,” The Old Farmer’s Almanac writes.

On July 9, 1936, the morning edition of the Register noted, “Immune to everything but the heat, including silly questions concerning it, New Haveners stripped to bare necessities this morning as a rapidly rising thermometer soared above 90 at 11 A.M. and was expected to equal the all-time record for this date late this afternoon.” A sidebar covered the bad news for the city’s police officers: “Police Must Wear Coats, Chief Rules.”

“Masses Spend Night Near Cooling Sound,” read the Register’s July 11 headline. “Parked in cars, or sprawled grotesquely about like a huge scrambled egg of humanity, thousands of the heat refugees lined the beaches from Milford to Momauguin throughout the night hours.” A photo spread the next day illustrated “Old Reliable Methods” used to “Ease Torrid Spell for Sweltering City Dwellers”: a man drinking beer, three girls sharing a soda, children eating giant slices of watermelon, a man working in an ice house, and a surprisingly cheerful crowd at Lighthouse Point. On July 12, the day the heat wave broke, so did a different sort of news: A front page photograph showed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicating the brand new Triborough Bridge.

Although air conditioning now provides relief unimaginable in earlier heat waves, people still die as a result of summer’s soaring temps. A heat wave earlier this summer reportedly caused hundreds of deaths in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, says CNBC, and killed countless wildlife.

Connecticut logged its hottest June through August last summer, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with a three-month average temperature of 72.4 degrees, including cooler nighttime lows. Temperatures statewide have increased about 3 degrees overall since the start of the 20th century, NOAA says, and “June 2021 was the hottest June on record for [the] U.S.”

Much has changed since 1896 or 1911 or 1936, but we share at least one experience with New Haveners living then: It is hot—and getting hotter.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image features a moment at the splash pad in Lighthouse Point Park.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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