Seventy-one years ago today, the official thermometer in downtown Baltimore climbed where it had never been before. At 3 p.m. on July 10 of that year, the report brought down from the roof of the U.S. Customs House stated it was 107.4 degrees up there for a brief period. And, at least officially, it's never been hotter in Baltimore since.
It could have been even worse. Cumberland reported a torrid 109 degrees, the hottest spot in the state that day in '36. It was the eighth day of a heat wave that was sweeping the nation. Already 421 people had died nationwide, and millions of acres of crops dried up beyond recovery. Twenty-nine Baltimoreans had been overcome by the heat and hospitalized.
Adding violence to misery, a two-hour thunderstorm struck town just before 8 p.m. that evening, toppling trees and knocking out power and phone service over a wide area, especially in North Baltimore. One city home was struck by lightning and set afire. The good news was that the storm also dropped temperatures by 12 degrees, from 94 to 82. But it quickly began rising again.
The city record high bested the previous record high of 105.4 degrees, set on Aug. 6, 1918.
Before the heat wave was over, more than 700 Americans would be dead, one of them in Baltimore. Residents packed their bags for cooler spots. Here's how The Sun described the exodus on July 12, 1936:
"Spurred by the desire to escape the city heat and humidity, thousands of Baltimoreans left town yesterday for the week-end. The steamers of the Old Bay Line and the Chesapeake Steamship Company, plying between Baltimore and Virginia ports, left the city yesterday afternoon with capacity passenger lists. Ferries between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, and Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, also carried large crowds of travelers. Railroads and bus lines reported more than seasonal travel and the Wilson Line and Tolchester Company reported excursion business had taken a decided leap."
"Mayor (Howard) Jackson. leaving his office for a vacation with his family, left word that municipal offices could suspend business should heat conditions warrant, and provided the interruption would not interfere with the proper conduct of city business.
"Many offices on downtown skyscrapers closed. Some shops also dismissed their forces, in midafternoon. Golf courses and other sports areas were practically deserted as people sought every available cool spot. Traffic police, in the business area, unable to leave their posts, stood throughout the day under the scorching beams of an unrelenting sun."
"Lawns and gardens of suburban homes began to show the effects of the burning sun. Grass was shriveling and in many instances bushes show signs of drying up. Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, Herring Run and other streams running through the city's limits were below their normal flow line.
"The breeze, coming from the southwest, northwest and west during the greater part of the day, was hot. Even the bay breeze that arrived shortly after the peak temperature of the day was reached brought little relief. It also was hot.
"On South Broadway, in the business district of Eastern Avenue and in Hamilton efforts were made to fry eggs on pavements, without results."
The Evening Sun ran a front-page picture on the 10th of young women, fully clothed, stretched out asleep for the night on the grass in Druid Hill Park. The accompanying story said, "Thousands of Baltimoreans had spent the night in the parks, sleeping on the grass and in their automobiles. Others had sought refuge at swimming pools and bathing beaches. But the greater part of the city's populace had simply sweltered in their homes which, in most cases, were too warm to permit much sleep."
People coped as best they could, according to The Evening Sun: "The proprietor of a store in the 600 block Eutaw street removed his coat and collar when he arrived at his place of business this morning. He sat down at his desk in his shirt sleeves. But even that, he decided, was too much. He got up and took off his shirt."
Finally, here's my favorite piece, from the editorial page of The Evening Sun for July 11, 1936. I quoted a bit of it Sunday on the print Weather Page. Here's the entire entry, by an unnamed editorial writer:
"He comes home and says, 'What's this, what's this?' And she tells him it's an electric fan Cousin Carrie let her have while she was out of the city on vacation, and that it makes all the difference in the world in the living room during a terrific hot spell lioke this one.
"He asks if it's going to sit there on the living room table. And she says it is. And he says it looks awful there. He asks what makes that awful buzzing noise that sounds like a saw in a sawmill. She says that is nothing except probably the fan needs a little oiling.
"He says he doesn't think much of that. He says the noise gets on his nerves. He says he doesn't see how he's going to stand it. She says it is very funny that he is nervous about a steady noise like that when he never seems to be bothered by having the radio turned on full tilt while he is reading. She says if she has had to put up with the radio all these years, then she thinks he ought to be able to put up with an electric fan for a few hot evenings.
"He says he supposes he can. He says what he objects to is the principle of the thing. He says for years they have gone through hot spells without an electric fan, and he doesn't see why they should suddenly imagine they can't do without one. He says that is what is wrong with the country today, everybody just wants to have an easy time, and the easier the better. He says there is no more of the old pioneer spirit that made us what we are, and trained us to put up with hardships. He says he hates to think of the children growing up soft, and that is what an electric fan will do for them.
"She says it's a nice thing for him to be talking that way. Hasn't he been boasting to them about his air-conditioned office, and how much more efficient he is and more valuable to his employer? And he says, 'Nonesense. That's quite a different matter!"
Thanks to Sun research librarian Paul McCardell for dredging up the old clips.