Friday, January 21, 2022

What was the worst heat wave in St. Louis?

July in St. Louis can be a little uncomfortable. It has been worse than it was before.

July in St. Louis can be a little uncomfortable. Although we’re strong, we can’t stand in front of flaming barbecue pits on July 4 and grill pork steaks outside when it’s 101 degrees outside. But even we know our limits. We reached them in an unreal summer, when the Earth seemed to have shifted its orbit just a few light-minutes closer towards the sun.

This was the summer 1936, when St. Louis experienced an uninterrupted 37-day stretch at 100 degrees or more. It had been an amazing year, but it was not the worst. Many people were still unemployed after the Great Depression. Missouri farmers were eating topsoil in a drought that was straight from the Bible. You could take the edge off in an environment without air-conditioning by taking a cold shower or swimming in a pool. Then you could go back to your normal life and enjoy a delicious pork steak on the grill.

The wealthy boarded air-conditioned trains to travel to Michigan’s lakes or Colorado’s mountains for chateaux. Everyone else improvised. “For the last few nights, hundreds of motorists sought relief from the heat by driving to country and parking in relatively cooler valleys,” said the spokesperson.

St. Louis Globe and Democrat reported. “A favourite section was in the vicinity of Municipal Airport.” It said that some clever people created a simple DIY system of air-conditioning in a car using dry ice and a bucket. Apartment dwellers who didn’t have cars made their balconies into sleeping areas. Hamilton Avenue tenants were overheated and tried their balconies out Friday night. When they couldn’t sleep they tried their voices. The experiment was made more successful when heat-sufferers joined the fray, and it ended up being a community sing.

They were still hot but their whistles were wet: The water commissioner had earlier reported that St. Louis had almost surpassed its 1930 record of 193,000,000 gallons of water consumed in 24 hours. Water could prove to be just as dangerous as heat. Swimming enthusiasts underestimated the speed at which exhaustion can set in. The GlobeDemocrat highlighted this by listing heatstroke deaths and drowning deaths. Water was the only thing that could end the misery, and it did. Roscoe Nunn (head of the St. Louis Weather Bureau and one of the most quoted public figures that summer) finally announced that rainstorms would provide “considerable relief.” Nunn assured that after the heat wave ended, it would not be common for extremely hot weather to return so late in the season.

He was correct: It rained nearly continuously through September and the average temperatures were well below the normal, much to the delight of all in the town.

Hot in Herre

Other historical heat waves in St. Louis


The St. Louis Star-Times reported that nearly two-thirds (or more) of Americans today were subject to torture similar to living in blast furnaces. By the end, 420 people had already died of heat-related causes.


Although it wasn’t the longest heat wave in St. Louis, it did produce the hottest day ever recorded: July 14, 117° East St. Louis.


Heat waves in a post-A/C world aren’t nearly so deadly. In July 1980, air conditioning was only available in the City Hospital’s emergency room and ICU. Dr. Richard Hudgens sent a letter to St. Louis Post-Dispatch, pointing out that conditions were the same as during the 1954 heat wave. The city installed an emergency cooling system in July 1980.