1901 eastern United States heat wave

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The 1901 eastern United States heat wave was the most severe and deadly heat wave in the United States prior to the 1930s dust bowl. Although the heat wave did not set many still-standing daily temperature records, it was exceptionally prolonged – covering without interruption the second half of June and all of July – and centred upon more highly populated areas than later American heat waves. The heat wave accompanied a major drought in the Ohio Valley and Upper Midwest, with Illinois having what remains its driest calendar year since records have been kept,[1] and Missouri being only 0.21 inches (5.3 mm) above its driest calendar year of 1953.


In spite of frequent nor'easters leading to record heavy rainfall over east coast states from Massachusetts[2] to South Carolina[3] during April and May, drought had already been developing over the interior. However, only over the sparsely-populated far northern Great Plains was the spring unusually hot.

The heat really set in during the second week in June, when Springfield, Missouri began a sequence of fifty days with a lowest maximum of 83 °F (28.3 °C) and an average of 93 °F (33.9 °C). It intensified and spread from June 25, when Philadelphia began twelve consecutive days above 90 °F (32.2 °C) – a record it would not surpass until 1953. Some days in Philadelphia and nearby Wilmington, Delaware got as hot as 109 °F or 42.8 °C. As the heat wave spread to New York City – in an era without sanitation or air conditioning – it had by the close of June begun to severely disrupt life. It was documented that by the end of June several deranged inhabitants committed suicide when emotionally disturbed by the hot and still weather,[4] which had risen to a maximum of 95 °F (35 °C) and a minimum of 76 °F (24.4 °C) by the end of June.


July 1901 was the hottest month over the contiguous United States until the 1930s, and is currently surpassed only by the Julys of 1931, 1934, 1936 and 2012. It remains the hottest month on record in Kentucky and West Virginia, and throughout the eastern half heat was extremely persistent without any cool interval – although a violent tornado hit Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan with heavy rainfall on the fifth.[5]

With the persistent heat, most horses collapsed and their carcasses became a source of germs that greatly added to the already-high mortality rate in major cities. 250 horses died in one day in New York City alone,[6] and by the end of July’s first week public streetcars had ceased to run because horses could not be fed. Most factories were closed by the beginning of the month,[7] and those which continued to operate had to permit their workers to wear light gymnastic costumes as these were the only cooler alternative to the three-piece suits considered polite dress at the time.[6]

As the heat failed to relent over the Ohio Valley and Middle Atlantic states, it spread to the established summer resort of Marquette, Michigan during the middle of July. On the fourteenth day, Marquette – after staying below 80 °F (26.7 °C) on all but five days of the heatwave’s first month – recorded 108 °F (42.2 °C), which was 8 °F or 4.4 °C hotter than ever experienced there before and indeed 6 °F or 3.3 °C hotter than any temperature experienced since.[8] Then, a week later without a cool break, the heat intensified further between July 21 and 25, when most of the maximum temperatures of the year were recorded. On the 22nd, Louisville reached 107 °F (41.7 °C), Chicago 103 °F (39.4 °C) with 77 °F (25.0 °C) minimum, Indianapolis 106 °F (41.1 °C) with 78 °F (25.6 °C) minimum. Farm work was abandoned and the poorer sections of the population had to rely on canned vegetables for food due to the scarcity of fresh produce.


The heat wave gradually eased at the beginning of August, with temperatures in the Ohio Valley falling to more seasonal levels on August 5 for the first time in over fifty days. Although in the Deep South and along the Atlantic Coast August was an extremely wet month, it was equally exceptionally dry west and north of the Ohio River.

In the most extensive study of American heatwaves, it was estimated that the 1901 eastern heatwave had claimed the lives of 9,500 people, which makes it easily the most destructive disaster of its type in US history.[9]


  1. ^ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Illinois Average January to December Precipitation
  2. ^ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Massachusetts April to May Precipitation
  3. ^ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; South Carolina April to May Precipitation
  4. ^ ‘Jumps from High Bridge: A Broker Takes His Life Because of Heat and Sorrow’; New York Tribune, June 30, 1901
  5. ^ ‘Farmer Aitken’s Red Barn’; New York Tribune, July 14, 1901
  6. ^ a b ‘The Heat Wave in America’; North Queensland, Register, 8 July 1901, p. 37
  7. ^ ‘Heat in America: Unbearable Indoors’; The Portland Guardian, 3 July 1901, p. 2
  8. ^ National Weather Service Marquette
  9. ^ Becker, Rodney J. and Wood, Richard A.; ‘Heat Wave’; in Weatherwise, 39(1980), vol. 4; pp. 32-36