The Heatwave of 1911

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine, September, 2015

The Heatwave of 1911

By Jim Ignasher   

     It’s been said that if you don’t like the weather in New England to just wait a minute, but what if that “minute” stretches into thirteen days of extreme heat?  The kind of heat where one can literally fry an egg on a sidewalk.  The kind of heat described in Rod Serling’s science fiction story The Midnight Sun, where the earth leaves its orbit and begins drifting toward the sun.  Such heat actually engulfed the northeast in July of 1911, setting records that still stand today.   Some who were overcome died, thousands more were incapacitated, and that’s only part of the story.       

     The heat wave began on July 1st with thermometers reading over 100 degrees, even in northern New England, which was very unusual.  Yet although uncomfortable, there was initially little cause for concern, for after all, it was summer.  Air conditioning was non-existent, leaving many to “beat the heat” in traditional ways such as eating ice cream, having a cold drink, or going for a swim in nearby lakes and rivers.  But over the coming days the oven-like air mass remained fixed over the region, and temperatures climbed even higher. On July 3rd it was reported that temperatures in Woonsocket climbed to 105 in the shade – “the highest in the history of the city.” And citizens were starting to succumb to the heat.   

     Clothing styles of the day added to their discomfort, for proper decorum required men to wear jackets, and women long sleeved blouses and ankle length dresses.  Beachwear followed the same Victorian dress codes, with much of the body being covered.  Modesty standards prevented the wearing of less attire, and it could be said that many of those overcome by the heat fell victim to fashion. 

     It was July, and despite the blistering heat, there were those intent on celebrating the Fourth in traditional style.  Managers of Rocky Point announced plans to make the July 4th celebration “one of the biggest days at Rocky Point”, citing numerous scheduled events.  Despite the grand plans, many felt it was too hot to make the trip.  One headline on the 5th read, “Sun’s Torrid Rays Wilted Fourth’s Fun”

     As the unprecedented temperatures continued into the fifth day and beyond, newspaper stories emphasized the fact that it was hot, as if that needed to be said.  The rising heat-related death toll was updated daily, and not only included those who succumbed to heat exhaustion, but noted an up-tick in drownings and suicides too.

     A heart-wrenching story from Methuen, Massachusetts, told of a young couple who drowned in the Merrimac River when their canoe capsized. Their bodies were reportedly recovered, “clasped in each others arms”.  

     Even at night the temperatures remained in the 90’s, and for many people it became too hot to sleep indoors so they took to sleeping in public parks, and other outdoor areas. Yet doing so carried certain risks, theft of personal property being the least of them.  In Natick, Massachusetts, for example, it was reported that three men were attacked by a knife wielding maniac while they slept in a park.  Two of the men were killed outright and the third was left in critical condition.  No motive was given. 

     Tempers flared in Providence too.  Charles F. Turner got into a fight with an unknown assailant that led to his being rendered unconscious.  He died three days later.

     Ambulances of that era were nothing more than covered wagons pulled by horses, and those horses were pushed to their limits of endurance hauling numerous heat victims found collapsed in the streets.  With temperatures in Providence registering 104 degrees – in the shade – one can understand why some of the animals simply dropped dead during the performance of their duty. 

     One heat related death involved a 4-year-old boy who climbed onto the wheel of an ice cart hoping for a piece of ice to suck on.  The driver, unaware of his presence, drove off causing the boy to fall beneath the wagon.       

     Telephone service in many areas was interrupted, or non-existent, as telephone operators were overcome.  

     There was a story of a hen in Lowell, Massachusetts, who abandoned its nest due to the heat, and the rays of the sun hatched the eggs. 

     Electric fans were in demand, if one had electricity and could afford one, selling between $10.00 and $16.50 each depending on size. Yet they did little except push the hot air around.

     The sweltering temperatures caused a group of actors in Webster, Massachusetts, to go on strike.  The theatrical company had been performing melodramas, one of which was set in the arctic that required performers to don heavy fur coats as costumes. 

     It was even reported that famous aviator, Harry N. Atwood, found it too hot to fly his “aeroplane”.       

Sanfords Ginger Ad
July 6, 1911

     Cold drinks were one way to cool off.  An amusing ad for Sanford’s Ginger depicted a man holding a bottle of Ginger Ale.  The caption read; “I don’t mind hot weather because I keep my stomach and bowels in trim, and avoid suffering from heat exhaustion, and summer weakness, nervousness and sleeplessness, by using a little genuine Sanford’s Ginger.”  

     Meanwhile, for those looking for something stronger, Narragansett Beer was being advertised at $1.25 per case. 

     Unfortunately keeping drinks cold came to be a challenge as ice supplies dwindled.  In some areas, shortages drove the price from $2.50 a ton, up to $25.00 a ton.  New York City was the scene of “ice riots”, leading police in some cities to guard delivery wagons against those driven to desperate measures by the heat.

    Doctors actually wrote prescriptions for ice to help cool babies, the elderly, and those suffering from heat exhaustion, but filling those scripts was another matter. 

     Even areas like Smithfield, with large ice houses in Mountaindale, and Esmond, were not immune from heat related troubles.  Thirty members of a Boy Scout troop camping at Smith’s Farm in Esmond were overcome by the heat, and town death records show that two women in their 70’s succumbed to heat exhaustion.      

     As local ice houses were depleted, ice was brought in from other parts of the country.  A train hauling ice in Beverly, Massachusetts, was involved in a horrific accident with a speeding auto.  Five men were seriously hurt, one fatally.

     Even when the ice could be delivered it didn’t stay frozen for long, and in 1911, virtually all ice came from winter ice harvests, which meant that it wouldn’t be replaced anytime soon.  

     Newspaper accounts declared that all heat records for New England had been broken, and that this was the worst heat wave on record.  However, one man told reporters that he could recall the July of 1876 as being just as hot, and while news reports of the time reveal that 1876 was indeed hot, local temperatures never went above the high 90’s.

     One commonality between the hot July of 1876 and 1911 was the fact that people’s tempers grew short in the heat as evidenced by a colorful account of a brawl between two men of different ethnic backgrounds in Woonsocket’s Market Square, which the Woonsocket Patriot termed “an international skirmish”.

     “The excessive heat so warmed the blood”, (of the two combatants), the article stated, “that they sought to work it off by amalgamation with blood and dirt.” The perpetrator was “reported as the individual who opened the ball by causing the person from the Queen’s dominions to assume a horizontal position, but as soon as the later recovered his perpendicular, he three several times acted as the motive power in felling the pugnacious (foe).  No arrests.” 

     The hot weather brought severe thunderstorms which many hoped would bring an end to the suffering, but instead caused more problems by wrecking havoc all across New England by way of falling trees, lightning strikes, and more deaths.  It wasn’t until a final band of severe weather blew though on July 13th that the great heat wave of 1911 was broken.       

    We tend to think of severe weather as a modern occurrence, but as a point of fact it’s not.  Ironically, in direct contrast to the summer of 1911, is the summer of 1816, known as the “Year Without A Summer” with frost in some localities even in August.  But that’s a story for another time.  


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