Heat Wave: 1901

Fair tonight and Wednesday continued warm”*

A prosaic statement for sure, but warm failed to describe the conditions being dealt with by local individuals during the last two weeks of July 1901.  Drought, heat and humidity controlled our area, and most of the Midwest, that month bringing numerous deaths and crop devastation. 

How could it get any worse?  The city of Davenport was about to find out.

By July 18, 1901, little rain had fallen for a month.  The city was dry, with small fires frequently breaking out in local businesses and homes.  Crops and gardens were beginning to wither as well.  Adding to the suffering was the heat.  Since the last week in June, the daily temperature had been ranging from the upper 90s into the lower 100s.**  The only break was July 5th – 8th when the temperature hovered in the mid 80s. 

The continuous heat began taking a human toll by the third week of July.  The Davenport Times began to report more frequently on heat victims.  On July 18th, the paper noted Mr. George Strathmann began foaming at the mouth before falling unconscious while opening the Weiss Brothers Clothing Store.  Heat affliction was the reason, but he was expected to make a full recovery.  

The next day, the same paper reported  that another young man named Jerry Lynch became insane from a combination of grief over the recent death of a young friend and the excessive heat.  He stopped talking and eating at the dinner table that night.  After sitting without moving for nearly seven hours a doctor was called to the house and Mr. Lynch was taken to a local hospital for treatment.  The temperature during the week was in the upper 90s.

By Saturday July 20th, the temperature hit 101 degrees and by Sunday it had reached a record breaking 105 degrees—the hottest temperature ever recorded in the area.  The newspapers reported that people were moving into their cellars for what little coolness they could find there.  All night porch parties were all the rage and parks were filled nightly with people trying to find relief.  The papers reported on the 22nd that someone had dropped a match near the greenhouse at Central Park (now Vander Veer Park) starting a small fire.  The drought was getting worse.

Factories and businesses began to close as employees were becoming ill during working hours.  Tuesday July 23rd hit 105 degrees.  The Davenport Times began to list the names of those who had died from the heat and those suffering from heat related sickness.  The elderly and working individuals had been the early victims of the heat, but now infants began to be added to the death roll as well. 

The following Wednesday broke the record again:  106 degrees.  Motormen were allowed to go coatless while police officers were encouraged to wear their light weight coats.  Others were advised to shed the fashions of the day for shirt sleeves and light weight clothing.  Total crop failure seemed more imminent with each passing day.  Not only growing crops were in danger—high humidity was beginning to affect stored crops such as winter wheat.  Nothing was safe.

Thursday July 25th reached only 99 degrees with a light breeze. Three more heat related deaths appeared in the newspaper that day along with a list of those taken ill by the heat.  Factories and businesses still remained closed.  The early morning hours did have one unusual thing:  a trace of rain fell.  Not enough to help, but surely a sign of hope as reports came in that morning that heavy rain had begun to fall in other parts of the Midwest.

One can imagine the hope people felt as the afternoon slowly edged towards the dinner hour on July 25th.  Maybe things were beginning to turn around as cooler temperatures and a chance for heavy rain appeared to be approaching.  Maybe even that night!  They had dealt with heat, humidity, and drought for nearly the entire month. 

What more could happen?

At 4:45 p.m. workers returning from their jobs on Arsenal Island noticed a small plume of smoke rising along the river bank on East River Street near the foot of 4th Street.  By the time the fire department was notified it had become a roaring fire feed by nearby lumber mills, rising winds, and very dry conditions.

By the end of the night a section of east Davenport bordered from the Mississippi River on the south, Oneida Avenue on the east, Sixth Street on the north and Tremont Avenue on the west was destroyed.  Included were nearly 40 homes and several businesses including the lumber yard and mill of Weyerhaeuser & Denkmann.  The fire only added to the heat of the day as terrified people scrambled to outrun the flames. 

Approaching trains saw the flames from nearly 40 miles away as night approached.  It was thought by those passengers that the whole city was engulfed by flames.  It became the greatest fire in Davenport’s history.

There was no rain that night.  The heat from burning embers kept the area warm while smoke drifted over the city causing breathing problems for those trying to sleep outside in what little cool air there was. 

Friday July 26th saw a high temperature of 97 degrees.  Saturday July 27th 93 degrees and on Sunday July 28th it rained nearly an inch in the morning and reached only 91 degrees.  The heat wave was breaking while the town began to rebuild. 

Davenporters were happy to see July 1901 pass into history!

July 1901 is currently the second warmest July on record since record keeping began in 1871.***  July 1936 is still Number One.  1901 still has three of the hottest days in July on record.  They are July 21st – 105, July 23 – 105, and July 24th 106.  Surprisingly, July 1901 does not hold a top ten place as a driest month on record, but August 1901 does as the second driest August on record with only 0.46 inches of rainfall.

Hopefully these records won’t be broken any time soon! 

______________________

*The Davenport Times, July 23, 1901.  Pg. 1.
**All temperatures are in Fahrenheit.
***Temperature records are based from Moline, Illinois as Davenport did not keep official records until the 1980s. Both are part of the Quad-City region.

(posted by Amy D.)

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