In the summer of 1936, temperatures across the United States and Southern Canada reached record highs, many of which have not been broken to this day. Crops died from the heatwave, and so did many people — 5,000 of them, in fact, in a time before air conditioning was widespread.
What’s more, the heatwave struck at a difficult time in history, right in the middle of the Great Depression, and at the tail end of the historic Dust Bowl era, when drought and poor farming practices combined to turn the once rich farming land of the American prairies into a barren wasteland.
Temperatures in the Triple Digits
The heatwave began at the end of June 1936, as temperatures across North America soared into the triple digits, and the skies dried up, baking the ground below it. Many cities set heat records in excess of 110° F, while communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Arkansas all topped 120° F! Even at night, lows dipped only into the nineties in many areas.
As usually happens in a drought year, the dry soil worsened the heat conditions, creating a heat feedback loop that stabilized the heat wave. Soil temperatures reportedly reached temperatures in excess of 200° F in some area, curtailing the ability for new life to grow. Farmers experienced the worst growing season on record, causing the price of staple foods, such as corn and wheat, to skyrocket.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke were common during this time, and people did what they could to cool off. Numerous photographs exist of people packed like sardines at Coney Island, as the temperature in New York City reached 106° F, while residents of several Midwestern cities slept outside—on their lawns, in public parks or, in one notable instance, on the lawn of the state capital—to get relief from the punishing heat.
North America finally cooled down in September of that year, as temperatures and precipitation returned to normal, but the cruel summer of 1936 was one that no one forgot for many years after.