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The Hottest Day Ever

117 Degrees in Illinois

On the morning of July 14, 1954, residents of southern Illinois arose to face yet another scorching day of 100‐degree heat. By late afternoon, East St. Louis was nearly burned off the map when it reached 117 degrees—the hottest temperature ever recorded in Illinois.

The coroner’s death reports, according to public records, outnumbered the birth certificates. Heat was literally killing people from Kansas to Alabama during the scorching summer of 1954. The death toll would be listed daily in the newspapers. For weeks, beginning in June, residents of the lower Midwest baked under a relentless, scorching sun that offered no hope for rain. The nights were often miserably warm, and then the sun would rise again and continue to scorch the earth.

A single day above 100 degrees would have been cruel enough. But strings of days above 100, followed by a slight respite, followed by more 100‐degree days, burned for weeks what was now a drought‐stricken southern Illinois. The heat was inescapable. In the early 1950s, almost no public buildings were air conditioned. Few residents owned the relatively new and expensive window air conditioners. By mid‐July, more than 300 deaths in affected states had been blamed on the suffocating wave of excruciating heat. Eighteen patient deaths were reported in psychiatric hospitals. The grim fact was that nobody anywhere could find relief from the deadly summer spike in temperatures. Even former President Harry Truman, recovering from surgery in Missouri, suffered without air conditioning as he recuperated. Elsewhere, the sick and vulnerable simply died in the heat.

But it wasn’t over.

On the morning of July 14, 1954, residents of southern Illinois arose to face yet another scorching day above 100 degrees. The forecast for nearby St. Louis: 105. By noon, the forecast surpassed, many businesses closed early. As pavement buckled and railroad lines warped in the heat, electricity demand spiked. The day progressed, and the temperature rose above 110 degrees. Then it was 115. By late afternoon, East St. Louis in southwest Illinois was nearly burned off the map when it reached 117 degrees—the hottest and deadliest temperature ever recorded in Illinois.

“We were just cooked,” recalls 83 year‐old Frances Sanner of downstate Union County Sanner and her husband were living in an apartment in St. Louis in the summer of 1954. Burned into her memory is how the crippling heat wave emptied the apartment building for days as tenants tried to escape the inferno.

“If they could find someplace, a basement, a cellar at a relative’s house, they would go there,” Sanner remembers, along with the exact date when the worst arrived. “On July 14, when it was 115 in St. Louis, you absolutely couldn’t stand to be inside. It was actually cooler out on the sidewalk.”

Many recall the heat wave as one of the worst on record. Climate analysts agree, and point out the July 14, 1954 record was nearly overshadowed by the endless agony of extreme heat that dragged on for nearly two additional months.

“The last week of 100 degree days was in September,” notes Nancy Westcott, weather and climate researcher for the Illinois State Water Survey. She reports major heat waves documented during the past 150 years in Illinois don’t automatically indicate a long‐term pattern: A wickedly hot year might be followed by a perfectly cool year, or a dry year might be followed by several wet years.

“Until recently, the trend in Illinois in the decades since 1954 was actually toward cooler years,” she pointed out. For those who study global climate patterns, a different story is indicated by our most recent decade, now confirmed as the warmest global decade on record. With a world‐wide trend toward a warmer planet, Westcott also reminds us of a troubling fact of extreme weather records.

“If it happened once,” she says, “it’s entirely possible it could happen again.”

JULY 14: Two Hot Records

Climate extremes in Illinois are measured and classified in different ways, such as the warmest month on record, or the coldest year, or the wettest month. Although the highest temperature ever recorded in Illinois occurred on July 14, 1954, and the chronic heat wave that accompanied it ranks as one of the hottest summers in Illinois, the hottest single month in Illinois was July 1936, when the average temperature statewide—averaging night and day—was 83.1 degrees. Just as the date July 14, 1954 set a record at 117 degrees, July 14, 1936 is recognized as the single hottest day on record for the entire state. On that date, the temperature in Chicago was 104 and the entire state experienced extreme heat , including records of 111 in the west suburbs, 112 near Danville, 114 near Mt. Vernon and 114 near East St. Louis.

For additional information about the weather records of Illinois, consult the “Climate Atlas of Illinois,” published in 2004 by the Illinois State Water Survey.

By: Joe McFarland