By David Wencer, originally published November 16, 2011
How our city coped with the hottest temperatures on record
In late June of 1936, a heat wave – generally considered to be the worst ever recorded on the continent – began in the North American Midwest. Over the next few weeks the heat spread to the northeast, reaching southern Ontario in early July. On July 8, steadily climbing temperatures reached 95° Fahrenheit, or 35° Celsius, at midday, rising to a record high of 104.5°F (40.3°C) in the late afternoon. Temperatures exceeded 103°F (39.5°C) the next two days, and remained in the high 90s through to the 14th, with the meteorological office reportedly recording temperatures as high as 140°F (60°C) in the sun.
In an effort to cool down, many Torontonians went to Toronto’s beaches, with record crowds reported at Balmy Beach, Sunnyside and the Island. On July 7, ferries reportedly carried 22,293 passengers to the Island, compared to 13,302 on the same day the year before. Extra streetcars were pressed into service to accommodate the demand to reach the lake shore.
Without the availability of home air conditioning, Torontonians needed to be creative to keep cool. Gas stations reported increased business as many of the wealthier Torontonians left for summer cottages. For others, the coolest option was to remain at home for, as the Telegram noted, “travel by any means was a perspiring business. A number of households took their meals in cellars, and many more ate sandwiches and drank lemonade… on porches and in gardens.” Many opted to sleep in their cars, and some took to sleeping on their lawns. One woman reportedly took refuge in a cemetery, using a cool tombstone as a pillow. The Star reported that “thousands of citizens slept on the grass in front of Exhibition Park. Some brought rugs. Some brought mattresses. This morning [July 9] the waterfront looked like one vast dressing-room… With banjos strumming and car radios blaring, hundreds of young people here were really enjoying themselves, forgetting the simmering city in the cooling waters of the lake.” Under normal conditions Toronto’s parks and beaches were closed to the public at night, but during the heat wave the relevant laws were not enforced.
Many downtown businesses chose to suspend the work day and sent their employees home early. On July 12, a rare exception was even made to the Lord’s Day Act permitting ice delivery on a Sunday. Ice companies reported significantly increased business during the heat wave, as did ice cream and soda vendors and air-conditioned theatres. Several theatres opted to remain open to the public overnight.
To deal with the heat, fruit stores throughout Toronto reportedly “adopted the continental open front style.” Both the Star and the Telegram reported substantial increases in the cost of lemons, the Star writing that “a sudden demand for lemons shot the price up from 25 cents a dozen to 50 cents. Grocers were unable to supply the clamour for citrus fruits.” The heat also took its toll on Ontario farmland. Oppressive heat limited the time that farmers could work their fields, such that some speedily-ripened crops simply rotted away. The Star reported that in Dunbarton (a village later absorbed by Pickering), gooseberries and currants literally cooked while still on the bush.
The very infrastructure of Toronto took a beating from the withering heat. The Cherry Street bridge reportedly expanded so severely in the heat that it jack-knifed;the Star wrote that firemen were forced to hose it down with water, “while the rails were cut off by acetylene welding. Under the cooling water the bridge expansion receded so that it lay flush with the southern railway.” Several instances of sidewalks cracking and buckling were reported, and a “jagged cut in the pavement was left when the pavement at Dufferin and Beaver streets literally exploded.”
Citizens all over the Toronto area were asked not to water their lawns so as not to deplete reserves. As it was, some of Toronto’s water reserves had to be diverted to East York as that municipality’s regular supplier, Scarborough, found it had insufficient supply to meet East York’s needs. The availability of water was of particularly strong concern in suburban areas, as low water pressure presented a fire hazard.
The threat of fire became a reality on July 10 in northern Mimico after a gasoline pump on Hay Avenue exploded. The flames quickly spread across the street and destroyed two homes, several stores, and a block of greenhouses. According to the Globe, “Lack of pressure and insufficient water supply hampered the firemen for some time, until three Toronto brigades came to the rescue with suction pumps to draw water from the nearby shale hole.”
The heat wave coincided with the Toronto Star promoting its Fresh Air Fund, with the paper juxtaposing the cooling options of those with money against those without: “When it is hot like to-day you can attempt to make life more bearable with cool food and cooling drinks. With an electric fan and refrigerator. You can bathe. You can drive to the lakeside. At least you live in a clean, fresh-smelling house… The Star visited one of these prison-like streets of the poor. Children swarmed everywhere; some on the street, which wasn’t more than a dirty alley. Some listlessly lay on doorsteps or crouched on the curb. Babies howled in the sweating arms of tired-out mothers.”
After several days in Toronto the persistent heat began causing deaths. City morgue staff were forced to work additional hours, and additional gravediggers were hired at Mount Pleasant Cemetery where twenty burials alone took place on July 13. Numerous cemeteries reported a burial rate triple the usual numbers, with casket-makers forced to work into the night to meet demand. Additional hearses had to be brought into the city, and florists reported record sales in connection to the increase in funerals. Instances were also reported of animals dying from the heat including household pets, horses, as well as robins and sparrows. Bell Telephone reported a new high in long-distance calls, likely a result of concern for loved ones as death tolls rose across most of North America.
On the night of July 13, the midday temperature of 95.7°F rose to 100° F (37.7° C) by 7:00pm, and a new record high “low” was set of 80°F (26.7°C). Soon afterwards, however, temperatures slowly began to lower and the heat wave began to abate, with the high on the 15th as low as 90°F (32°C), with forecasts for temperatures in the 80s the rest of the week. The high temperatures persisted in other parts of Ontario for several more days, and water use remained restricted in Toronto as the city struggled with low reserves until rains arrived a few days later to replenish the supply.
By July 16th the newspapers declared Toronto’s experience with the heat wave to be over. The reported death toll was 225, the biggest spike in the city’s death rate since the 1918 flu pandemic. It should be noted that this number reflects only the deaths which were directly attributed to the heat, as many physicians would only note the immediate cause of death on the death certificate. July of 1936 also saw many drownings in Toronto, and some newspapers chose to include these deaths in their daily heat wave death toll announcements. The figure would be much higher if one were to include deaths for areas not yet a part of City of Toronto, as numerous deaths were also reported in York Township, Scarborough, and other suburban areas.
The 1936 heat wave is still considered to be the worst heat wave in Canadian history, reportedly killing 1,180 people across Canada. While the heat wave in July of 2011 broke daily records in Toronto, the highs were several degrees lower than the temperatures reported in 1936. While air conditioning is more common now both in homes and in public buildings, today’s Toronto also has a Hot Weather Response Plan[pdf] which features many components, including official city Cooling Centres. While contemporary heat waves can still disrupt Toronto life and cause deaths, it is unlikely that a heat wave of similar severity would cause the same mortality statistics today.