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Phil-osophically Speaking - August 6, 2010

Remembering the Great Heat Wave of 1896


Last weekend, relief finally arrived with more balmy temperatures giving us respite from the merciless heat. It was the second hottest July on record and I’m happy to say that, with the ushering in of August, the weather is something we can, once again, enjoy rather then endure. The month of August, however, wasn’t so pleasant 114 years ago as New York was cooked by the most brutal and sensational heat wave in its history.

Although those 10 scorching days beginning on Aug. 1 would claim 1,300 lives, the blistering heat wave of 1896 is barely, if at all remembered. One reason is that heat waves rarely cause physical damage. Sandwiched between the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, both of which were calamities worthy of the Old Testament, and have become indelibly seared into the national memory, but the scorcher of 1896 had seemingly vanished into the mist of history until Edward Kohn, in his recently published, Hot Time in the Old Town, rescues the events of those brutal mid-summer days from oblivion.

New York City was booming in the 1890s. A magnet for immigrants the population in Manhattan was soaring well beyond the city’s ability to accommodate the explosive growth. Tenements were quickly constructed, many along the Lower East Side of Manhattan to provide housing for the teeming multitudes that descended upon the great metropolis. These tenements were not only overcrowded (some 1.6 million lived in them) but in the summer heat they became roaring furnaces. During the heat wave of “96” temperatures in the tenements reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the kind of heat that could kill, and kill it did often at a clip of more than a hundred a day.

The very infrastructure of the city itself proved to be an accomplice to the murderous heat. New York City sizzled that August because the concrete, the brick and stone buildings trapped the heat while the asphalt streets conducted heat three times faster than soil. Primitive man was much better off than his urban descendants because the hills and trees of the countryside shielded as well as absorbed the rays of the sun while urban walls, roofs and streets acted like a maze of reflectors, bouncing the heat back and forth between absorbing surfaces. Even the modern sewer systems inadvertently served to magnify the heat. The energy that would have been used to evaporate the water heated the air instead creating what Kohn calls, the ultimate greenhouse.

There were no cooling centers in the city; air conditioning would not be invented until 1913 and its mass production was a distant dream. We used to call the index combining heat and humidity the misery index which, I thought, was a strikingly apt characterization of how one felt during extreme periods of combined heat and humidity. Suffice it to say the misery index in August of 1896 must have been off the charts.

In the late 19th century people literally roasted in the fiery heat of those tenements. The East River became the community pool as thousands, desperate to escape the sun’s savage onslaught, took the plunge either unknowing or uncaring about the pathogenic microorganisms breeding there that were especially harmful to undernourished children, another serious problem in 1896 New York.

In the horrific heat one came across a most unusual site on the Lower East Side: rows upon rows of baby carriages lined up in the gutters. The streets became beds as people lived and slept there to escape, even amid the rotting flesh of hundreds of horse carcasses and the ensuing panic of seeing rabid dogs that had to be shot on site.

On Saturday, Aug. 8, the temperature reached 103 (and that was taken high above street level) with 90 percent humidity. The temperature did not dip below 90 until after 9 p.m. Without freezers or refrigeration milk curdled, meat putrefied and hospitals were overflowing with thousands stricken with dehydration and heat exhaustion. As one newspaper reported, “The sun did the broiling and the humidity did the basting.”

As with many crises a hero emerged. Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt barreled into the alarming public crisis with all the gusto that he would display two years later charging up San Juan Hill with his legendary Rough Riders. Momentarily diverting himself from fighting graft and street crime, condemning tenements and supporting social work he embarked on his famous midnight police inspections. He pounded the precincts until dawn marshaling every resource of the police department and the city at large to keep order, marshal tons of free ice to provide succor to the suffering masses and ordering the streets to be watered down to cool the city and its inhabitants.

While Kohn overstates things a bit by saying Roosevelt’s heroic actions propelled him to national prominence and the presidency, it is a forgivable leap of imagination especially in light of the fact that Roosevelt’s quick and decisive actions greatly alleviated the monumental suffering New Yorkers experienced that summer. In truth, what is most enlightening about this well-told tale is something quite different than the forging of national reputations.

Years ago, a prominent social historian wrote that “life before the 20th century was impossible.” The more I thought about it the more that little quote impressed me. While we frequently recognize the heroes that blazed the path of this great country we often neglect the mass heroism of the American people at large who subdued the wilderness, and built upon it its great cities and vast infrastructure laboring under enormous burdens with only primitive technologies at their disposal. Their courage and fortitude is something not only to wonder at but to also emulate.

It also makes one cognizant on how much we owe our scientists and engineers for our modern comforts and conveniences. I usually focus on these little miracles during the occasional blackout. This time it took only a very hot and sultry July to offer a prayer of thanks to these ingenious, inventive minds who have made our existence not only bearable but comfortable. During this past heat wave, I scarcely thought of the heroes of battlefields and politics, but whenever I turned on the air conditioner my gratitude to the scientific community knew no bounds.