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The worst heat wave in Toronto history

The heat was unbearable. Simply taking a step felt like a journey of a million miles. There was no escaping the oppressive humidity as it caused rivulets of sweat to cascade down hundreds of thousands of foreheads, backs and other parts of the body.

There were warnings about the health effects of the unrelenting sun and swelter.

Seniors, the very young and those with breathing problems were at risk.

And it seemed to be going on forever.

It was July 1936, the year Toronto experienced its worst heat wave in history.

From July 8th to the 10th of that year, the city roasted in almost unthinkable temperatures above 40C — and that’s without the humidity factored in.  The mercury measured an astounding 40.6 C for three straight days, the highest temperature ever recorded in the city.

The torrid hot spell led residents to desperately seek some way — any way — to escape Mother Nature’s oven. People flocked to local movie theatres, which had a new-fangled contraption called ‘air conditioning’. There were virtually no home units, leaving every house a steam bath filled with oppressive and unlivable temperatures. Thousands flocked to one of the beaches downtown, sleeping outside for days, praying for a breeze off the lake to help them get some relief.

But many couldn’t find any. At least 200 Torontonians died from heat stroke during the week it lasted. And the toll expanded to between 700-1,000 in Ontario and Manitoba as the summer sizzler continued over both provinces. Most of the victims were seniors and young children.

But while many succumbed to the temperatures, others died trying to escape them. About  400 people drowned while seeking some cool water relief.

And it wasn’t just the human toll. Infrastructure also suffered from the weather. Rail lines built of steel twisted and sidewalks buckled. Environment Canada estimates that surface temperatures reached a staggering 65C as the week-long heat emergency took hold. 

Farmers lost many of their crops as they withered away and died in the sun. The estimated cost: about $515 million in modern dollars.

So as you sweat out this latest hot spell, be grateful you can at least crank up the A.C. and chill out. Because it’s something those from another generation who grew up in Toronto never had the chance to do 70 years ago.