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Local Weather History: The 1881 Heat & Drought with Massive Great Lakes Fires & Smoke in September

The great wildfires of 1881 had big implications to our area & elsewhere.

Posted: Sep 4, 2019 5:12 PM
Updated: Sep 6, 2019 2:02 AM

September 5, 1881
Massive wildfires sweep the forests of Michigan & Wisconsin, engulfing the Midwest & East, then northeast U.S. in a yellow sky & blue sun from the smoke.  Known at the "Thumb Fire" the entire thumb of Michigan's forests were burned.  Entire towns burned, killing at least 282 & causing upwards of $65 million (inflation-adjusted).  3400 barns, homes & schools were destroyed. 15,000 people were reportedly left homeless.  It is amazing the death toll was not higher as it burned more than 1 million acres in less than one day.

This ranks up with the Minnesota Hinckley Fire of September 1894 (another big drought year that lasted through 1895), Great Fires of 1871 as some of the most destructive in Great Lakes history. 

Massive wildfires swept northern Newton & Jasper counties in early Fall 1895.

These were the worst fires in Michigan since 1871 & the worst until 1887, then 1895. For days, our skies were yellow with bluish sun from smoke as smoke drifted southward, before drifting eastward.

1881 was one of the hottest, driest summers to fall for any year. Early September 1881 exhibited some of the hottest weather recorded so late in the season. Temperatures reached the upper 90s & 100s across the viewing area. This was followed by the hottest September day ever recorded in the Northeast as the heat wave moved eastward.

August 26-September 8, 10 of those 14 days were in the 90s for one last surge of heat after a torrid, dry summer. Relief came in with a high of just 68 on September 11 after welcome rainfall.

The summer of 1881 was historic for the central & eastern U.S.  in the extent & intensity of the heat & drought. It ranks as one of the outstanding weather events in our weather history, comparable with the extreme summers of 1820, 1838, 1839, 1841, 1854, 1887, 1901, 1934, 1936, 1953, 1954, 1988, & 2012.

Temperatures reached as high as 111 in Indiana with reportedly many deaths from heat strokes.

Each month June -September saw temperatures reach the 100s over the viewing, but the heat seemed to peak in mid-August.

To this day, 1881 is still the driest August on record for parts of the viewing area.  Less than 0.10" fell in parts of Indiana.

Some August 1881 Missouri to Ohio rainfall totals (extremely low rainfall amounts were reported everywhere from Massachusetts to Mississippi & Louisiana, northward to Kansas & Iowa, though):

0.00" Jefferson City, MO

0.00" Louisiana, MO

0.00" Warsaw, MO

0.00" Paducah, KY

0.00" Muscatine, IA

0.00" Evansville, IN

Trace Charleston, IL

0.01" O'Fallon, IL

0.05" Cuba, MO

0.10" Hannibal, MO

0.10" Geneseo, IL

0.10" Ruggles, OH

0.11" New Harmony, IN

0.11" Cairo, IL

0.15" Louisville, KY

0.17" Cleveland, OH

0.27" St. Louis, MO

0.30" Little Mountain, OH

0.33" Rockford, IL

0.38" Anna, IL

0.40" Marietta, OH

0.48" Wabash, IN

This heat & drought was an international story.  This article from the Brisbane Courier, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, September 5, 1881 (Page 2):

Some other peak temperatures from the June-September period:

115 Milton, Pennsylvania (South-Southeast of Williamsport): this would be the state record, compared to the modern state record of 111 set July 9 & 10, 1936

112 Lincoln, Nebraska

112 Present-Day North Dakota

109 Long Branch, New Jersey (20 Miles Southeast of Newark)

108 Fort Benton, Montana

108 Portsmouth, Ohio

108 Franklin, Ohio (Near Columbus)

108 Clinton, Illinois (south of Bloomington, Illinois)

108 Danville, Illinois

108 Plano, Illinois (West-Southwest of Chicago)

108 Independence, Kansas

108 Topeka, Kansas

107 Weldon, North Carolina (Near Virginia State Line in the North-Central Part of the State)

106 Burlington, Iowa

106 Champaign, Illinois

106 Spencer, Indiana

106 St. Louis, Missouri

106 Shelbyville, Indiana

106 Ashwood, Tennessee (Southwest of Nashville): Long called “Memorable Hot Friday”

106 Richmond, Virginia

106 Petersburg, Virginia

105 Louisville, Kentucky (Hottest Since 1841)

105 Springfield, Illinois

105 Clarksville, Tennessee

105 Logan, Iowa (Hottest Since 1856)

105 McGregor, Iowa

105 Tuscola, Illinois (East of Decatur)

105 New Albany, Indiana (Hottest Since 1821)

105 Shreveport, Louisiana

104 Lacrosse, Wisconsin

104 Little Rock, Arkansas

104 Madison, Ohio (Between Cleveland, Ohio & Erie, Pennsylvania)

104 Bluffton, Indiana (Southwest of Fort Wayne)

104 Connersville, Indiana (East-Central Indiana)

104 South Bend, Indiana

104 Marshalltown, Iowa

103 Janesville, Wisconsin (Near Madison)

103 Augusta, Georgia

103 Des Moines, Iowa

103 Manchester, New Hampshire

103 Hanover, New Hampshire

103 Nashville, Tennessee

103 Cape Henry, Virginia (North Shore of Virginia Beach)

102 Bradford, Vermont

102 Charlotte, Vermont (Just South of Burlington, Vermont, in Northwestern Part of State)

102 Jackson, Michigan (South of Lansing)

101 Wilmington, Ohio (Hottest Since 1841)

101 Norwich, Vermont

100 Albany, New York

100 White River Junction, Vermont

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Warmer, wetter, stormy pattern ahead.
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