The Historic Heat & Drought of 1887

A historic drought, accompanied by multiple major heat waves, struck the viewing area in 1887. This was one of two historically hot, dry summers in the 1880s (1881, 1887).

Posted: Jul 30, 2018 6:04 PM
Updated: Jul 31, 2018 1:40 PM

We were in the throes of a historically hot, dry summer in late July 1887.  This was the worst drought & hottest weather since the major drought & heat waves of 1881 .

In the Weather Bureau Monthly Weather Review for our section of Indiana: Eel River at “lowest level in 25 years”………“mills supplied by it are obliged to suspend operations”……..“extremely hot & dry weather continues in this section. Many farmers report that even though the rain should fall at this time the corn crop would be short. Grass is dying & in some localities stock are suffering from want of water.” “………..the corn is actually burning up from the excessively hot weather”.

Prof. H.A. Huston of Purdue University stated in the Weather Bureau’s Monthly Weather Review of 1887 that, “the temperature for the month has been extraordinarily high, the mean for the state 5-6 above normal…………several stations a maximum of 105 was recorded……..only one July that the rainfall has been less than this & that was in 1881.”

The 106 at Logansport this month was the hottest since the hot summer of 1874 & the 105 at Lafayette was the hottest since 1881. The thermometer exceeded 100 on 13 days at West Lafayette from July 13 to August 10. From July 5 to August 20, only 0.44” of rainfall was recorded at West Lafayette.  In eastern Illinois, official U.S. Weather Bureau stations topped 113.  100 was recorded as far north as northern New England & 101 in northern Michigan.

There were political ramifications of the drought, which actually began in the Plains in 1885/86.  Texas was hit especially hard by the extreme drought in 1886.  The famous Texas Seed Bill of 1887 sought to bail out suffering farmers from the drought in Texas, but President Cleveland vetoed it & took criticism for doing so.  However, others applauded the move.

The Bill of Rights Institude states:

One of Cleveland’s most famous vetoes was his veto of the Texas Seed Bill in 1887. A long and severe drought had stricken areas of Texas. With no grass to graze, eighty-five percent of cattle in the western part of the state died. Those cattle that remained were starving, often motherless calves. Many farmers were also close to starvation and had eaten their seed corn to survive. Congress authorized a special appropriation to send seeds to the drought-stricken farmers. The amount ($10,000, or approximately $223,000 in today’s dollars) was small and the need was great, but Cleveland vetoed the bill.

His veto message expressed his commitment to the Constitution and the importance of private charity. He said that while he thought the intentions of the bill were good, he had to withhold his approval. He wrote,

“I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.”

Furthermore, Cleveland said, it would weaken the “bonds of a common brotherhood” for the government to provide assistance to individuals where individuals, families, communities and private charities otherwise would.

Finally, the veto message suggested that if Congress wanted to relieve the suffering of Texas farmers, Senators and Representatives from each state could voluntarily give up the share of grain distributed by the Department of Agriculture each year. “The constituents, for whom in theory this grain is intended, could well bear the temporary deprivation, and the donors would experience the satisfaction attending deeds of charity.” Cleveland’s principled stances won him the admiration of many. They also brought him many enemies. But he did not waver from his commitment to exercising only the powers warranted by the Constitution. One American author said that Cleveland’s “patriotic virtues have won for [him] the homage of half a nation and the enmity of the other half. This places [his] character upon a summit as high as Washington’s.”

Massive wildfires occurred Ontario & Quebec to Michigan in late summer & fall 1887, like 1881 & due to it being the worst drought in the Plains until 1894, the mass exodus of settlers continued from that area.  Plains farming has always been boom or bust & the bitter winters of the 1880s, followed by drought, only perpetuated that bust.  It was not until the late 1890s that settlers began to return to the Plains in earnest once again.

The Greencastle Banner, August 11, 1887:

Here are some notes (& a vintage Purdue ad) regarding the hot, dry summer from an agricultural perspective (in the Indiana Farmer newspaper).  Clips are courtesy of Purdue special collections:

Peak temperatures in July 1887 are below.  Even at Albany, New York, the 1887 July-August heat wave (stretch of 90s) ties for 5th longest on record to this day:

Reconstructed Palmer Drought Severity Index for 1887 shows massive drought from eastern Canada to southern Texas & the Gulf Coast June-August 1887. 

The 1881 & 1887 drought show up well from this rainfall data from Wallace, Kansas.  1873 was also hot & dry there.  Interestingly, 1873 here was not so hot & dry, but 1874 was with multiple occurrences of +100.

Note the above normal temperatures over a wide area.

Surface pressure were higher than normal over a large area for the mid July to mid August period.

CAPE (storm energy) was higher than normal over a pretty large area, even for late summer.  This signaled torrid, intense, CAPE-rich heat, but issue with ridging aloft prevent storms over a large area.

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