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ST. LOUIS • The sun rose hard and glaring on Wednesday, July 14, 1954. The temperature already was 85 degrees at 7 a.m. It broke 100 before noon and kept climbing.

The city's streets and old brick buildings, many with tar-slathered flat roofs, already were baked by a sudden but withering heat spell in its fourth day. It was 110 degrees on Monday, 103 on Tuesday. The forecast for July 14 was 105.

The forecast wasn't even close. By 5 p.m., the official thermometer at Lambert Field hit a scorching 115 degrees, as hot as it's ever been in St. Louis in 106 years of keeping temperature records.

On that day, many businesses closed by noon. It was too hot for the performing elephants to shuffle on stage at the Zoo. Streets buckled and caved in.

At Sefton Fibre Can Co., at 3275 Big Bend Boulevard in Maplewood, the attic was so hot that the automatic fire-sprinkler system soaked employees and equipment. Milkmen drew mobs of grateful kids with gifts of sparkling ice from their trucks.

St. Louis Chronic Hospital went through four tons of ice a day making packs for patients. And at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Granite City, nurses kept thermometers in cold water, lest all readings be a standard 105 degrees.

St. Louis Municipal Judge Robert. G. Dowd endured a peace-disturbance case involving the location of a fan the night before. "I can understand why tempers would flare over a fan. Case dismissed," he said.

Air conditioning was in its infancy, costing $200 or more for a window unit — a hefty hit on $4,000 household incomes. So people found relief as they could. They jammed theaters that boasted of being "cooled by refrigeration." They slept in parks and backyards.

Even with few air conditioners, Union Electric Co. posted a record output of 1.2 million kilowatts — barely one-fifteenth of today's peak. Back then, the misery index was measured in output of water for extra showers, backyard pools and sprinklers. On the day of the record, the St. Louis Water Division pumped 279 million gallons, more than double today's daily average.

The grim number was the death toll. The heat killed 20 people that day. A cool breeze that arrived before dawn on July 15 gave only brief respite. By the time the heat broke one week later, it had taken 104 lives.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.