Remembering the long, hot summer of 1936

After a very long winter and a cool late spring, hot weather finally came to Alberta this July. While people have enjoyed the warm temperatures and drier conditions, this summer is much more temperate than the one experienced in 1936.

The summer of 1936 brought the worst heat wave ever recorded in Canada.

In the first week of July, temperatures in Saskatchewan hit a record-breaking 43.9C (111F).

By the middle of the month, it was 44C in southern Manitoba. For more than two weeks, temperatures remained well above 32C.

In those days before air-conditioning, the extreme heat took a terrible toll. Across Canada, there were more than 780 heat-related deaths. There was also an acute drought. The infamous ‘Dust Bowl’ conditions became so severe that newspapers were soon full of articles on the phenomenal amount of soil erosion.

Central Alberta suffered, although not as badly as other parts of the prairies.

There were no reports of deaths due to heat prostration in this area. Nevertheless, there were several days with temperatures exceeding 30C. On the hottest day in Red Deer, the thermometers registered 35.5C (96F).

People did what they could to escape the heat.

As there were no City swimming pools, many flocked to the Red Deer River to try and cool off. It was estimated that as many as 200 to 3,000 people were in the river at any given time.

Conditions were dangerous.

Swimmers sometimes forgot about the deep water and strong currents. On a couple of occasions, children on old tire tubes got swept downstream and had to be rescued. The Red Deer Rotary Club stepped in and paid for a lifeguard to be posted on the old C.P.R. bridge to keep an eye on those in the water.

Many people headed to resorts like Sylvan Lake to beat the heat. There was the welcome attraction of a large public beach as part of a lakeside provincial park. There were public piers from which boaters and swimmers could enter the water. The Sylvan Lake boathouse provided a spot where people could rent small boats or canoes for an outing on the lake.

For families who wanted more than a day-long excursion, Sylvan Lake provided an economical place to stay, an important consideration given the very tight financial conditions of the Great Depression. There were many pleasant places to camp.

The Sylvan Lake Hotel rented rooms at affordable rates. For those who wanted cheaper accommodations, there were a number of small tourist facilities throughout the community.

The Village was well prepared to handle the huge throngs of tourists. There were several excellent restaurants and numerous ice cream, popcorn, hamburger and hot dog stands. There were also two excellent dance halls, the Varsity Hall and the Alexander Pavilion, where people could enjoy themselves when the evening brought some relief from the heat.

The Village organized a number of services and events for visitors and residents alike. A beach sports director was hired. He offered free swimming lessons and supervised of all kinds of other sports activities. The Village purchased a considerable amount of sports equipment for free use by tourists.

There was a special Sports Day on July 1st. The local Elks Club organized a carnival complete with a midway, family entertainments and a wrestling match on July 3rd and 4th. A week later, there were speed boat races, although high winds disrupted the first day of the event.

As happens all too often in Alberta, although there was only 15mm of rain in the entire month of July, there was a heavy shower in August. The storm put a considerable damper on the annual Wrigley Swim, which was the provincial championship competition for swimming and other water sports.

A Water Circus on Aug. 15th had to be postponed for a couple of days, again because of high winds.

Nevertheless, although conditions across the country were generally grim, the long hot dry summer made for one of the most successful years in Sylvan Lake’s history.