Think it’s hot? Well yes it is, but …
It hasn’t yet reached the point of the late 1800s when legendary Vigilante-turned-humorist John X. Beidler told a Choteau Calumet newspaper reporter of a summer (he did not specify the year) “when the mountain streams steamed and bubbled and the Indians caught and lived upon boiled trout!”
Now if you’re not familiar with X. Beidler (or just “X” as many called him), he was one of Montana’s Vigilantes who in the 1860s hunted down and hanged numerous murderous scoundrels in the days before any real law enforcement in the region.
Stories vary about his middle name, but I like the version in which he says his brothers, when growing up, would steal his Sunday go-to-meeting shirt. He got tired of it and one day, with a piece of coal, drew a big “X” on the shirt. That solved the problem. They never took that shirt again. Also, the boy who’d never had a middle name suddenly did – and a memorable one!
But I’ve digressed. Back to the heat in Choteau in 1886.
The Calumet newspaper reported, according to X’s account, the heat wave was enough to “boil an ocean and poach whales, and the wonder is that every hoof of cattle in the country has not been cooked a la barbecue.”
A few years later in Missoula, well-known businessman Jake Leiser, “the pioneer merchant of West Front street,” collapsed in the heat in the summer of ’94. Thankful to have been quickly assisted by a group of nearby men, Leiser promised them he’d “remain out of the reach of the sun’s rays in the future.”
In the dust bowl days of the 1930s, “Montana (was) hit probably more than any state,” with the state Department of Agriculture saying, “prospects are now that the (crop) yield will be less than the unsatisfactory crop of 1929, with some of the fields too far gone for recovery.”
1933 was another hot one. Libby’ official government thermometer posted readings of 96, 99, 98, 99, 99, 98 and 101 in the second week of August.
In more modern times, a lot of folks in Missoula look back to the summer of 2007.
Thirty of thirty-one days in July that year saw temperatures in the 90s and 100s, including a single-day record of 107 degrees on July 6.
Meantime, back in Choteau in 1886, the local paper suggested the “sweltering weather of the past two weeks” called for a name change for the town.
The Calumet suggested “the French name of the town and county is inappropriate, and should be changed to Terra Del Fuego, Fire Island, Vesuvius, or some other blazing title.”
But why to we have these periodic heat waves?
Well, the answer is simple, at least according to Garrett P. Serviss, a lawyer who never practiced law but became a well-known astronomer and scientific writer in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.
He wrote in 1901 that the “burning heat now afflicting the whole of the United States … is convincing proof of the fact that the Earth is the satellite of a variable star.”
Serviss maintained that the sun was surrounded by “absorbing vapors” that protected Earth from the true, intense heat of the sun.
Whenever “the solar vapors are thinned,” he postulated, “the heat from within leaps out through the weakened shell and strikes the Earth … as with a breath of fire from the suddenly opened door of a blazing furnace.”
Still, we Montanans have seemingly always believed that our state is one of those places to go to avoid the heat.
University of Montana President Edwin Boone Craighead, in 1912, told a gathering of Montana teachers attending a summer school, “Why should a Montana teacher go back to New York to attend the summer school at Columbia University?”
“Life there is almost unbearable, so hot at night that sleep is almost out of the question,” he said.”
Or why go to Chicago, “hot and smoky as it is.” Why not come to Missoula where one can look out the window and see “snow-capped mountains where the air is invigorating … the climate is perfect, where sleep and work are both possible?”
Ah, the good old days of Craighead’s 1912 description.
For weeks, we’ve been unable to enjoy sitting outside on our wonderful deck (too hot for us) or more recently, even catch a glimpse of Craighead’s “snow-capped mountains” through all the smoke.
It’s time for Garrett P. Serviss devotees (should there be any) to find a solution to those weakened solar-absorbing vapors. We Earthlings would appreciate it. Thank you in advance.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.