June 17th: Santa Barbara's Hottest Day in History
By Neal Graffy
Dear Santa Barbara History Friends:
Every June 17 and any time the thermometer tops 100 degrees the story is retold of “Santa Barbara’s Hottest Day” on June 17, 1859 when the temperature reached an astounding 133 degrees. When presented in online blogs and media, it is usually debunked citing lack of evidence and no historical accounting. Though I have more leads to work on, I believe there is truth to the claim and present what I have uncovered so far.
Modern Santa Barbara can trace the awareness of the phenomenon (reported as a simoon, simoom or sirocco) to Walker A. Tompkins who published the account in Goleta: The Good Land (1966) and It Happened in Old Santa Barbara (1976), though he first wrote about the event in 1964-1965 for his county history, The Yankee Barbareños, which remained unpublished until 2004 (I spent several years working with Barbara Tompkins, his widow, editing and rewriting the manuscript to get it ready for publication). It may have also been covered in one of his many historical vignettes published weekly in the Santa Barbara News-Press.
In all of his books, Mr. Tompkins credits the story to the 1869 U.S. Coast Survey publication, Pacific Coast. Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington Territory by George Davidson. Mr. Davidson was a highly regarded engineer, geographer and surveyor having spent nearly 25 years working for the US Coast Survey along the east and west coasts. In this book, Mr. Davidson wrote:
“The only instance of the simoom on this coast, mentioned either in its history or traditions, was that occurring at Santa Barbara, on Friday, the 17th of June, 1859. The temperature during the morning was between 75 degrees and 80 degrees, and, gradually and regularly increased until about one o'clock p. m., when a blast of hot air from the northwest swept suddenly over the town and struck the inhabitants with terror. It was quickly followed by others. At two o'clock the thermometer exposed to the air rose to 133 degrees, and continued at or near that point for nearly three hours, whilst the burning wind raised dense clouds of impalpable dust. No human being could withstand the heat. All betook themselves to their dwelling and carefully closed every door and window. The thick adobe walls would have required days to have become warmed, and were consequently an admirable protection. Calves, rabbits, birds, &c., were killed; trees were blighted; fruit was blasted and fell to the ground, burned only on one side; and gardens were ruined. At five o'clock the thermometer fell to 122 degrees, and at seven it stood at 77 degrees. A fisherman, in the channel in an open boat, came back with his arms badly blistered.”
Critics of the account have pointed out the fallacy of such a reading, as a ship out at sea would have recorded a much cooler temperature. The error everyone, including Mr. Tompkins, made is assuming Mr. Davidson was writing from personal experience while aboard a Coast Survey ship off Santa Barbara, June 17, 1859. However, neither Mr. Davidson nor a survey ship were here that day.
So where did Mr. Davidson get his story? The debunkers of this account note that there is no documentation of this event prior to the publication of the Coast Pilot. But, there is!
On Thursday, June 23, 1859, the Santa Barbara Gazette, at that time published as a weekly in San Francisco, printed the following:
“Friday last, the 17th inst., [inst. means “this month”] will be long be remembered by the inhabitants of Santa Barbara, from the burning, blasting heat experienced that day, and the effects thereof; indeed, it is said that for the space of thirty years, nothing in comparison has been felt in this county, and, we doubt, in any other. The sun rose like a ball of fire on that day; but though quite warm, no inconvenience was caused thereby until 2 o’clock, p. m., when suddenly a blast of heated air swept through our streets, followed quickly by others, and shortly afterwards the air became so intensely heated that no human being could withstand its force—all sought their dwellings, and had to shut doors and windows, and remain for hours confined to their houses. The effects of such intense and unparalleled heat was demonstrated by the death of calves, rabbits and birds, etc.; the trees were all blasted, and the fruit, such as pears and apples, literally roasted on the trees ere they fell to the ground, and the same as if they had been cast on live coals; but, strange to say, they were only burned on one side—that is, the direction from whence came the wind. All kinds of metal became so heated, that for hours nothing of the kind could be touched with the naked hands. The thermometer rose nearly to fever heat, in the shade, but near an open door, and during the prevalence of this properly called sirocco, the streets were filled with impenetrable clouds of fine dust, or pulverized clay.
“Speculation has been rife since, to ascertain the cause of such a terrible phenomenon; but though we have heard of many plausible theories thereon, we have not been fully convinced yet; however that might be, we see its terrible effects all around us in blighted trees, ruined gardens, blasted fruit and an almost general destruction of the vegetable kingdom. We hope will never see the like again.”
Okay, that’s close, but still not what Mr. Davidson wrote. Nothing of the exact temperatures and times and what about that blistered fisherman? But wait … there’s more!
Another San Francisco newspaper, Le Phare, a daily (except Sunday) printed in English, French and Italian, also covered the event and was quoted by the Daily Alta California on June 29, 1859.
“A correspondent of the Phare, writing from Santa Barbara, says [as we translate]: "At one o'clock in the afternoon of the 17th inst, a burning wind came upon us from the northwest, and smote us with terror. At two o'clock the thermometer exposed to this wind rose to 133 degrees of Fahrenheit; at five o'clock it had fallen to 122 deg., and at seven o'clock it stood at 77 deg., when it had been in the morning.
“During the whole duration of this visitatior [sic] every one staid within door, taking good care to keep doors and windows closed. A fisherman who was out at sea came back with his arms all blistered. Many calves, rabbits and birds died of suffocation. The greatest losses are among the vegetables; the fruit trees are all burned; the pears and apples have been literally cooked. Among the victims of the ravages committed by this sirocco is Mr. E. Sterky, whose rich and universally admired collection of pinks has been entirely destroyed.
“The cause of the phenomena is unknown. The grasshoppers are making great havoc. Nothing escapes their voracity; all attempts to drive them away are in vain, and they even disregard the prayers and ceremonious summons of our Catholic priest.”
I have not yet found a copy of the Santa Barbara Gazette or Le Phare that covered the event. However, both newspapers were quoted directly in at least a dozen newspapers in California and Nevada with several also noting high temperatures throughout California (there was some speculation that a volcano had erupted and was responsible for the tremendous heat blast). Following the reporting, there were no letters to the editor or retractions to state the report was incorrect.
It is obvious that Davidson used the information from Le Phare. Tompkins took Davidson’s account and wove a little local color into it and nothing that he wrote was too far off the mark. The original story tells of the fruit and etc. being blasted by the heat. Tompkins simply adds familiar names such as the De la Guerra Gardens, McCaffrey's vineyard and the padres’ vegetable gardens as suffering, which indeed they would have. La Phare, states “A fisherman who was out at sea came back with his arms all blistered.” Davidson wrote, “A fisherman, in the channel in an open boat, came back with his arms badly blistered." And Tompkins’ slight embellishment says, “A fisherman, gasping like a landed trout, made his way ashore in a rowboat, his face and arms puffed and blistered as if he had been in a brush fire.” One could easily imagine a fisherman pulling ashore in this heat would indeed have been "gasping like a landed trout." He does change the story for Goleta: The Good Land by having the fisherman land at the Goleta Sandspit.
What about that temperature? Most thermometers top out at 120, so why was the correspondent to La Phare so exact as to the measurements of 133 and 122 when he could have simply said, “by two o'clock the thermometer reached its peak and yet the populace felt it grew even hotter until five and it began to cool.” I was curious about that so I started researching and as it turns out, there were thermometers back then including industrial thermometers and ships’ thermometers that recorded well over 133 degrees. In 1859, Santa Barbara had a number of blacksmiths and at least one if not two brickyards not to mention a number of ships’ captains (retired and active) all presenting the possibility of possessing at least one thermometer capable of recording an extreme temperature. I certainly would have appreciated it if the La Phare writer had credited the owner of the thermometer and I’d like to know who their Santa Barbara correspondent was (there were over 50 people born in France living here around that time!).
There have been other recorded “simoons” in Santa Barbara with one, on August 20, 1889, reporting a high of 120 degrees and noting it was 105 on the mesa and a thermometer leaning against an ice chest measured 103. (Below, a cased traveling thermometer by Dollond of London dating to the early 1850s. The thermometer topped out at 150 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The only person named in any of the articles was “Mr. E. Sterky, whose rich and universally admired collection of pinks has been entirely destroyed.”
That gentleman was Eugene Sterky (also Sterkey), a watchmaker from Switzerland and member of the Santa Barbara Common Council (City Council). He was first elected in May, 1856 and elected again in May 1859 though he resigned ten days later. He and his wife Frances moved to the Santa Ynez Valley by 1860. The “pinks” referred to are most likely dianthus which were very popular in California gardens at this time.
More work to be done: I’ve been told of the existence of a couple of journals and diaries from families that were in Santa Barbara in June 1859. Several museums have copies of Le Phare, and though not for the date we are seeking, they would be worth reviewing to perhaps at least reveal the identity of the correspondent and possibly there is some follow-up about the simoon in a later issue. The same applies to the Santa Barbara Gazette. As of June, 2021, historical archives and research libraries are beginning to open up and I look forward to getting back on the trail of “Santa Barbara’s Hottest Day”.