April 14, 1935: The largest dust storm hits the US Great Plains. This storm was part of the phenomenon we call the Dust Bowl. It is also known as the Dusty Thirties. These storms caused devastating agricultural and ecological damage. They struck both the US and Canadian prairies. Today’s storm was only one of many. However, this monster storm combines winds up to 60 miles per hour with the drought dried topsoil. As the winds blew through, it is now estimated 300,000 tons of topsoil was removed.
Early European settlers dubbed this region of the country as the Great American Desert. There was a lack of surface water and timber making the area less suitable for farming. With increased populations and the enactment of the Homestead Act after the US Civil War, people flocked to the region despite the poor suitability to farming. And they began to farm. The new transcontinental railroads brought settlers to the region and it was believed that “rain follows the plow” meaning that if you farmed, the rains would come.
As people settled the land, a period of unusually wet weather followed, confirming the above postulate. As greater automation came to farming, more lands were farmed and more food was produced. With World War I, food prices rose and more intense farming followed, providing food for the US and to export to warring allies. The amount of farmland doubled between 1900 and 1920 and more than tripled between 1925 and 1930. The farming methods used were not ecologically sound and the land was eroded.
The unusually wet period ended in 1930 and droughts followed. Crops began to fail and field were left unplanted and bare. The soil covering the Great Plains is fine in nature and easily picked up by strong winds. A particularly brutal storm on November 11, 1933 stripped most of the topsoil from South Dakota. On May 9, 1934, a two day dust storm blew through and deposited topsoil in Chicago where it was said dirt fell like snow. On this day, the worst storm hit. Dubbed “Black Sunday” there were at least twenty different “Black Blizzards” raging across the Plains and limiting vision to only five feet. By the end of the Dust Bowl years, more than a half million Americans were left homeless. While diminishing by 1936, the effects lasted longer. By 1940, 2.5 million people had left the Plains States.
“Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes.” – John Steinbeck
“On the fourteenth day of April in 1935
There struck the worst of dust storms that ever filled the sky…
From Oklahoma City to the Arizona Line
Dakota and Nebraska to the lazy Rio Grande
It fell across our city like a curtain of black rolled down,
We thought it was our judgment, we thought it was our doom…” – Woody Guthrie
“Merciless winds tore up the soil that once gave the Southern Great Plains life and hurled it in roaring black clouds across the nation. Hopelessly indebted farmers fed tumbleweed to their cattle, and, in the case of one Oklahoma town, to their children. By the 1930s, years of injudicious cultivation had devastated 100 million acres of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico.” – Timothy Egan
“In other periods of depression, it has always been possible to see some things which were solid and upon which you could base hope, but as I look about, I now see nothing to give ground to hope—nothing of man.” – Calvin Coolidge