Black Blizzards, Black Sunday
Few people remember the hard times of the Great Depression. Even fewer remember the difficult existence in the Great Plains area of the United States (including the Texas panhandle) during the 1930's, usually referred to as the "Dirty Thirties".
Times were difficult, and farmers were having a hard time getting anything to grow in the area that would come to be known as the Dust Bowl. A few families gave up and left, but most remained and made the best of it. The land that was promoted as perfect for farming was all plowed up, leaving nothing to hold the dirt. The winds were worse than normal due to the dust -- it literally got into everything. Some of the farmers went broke; others' farms were sold at auctions. The current financial distress of local banks didn't help, either. The number of farm forclosures was alarming.
They survived never-ending dust that blew into their homes, choked the people and farm animals, and caused several deaths due to silicosis or what was called "dust pneumonia". It was just as bad as black lung disease that the coal miners suffered. The dust storms were called black blizzards and dusters, and sometimes reduced visibility to zero. The Dust Bowl was an ecological and human disaster caused by misuse of land and years of sustained drought. Millions of acres of farmland became useless, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.
Then came Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, the worst dust storm in recorded history. It started in the Great Plains and eventually blew all the way to the East Coast and out to sea for about 200 miles. One of President Roosevelt's advisors, Hugh Hammond Bennett, was in Washington D.C. on his way to testify before Congress about the need for soil conservation legislation. As a dusty gloom spread over the nation's capital and blotted out the sun, Bennett explained, "This, gentlemen, is what I have been talking about." Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act that same year.
The following newspaper accounts tell of the tragedies in various Texas towns on Black Sunday.
©2009 Joe Defazio
From the Amarillo Daily News, April 15, 1935
‘WORST’ DUSTER WHIPS ACROSS PANHANDLE
FARMERS PRAY FOR RAIN BUT WIND ANSWERS
NORTHER STRIKES SUNDAY TO BLOT OUT SUN, TURN DAY INTO NIGHT
SETS RECORD PACE
KANSAS GOVERNOR SAYS SOIL UNDAMAGED; STORM HITS SOUTH TEXAS
By The Associated Press
North winds whipped dust of the drought area to a new fury Sunday and old timers said the storm was the worst they'd seen. Farmers prayed through dust filmed lips for rain. A black dustersun blotting cloud banksraced over Southwest Kansas, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, and foggy haze spread about other parts of the southwest. Easter services at Lindsborg, Kansas, opening with a chorus singing "The Messiah" were carried on in dust-laden air.
Makes Record Trip
The black duster made the 105 miles from Boise City, Okla., to Amarillo, Texas, in 1 hour 45 minutes. Hundreds of Sunday motorists lured to the highways by 90 degrees temperatures and crystal clear skies were caught by the storm. Farmers and agricultural officials of the dust area, Southwest Kansas, Southeast Colorado, Northeastern New Mexico and the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, reported the soil was not damaged and that crops could still be made this season if it would rain. Governor Alf M. Landon of Kansas pointed out top soil ranges from 10 to 30 feet deep at many points in the area.
STORM TURNS CITY INTO TOTAL DARKNESS
Blotting out every speck of light, the worst duststorm in the history of the Panhandle covered the entire region early last night. The billowing black cloud struck Amarillo at 7:20 o'clock and visibility was zero for 12 minutes.
Gradually it cleared and Weatherman H. T. Collman said the storm would be over by morning. The black, ominous cloud rolled over the Panhandle from the north, an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Into Central Texas
The storm continued southward and had moved into Wichita Falls by 9:45 o'clock, the Associated Press reported. A large area west and southwest of Temple was reported feeling effects of the duster, which moved onward into South Texas.
Warning of the terrible storm reached Amarillo about 45 minutes before it struck. It came from a woman in Stinnett. The woman called Sheriff Bill Adams. He did not learn her name. "I feel that you people of Amarillo should know of the terrible duststorm which has struck here and probably will hit Amarillo," the woman said, "I am sitting in my room and I cannot see the telephone."
8,000 Feet High
A gentle, north breeze preceded 8,000-feet-high clouds of dust. As the midnight fog arrived, the streets were practically deserted. However, hundreds of people stood before their homes to watch the magnificent sight.
Darkness settled swiftly after the city had been enveloped in the stinking, stinging dust, carried by a 50-mile-an-hour wind. Despite closed windows and doors, the silt crept into buildings to deposit a dingy, gray film. Within two hours the dust was a quarter of an inch in thickness in homes and stores.
Reports from the north at 10:30 o'clock last night by the Santa Fe dispatcher said that the moon could be seen at Woodward, Okla., showing that the storm was clearing rapidly.
The weather forecast for today was partly cloudy and colder. The storm struck just before early twilight. All traffic was blocked and taxi companies reported that it was difficult to make calls for nearly 45 minutes. Street signal lights were invisible a few paces away. Lights in 10 and 12 story buildings could not be seen.
John L. McCarty, editor of the Dalhart Texan, of Dalhart, the center of the drought-stricken area of the Panhandle, called a few minutes before the storm arrived in Amarillo. The storm struck Dalhart about 85 minutes before it hit Amarillo and the city remained in total darkness for more than that length of time, he said.
Couldn't See Light
"I went outside the house during the storm and could not see a lighted window of the house three feet away." Mr. McCarty said. Borger, Perryton and other cities on the North Plains reported similar conditions, proving that the storm was becoming less vicious the farther south it moved.
Damage to the wheat crop, already half ruined by drought and wind, could not be learned last night, but several grainmen believed that the dust would cover even more of the crops.
The storm started yesterday when a high pressure area moved out of the Dakotas toward Wyoming, according to Mr. Collman. Most of the dust was from western Kansas and Oklahoma, he said.
A linotype operator, forced to stick to his post in a dusty shop appeared with a narrow strip of shoe shining cloth, lined with sheepskin, tied close to his nostrils. When dampened, he said, it made breathing normal.
A Santa Fe freight train, scheduled to depart from the South Plains about 8 o'clock, was held up nearly an hour waiting for the dust to subside. With improved visibility by 11 o'clock it was reported making good time, aided by a strong "tailwind."
From Lubbock Evening Journal, April 15, 1935
ANOTHER DUST BLOW FELT
FOUR STATES STRUCK SUNDAY; TRAFFIC IS BADLY HAMPERED
By the Associated Press
Residents of the southwestern dust bowl marked up another black duster today and wondered how long it would be before another one came along. Already cheered by two days of clear skies and a respite from the choking silt and sand, they were enjoying what started out to be a balmy Sunday when the duster swept out of the north over western Kansas and eastern Colorado, and rushed on over the Oklahoma Panhandle and into Texas.
Motorists Are Caught
Hundreds of Sunday motorists were caught when the dense black cloud bore down upon them at a rate of 60 miles an hour. Some Oklahomans rushed for their storm cellars as day was turned into night. Many motorists who attempted to drive through the cloud of stinging gravel and sand, found that static electricity, generated by the dust particles, had disrupted the ignition systems of their engines.
From the Ochiltree County Herald, Perryton, Texas, April 18, 1935
Black Blizzard Breaks All Records
Visibility Goes to Zero; Many Are Caught On Highways and on Picnic Parties
Was Worst in History
Worst Duster in History Followed Ideal Spring Day; Hit Here About Five o'clock
The worst dust storm in the memory of the oldest inhabitants of this section of the country hit Perryton at five o'clock Sunday afternoon, catching hundreds of people away from their homes, at the theatre, on the highways, or on picnic parties. The storm came up suddenly, following a perfect spring day.
In just a few minutes after the first bank appeared in the north, the fury of the black blizzard was upon us, turning the bright sunshine of a perfect day into the murky inkiness of the blackest night. Many hurried to storm cellars, remembering the cyclone of July, two years ago, which followed a similar duster.
Without question, this storm put the finishing touch of destruction to what faint hopes this area had for a wheat crop. Business houses and homes were literally filled with the fine dirt and silt driven in by this fifty mile an hour gale.
The storm started in the Dakotas and carried through with diminishing fury into Old Mexico. Borger reported the storm struck there at 6:15 p.m.; Amarillo at 7:20 p.m.; Boise City, Oklahoma, at 5:35 p.m.; and Dalhart at 5:15 p.m.
Sources: The Amarillo Daily News, The Lubbock Evening Journal, The Ochiltree County Herald newspapers.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Viking Press, 1939.
Farming in the 1930's, Wessels Living History Farm website: http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_02.html
The Dust Bowl; Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl
Black Sunday; Wikipedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Sunday_(storm)
NASA Explains Dust Bowl Drought, NASA website: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2004/0319dustbowl.html
The Plow that Broke the Plains, video documentary by Pare Lorentz, 1936; Prelinger Archives website: http://www.archive.org/details/plow_that_broke_the_plains