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Retrospect: April 14, 1935: Black Sunday

A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Though a work of fiction, John Steinbeck's epic novel The Grapes of Wrath captures with vivid accuracy the plight of many Americans who, poverty-stricken by the Great Depression of the 1930s, suffered additional turmoil during the seemingly endless series of dust storms that plagued the Great Plains during much of the decade. As a result of severe drought combined with poor farming practices, as many as 100 million acres of topsoil were decimated in the large swath of once-fertile land that became known simply as the Dust Bowl. The dust was swept up by winds into massive storms known as “black blizzards” or “rollers.”

Arguably, the single-worst day in terms of these storms during the Dust Bowl era was April 14, 1935, which became known as “Black Sunday.” On that day alone, 20 dust storms occurred across the central United States, seemingly turning day into night in the areas most affected. A special note on the dust storms published in the April 1935 edition of the U.S. Weather Bureau's Climatological Data publication for Kansas reported that dust caused total darkness by early afternoon in parts of the state, noting that “chickens that were able to reach shelter went to roost as early at 3 p.m.”

Caption: U.S. Weather Bureau Daily Weather Map for 8:00 a.m. EST, April 14, 1935. Massive dust storms, spawned by the passage of a dry cold front, created blackout conditions during what became known as “Black Sunday.”

In Kenton, Oklahoma, cooperative weather observer Ralph H. Guy wrote in his monthly report to the Weather Bureau that the severe dust storm on the 14th “caused the afternoon to turn as dark as darkest possible night.” The Oklahoma edition of Climatological Data for the month quoted Guy as writing that the storm turned “afternoon brightness immediately into midnight darkness, and absolute zero visibility. It was totally dark and impossible to see without searchlight for at least 15 minutes. In the course of one hour, faint visibility was returning just enough to get around in the open. The storm came from the north and northeast and traveled at a very great speed.”

Another Weather Bureau cooperative observer in Beaver, Oklahoma, wrote that the dust storm of the 14th was the “worst dust storm ever known in this country.”

“Midnight darkness prevailed in Dodge City while the storm was at its heaviest,” reported The New York Times the following day. “A forty-mile-an-hour wind eddied and drifted the dust like snow. Reports to the Weather Bureau said the storm covered the entire State of Kansas, all of Missouri but the southeastern corner, most of Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. In Kansas City the clouds gave the appearance of a moderate fog.”

The following brief report appeared in the April 1935 issue of Monthly Weather Review:

Dust Storms, April 1935

In some parts of the country, April 1935 was dustier than March. The region that had been popularly named the “dust bowl” had several more instances of dust than occurred the previous month. As will be seen from the chart [map, above], the number of days with dust storms or dusty conditions during April averaged well over 20 in northwestern Texas and adjacent sections. One station, Amarillo, Tex., reported dusty conditions on 28 days of the month.

An interesting feature of the distribution of the dusty conditions this month was the unusual amount reported from the extreme Southeast, particularly northwestern and western Florida. As may be deduced from the spread of the dust southeastward, there were more drifts of air in that direction.

The plate [photograph below] gives an excellent view of a dust storm that occurred at Spearman, Tex., on April 14, 1935. The photograph was submitted by the official in charge, Houston, Tex., and was taken by F. W. Brandt, cooperative observer at Spearman, Tex.

Caption: Map from Monthly Weather Review showing number of days with dust storms or dusty conditions during April 1935.

Caption: Dust storm approaching Spearman, Texas, April 14, 1935. Photo by F. W. Brandt, Weather Bureau cooperative observer at Spearman.

The dust storms of Black Sunday were the result of a dry cold front that moved southward across the Great Plains during the day, reaching the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles by 5:00 p.m. Except perhaps for those who live in the Desert Southwest (or similar areas in other parts of the world) and experience the occasional dust storm or sandstorm know as a haboob, it's difficult to imagine what it's like to have a wall of dust suddenly appear along the horizon and quickly engulf everything around you. The best accounts, perhaps, come from those whose job it was at the time to tell the stories of those who lived on the drought-stricken acres of agricultural wasteland to the rest of the world—the newspaper reporters who traveled the backcountry roads of rural Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and other “Dust Bowl states” to share firsthand accounts of what local residents were enduring. Among the most remembered from this group is Robert Geiger, who worked for the Associated Press and who is often credited with coining the term “Dust Bowl.”

While on assignment on April 14 with photographer Harry Eisenhard, Geiger filed a report from Guymon, Oklahoma. The story, which ran the following day, began, “Three little words, achingly familiar on a Western farmer's tongue, rule life today in the dust bowl of the continent—If it rains.” Although this is apparently the first time the term “dust bowl” appeared in print, Geiger claimed in a 2002 profile that appeared in Cleartime, a newsletter for AP retirees, that credit for the term actually belonged to Kansas City AP Bureau Chief Ed Stanley, who told Geiger he inserted it while editing the story. Geiger recalled how he and Eisenhard once got caught in a dust storm in Oklahoma. “It was a horrible thing, a bad one, solid, dirty-looking air,” he said. “It took us an hour and a half to drive three or four miles. If you go through it, you'll never forget it.”

While he may not have given the Dust Bowl its name, Geiger, along with other writers at the time, including Steinbeck, helped describe in words what photographers such as Eisenhard, Dorothea Lange, or Brandt captured in pictures: the long, slow human suffering and displacement that took place at the hands of nature—what author Timothy Egan aptly and succinctly refers to in the title of his 2006 best-selling book on the subject as The Worst Hard Time.

Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a New York based Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM), Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM), and science writer with an interest in weather history.

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