On this day in 1935, a massive dust storm blows over the southern plains. The day came to be known as Black Sunday because of the immense size of the dust blizzard—and the damage that it caused.
“The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal,” historian Timothy Egan describes. “The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.”
The storm was just one of many that would rip through the so-called “Dust Bowl” in those years. Indeed, the disaster had been building for decades as pioneers moved westward across the country.
Unfortunately, many of those who settled on the plains didn’t understand how to farm the semi-arid region. They thought they could tear up the natural grasses, replacing them with wheat fields. When the Great Depression hit, wheat prices plummeted, prompting farmers to tear up even more of the grassland.
None of it worked. To the contrary, a drought came. Now there was no wheat, and the prairie grasses were gone. During the 1930s, the area’s high winds caused massive dust storms to torment the area.
“People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep,” one observer would say of his time in the Dust Bowl. “Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk. . . . We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions.”
At first, it seemed that Sunday, April 14, would be different. The sun shone and the skies were a clear blue. People who had been trapped inside rushed outdoors to enjoy the day.
Suddenly, everything changed. Birds began squawking. Rabbits began to run. The weather turned colder. A massive black dust cloud appeared on the horizon, descending upon towns and farms, one by one.
Many were caught off guard.
One couple was in their truck when the storm hit. They pulled over and ran for an old adobe house that they saw close by. Ten other people were already inside, sheltering from the dust storm. The strangers sat with each other for hours, in the dark, hoping they wouldn’t get smothered.
In Kansas, one man went looking for his wife who was lost in the storm. His truck headlights swept back and forth as he traveled up and down the street, but she was disoriented and barely found him. By the time he pulled her into the truck, she was gasping for air.
One man was left crawling on his belly through the storm. Sand was blowing into his eyes and under his eyelids. He made the mistake of trying to rub his eyes, but it dug the dirt further in. He went blind that day and never recovered his eyesight.
The storm lasted for hours, hitting the Oklahoma panhandle at about 4:00, then moving south, finally hitting Amarillo, Texas, at 7:20 p.m. The National Weather Service reports that the winds in some portions of the storm may have reached 60 mph.
The storm left devastation in its wake. Many people came down with “dust pneumonia” in the weeks that followed. Others left the area, relocating to other parts of the country. And at least one American singer-songwriter, Woody Guthrie, would go on to write about his experiences in the Dust Bowl.
“A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic and blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-getting’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.”
Enjoyed this post? More American history stories
from the 1900s can be found on my website, HERE.
Daniel Benjamin, The Dust Bowl Reconsidered (PERC; Dec. 10, 2004)
Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (25th anniversary ed.; 2004)
The Black Sunday Dust Storm of April 14, 1935 (National Weather Service website)
Wayne J. Urban et al., American Education: A History (6th ed. 2019)