Daily Archives: August 4, 2010

Dust Bowl in Pittsburgh, May 11, 1934

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to have a half-decent American history teacher should know about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. But did you ever learn the full extent of those dusters?

From the NOAA Photo Library, www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/wea01416.htm and www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/wea01415.htm

Garden City, Kansas before and during a dust storm. Use the streetlights at the bottom right to compare the photographs. Yes, I know it's not Pittsburgh, but it's still impressive.

I first learned about a monster dust storm that stretched from the Midwest to New York City and beyond (no, I’m not kidding) while listening to American-Made: the Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor. It’s an excellent book, but as it’s more a history of the WPA than of the Dust Bowl, the storm was only mentioned in passing. So of course, like any good inquisitive librarian, I had to learn more.

I found another audio book (shameless plug: audio books are great for commuters like me) called The Worst Hard Time: the Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan and was instantly hooked. When I came to the section about that massive storm, I ran to our stacks and found our print copy of the book so I could reread the section and post about it here.

Carrying three tons of dust for every American alive, the formation moved over the Midwest. It covered Chicago at night, dumping an estimated six thousand tons, the dust slinking down walls as if every home and every office had sprung a leak. By morning, the dust fell like snow over Boston and Scranton, and then New York slipped under partial darkness. Now the storm was measured at 1,800 miles wide, a great rectangle of dust from the Great Plains to the Atlantic, weighing 350 million tons. In Manhattan, the streetlights came on at midday and cars used their headlights to drive.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

There’s more to his description, but you’ll have to check it out and read it yourself.

Egan goes on to describe how the storm made the front page of the New York Times on May 12, 1934 – so of course I had to visit the microfilm department. You can click the image to see a larger version.

NYT article

This is a scan of a photocopy from a microfilm reader, so bear with me.

Now we’ll get to the Pittsburgh connection. I showed this article to my colleague who had recently discovered  a collection of weather observation journals in our closed stacks. We realized that since the journals covered the 1850s to 1940s, we could probably find some local information about this historic duster. So I dug out the volume from 1934 and found this. Once again, you can click for a larger image.

Pittsburgh observation 1

There is a charming picture of a dog on the back of the newspaper clipping.

Pittsburgh observation 2

The letter is from May 11, 1934.

If you read the letter closely, you’ll see that the storm was no big deal here in Pittsburgh, since “local smoke and haze are of common occurance.” This was our city’s smoky heyday, after all. Our lack of concern was even noted by other newspapers, like the Southeast Missourian of May 14, 1934 – check out this little article from the Google News Archive. Amazing!

– Amy

If you’d like to learn more about the Dust Bowl (or just admire some photographs of cow skeletons), here are some good places to start.





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