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Worst Dust


Dust, driven by the wind, can infiltrate windows, nostrils, and doors. Whirling, whipping winds began stirring on May 9, 1934, in Canada’s Great Plains, lifting Saskatchewan dust into the air. The wind blew into Eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The dry soil in Williston went airborne, swept aloft by gale-force winds across the Dakota landscape. The wind blew for 24 hours non-stop. Thus began the “dust storm of the century” on May 9th and 10th.

Dakota dust, lifted from Williston and Minot, from Starkweather and Larimore, flew on to Minnesota. In St. Paul, the wind speeds reached 47 miles per hour. And the dust went farther – to Chicago, where it deposited twelve million tons of dirt on the Windy City. Then farther yet, the wind carrying Dakota dust all the way to Washington, D.C. and New York City by May 11th.

The cloud of dust had risen thousands of feet high and “filtered the rays of the sun for five hours” in New York. On this date in 1934, the New York Times reported that the city “was obscured in a half-light similar” to that of an eclipse of the sun. So dim was the light that office-workers reported that the Statue of Liberty was only a “smudge of gray, its outlines indistinguishable.”

An estimated 300 million tons of topsoil from Canada, Montana and North Dakota had blown east on the powerful northwest wind. The mammoth dust storm came about after six years of below normal precipitation. Warm temperatures in January and February set the stage for “dust storms of unprecedented severity” in April and May. 1934 proved to be the “driest of record,” according to the Weather Bureau.

In the past, the natural grasses of the Great Plains had held the soil in place with deep roots. Unfortunately, heavy cattle grazing started a deterioration of the grasses in Western North Dakota. The grasslands diminished further when farmers plowed up the semi-arid lands near Dickinson and Williston during World War I to plant more wheat “from fence to fence for defense.” They plowed up land that should have been left as an “ocean of grass.”

In Grand Forks County, the wind blew away all the loose soil from plowed fields, and the city of Grand Forks was reported to be “buried under drifting dust.”

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: “Huge Dust Cloud, Blown 1,500 Miles, Dims City 5 Hours,” New York Times, May 12, 1934, p. 1.

“Grand Forks Buried Under Drifting Dust,” Bismarck Tribune, May 10, 1934, p. 11.

“Worst Dust Storm In History Sweeps N.W.,” [Albert Lea, MN] Evening Tribune, May 10, 1934, p. 1.

“Bulls Take Charge As Drought, Dust Cause Big Damage,” Bismarck Tribune, May 10, 1934, p. 1.

Associated Press photograph, “Dust Storm Obscures Chicago Skyscrapers,” Big Spring [TX] Daily Herald, May 14, 1934, p. 1.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological Data, North Dakota Section, vol. XLIII, no. 13, Annual 1934, p. 1.

William Cotter Murray, “Grass,” American Heritage 19, no. 3 (April, 1968): 1.

“100 Years of Memorable Minnesota Weather,” Minneapolis Tribune, January 5, 2000, p. A12.