The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, two aptly named phrases, describe the 1930s disaster that blew away up to 75% of the midwestern topsoil in the U.S.
The opening of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought waves of homesteading immigrants to the great plains of the U.S. and Canada. Knowing nothing of the ecology of the plains flatlands, farmers plowed deeply to eradicate the thick native grasses that helped retain moisture and held the soil in place against the wind.
They grazed cattle. They planted wheat. A wet period early in the 20th century encouraged more landholding, more overgrazing, more plowing and planting of wheat.
Then the drought arrived with the 1929 worldwide depression. The drought dried the topsoil of Oklahoma and parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and the Canadian plains and pulverized it into dust.
The black blizzards of dust stripped and eroded the topsoil and blew it in massive clouds sometimes as far as the east coast.
Families forced to abandon their farms headed to the west coast to find work. Many from Oklahoma, known as Okies, settled in California. The pathos of their journey has been memorialized in John Steinbeck’s gripping novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Some moved as far north as Oregon and Washington.
These states, contending with their own misery had nothing to offer the despairing migrants. My father Hans Pederson, a builder of Seattle landmarks, also suffered bankruptcy after building the King County Courthouse in 1929. In spite of his reputation, the banks wouldn’t lend him any money. They had none to lend.