Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of the Telegraph’s former magazine Revisited. It has been updated to include subsequent notable weather events.
In both summer and winter, west-central Nebraska is definitely a land of extremes.
It’s not exactly the “Great American Desert,” the term by which explorer Major Stephen Long dismissed Central America in 1823. But the lands between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains don’t usually offer neither are timely, reasonable or even regular rains.
Triple-digit summer days are far from unusual, even in wet years. Droughts in the Great Plains can last anywhere from weeks to years. It takes relatively little time to dry out the short grasses of west-central Nebraska and make them ready to fuel wildfires.
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And as Nebraskans learned so bitterly in the 1930s, soil so rich for crops and livestock grazing can all too easily be blown away if the land isn’t tilled properly – or, in the Sandhills, if she is very disturbed.
The weather and Ogallala’s vast underground aquifer have mitigated the worst agricultural effects of more recent droughts, such as the multi-year drought that opened the millennium and the most recent severe western Nebraska drought of 2012.
But none of them have survived in memory like those from the 1890s and 1930s.
If it were true that “the rain follows the plow” – the fallacious slogan by which real estate developers in the 1870s blasted Nebraska – the plow has never seen western Nebraska, where annual rainfall only represents in average than half of those in the east.
North Platte averaged 20.16 inches per year for the first 74 years (1948-2021) after federal recordkeeping was moved to the airport from Lee Bird Field. From 1875 to 1947, the city averaged just 18.15 inches – and the only 11.84 inches recorded in 1876, the weather station’s second full year, spoke a bitter truth.
So did the summer temperatures, which put an end to the bragging of those unidentified “oldies” that summer days rarely exceeded 90 degrees. In fact, just over half of North Platte’s daily highs in July and August exceeded that figure in 1876 – only slightly more than the average of 25 such days in those two months since the record began. registers.
A few reasonably wet years followed: 25.47 inches in 1877 and an abundant 29.92 inches in 1883, still North Platte’s third wettest year. But dry years remained frequent enough to suggest farmers in west-central Nebraska could not rely solely on the sky for water.
The 1890s brutally drove home the point.
From 1893 to 1900, North Platte’s annual precipitation averaged only 14.30 inches. Only 13.16 inches fell in 1893, a year when Lincoln County residents were desperate enough the previous year to adopt primitive — and futile — methods of producing rain.
The county council agreed to buy 2,000 pounds of dynamite in Omaha and set it off simultaneously in Wallace, Sutherland “and on the hills north and south of the city”, reported the North Platte Tribune on July 26, 1893 , the day the explosions took place. stopped.
A week later the newspaper added: “Rain followed twelve hours after the dynamite explosion, but whether the precipitation was due to the explosion, to the Methodist ministers who had assembled in the city, or to the efforts From (the Federal Weather) Piercy Observer, there is a difference of opinion. The Tribune is inclined to give fifty points to dynamite, thirty to ministers, and twenty to Piercy.
Incidentally, official North Platte weather records show the town received a trace of rain on July 26, 1893, and 0.14 inches on the 27th. No substantial rain fell until August 20, when at which 1.26 inches was recorded.
The weather station recorded just 11.21 inches for all of 1894, including only 0.17 inches of August heat. Angry farmers from six Nebraska counties gathered in North Platte on September 21 to take stock of the devastation and demand “immediate supply, food and fuel.”
Some 10,000 people were left destitute by the drought in Lincoln, Logan, Frontier, Perkins, McPherson and Hayes counties, the report said. Half of that total was attributed to Lincoln County, where it was said that “nearly everyone outside of the (Platte) Valley will need help.”
Meanwhile, the first long-term partial response to the arid conditions of western Nebraska was being promoted by gatherings like Nebraska’s first statewide irrigation convention, held at North Platte in December 1893 .
His reception, the Tribune said, “amply demonstrates that the inhabitants west of the ninety-seventh meridian are finally sensitized to the absolute need for a comprehensive irrigation system in order to be sure of a profitable life even for those who are engaged in agricultural activities.
Irrigation canals and large reservoirs, supplemented by wells from underground aquifers, would begin to take shape in the early 1900s. But they were still under development when an even longer and frightening drought hit.
Three of North Platte’s 10 wettest years—1902, 1906, and especially 1915, with 32.69 inches of precipitation—would be recorded over the next four decades. But from 1931 to 1937, the city averaged 14.47 inches of annual precipitation, only marginally better than during the ordeal of the 1890s.
Farmers’ hopes after receiving 2.65 inches of rain in June 1931 were dashed when just an inch and a half fell in July and August. The year’s total of 10.01 inches remains North Platte’s driest year since 1874.
The sun beat down with little pity. Although North Platte did not experience its daily high of 112 degrees until 1954, maximum temperatures during the famine of the 1930s averaged 100 or more in June, July and August. Six of the city’s hottest average temperatures for those three months were recorded between 1931 and 1938.
When dark clouds gathered, they were too often grainy and terrifying rather than moist and encouraging.
An early dust storm on April 23, 1934, reported The Telegraph, “covered the plains here with a blanket about two miles thick”. Midday winds of about 23 mph reduced visibility to 2 miles, and pilots flying near Lee Bird Field “found moderate dust in the air at 9,000 feet.”
That storm blew south from the Dakotas, but another storm on June 7 — as the Nebraska Low’s hottest summers set in — drove clouds of black dust north. of Kansas. It hit the Panhandle hard, the Associated Press reported, with North Platte scoring its eastern edge.
The Dust Bowl was the busiest in 1935. After a February dust storm again focused on the Panhandle, Nebraskans came under a single double-barreled attack. Cool dust clouds, driven by 60 mph winds, swept east on March 16 from Scottsbluff to Omaha – quickly followed by a snowstorm approaching blizzard conditions in the central part of the state.
North Platte only got seven tenths of an inch of white stuff from this storm. The dark substance would fall, with a vengeance, four days later.
“Life in North Platte lately has been one dust storm after another,” complained the March 20 Evening Telegraph. “And today, ‘normal’ conditions — lots of wind and dust — swept through the city; in every nook and cranny, and under and above every door and window.
Northwest winds of 38 to 45 mph loosened the braces on the massive sign atop the original Hirschfeld men’s clothing store at Sixth and Dewey streets, later torn down in favor of a Parkade Plaza parking lot.
The dark blizzard lingered until the 21st as winds still pushed dust to 40 mph. US Weather Bureau Director AW Shilling told the Telegraph that “the air was laden with dust” over all of Nebraska and parts of Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
And the city still hadn’t faced its Dust Bowl climax. It happened on the last day of April.
“Residents of North Platte woke up this morning to find the town covered in a thick layer of dust, the heaviest caused by a dust storm this year, and probably the heaviest ever received here,” said The Telegraph. May, the 1st.
“At the worst part of the storm yesterday afternoon, the school children used wet tissues on their faces,” the story continued. Motorists and pedestrians did the same. United Air Lines flights were unable to land at Lee Bird Field.
Even a light rain in the late afternoon made matters worse: the dust “turned the drops into little balls of mud”. By 4 p.m., North Platte was almost plunged into darkness as cars drove by with headlights on and “street lights and electric signs were on”.
It wouldn’t be North Platte’s last dust storm in the “Dirty Thirties.” But after the late winter and spring of 1935, garden-like whiteout blizzards might have seemed welcome by comparison.
After the 1930s: the era of irrigation
Even as the dust storms raged, New Deal work crews were building the Sutherland Project across Lincoln County. Its irrigation canals and storage reservoirs, including Lake Maloney south of North Platte, are said to be linked to the Tri-County Project which in 1941 threw the Kingsley Dam across the North Platte River, forming Lake McConaughy in the north of Ogallala.
North Platte and Nebraska would face more droughts in the coming decades. The city recorded just 10.04 inches of humidity in 2012 – barely behind the parched depression year of 1931 – and 11.06 inches in 2002. But irrigation canals, center pivots and Improved farming methods lessened their impact on west-central Nebraska agriculture.
And if people see a cloud of dust in the air, it rarely does more than echo the days when life, literally and figuratively, was truly at its darkest.