I Was Working on the Railroad…In The Heart of the Dust Bowl?

Dust Bowl

noun,

  1. The region in the South Central U.S that suffered from dust storms.
Roller Coming through Springfield

Thanks Johnny Jameson for this picture of a Roller Coming through Springfield

Associated Press staff writer Robert Geiger was in Boise City Oklahoma writing a series of articles on a day that is sometimes referred to as Black Sunday. In his April 15 release for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star he wrote: “Three little words…If it Rains” as the title of a story on what was happening in the South Central plains during the 1930’s, but it was another three little words which actually become the moniker for the decade.  Within three months “The Dust Bowl” was being used throughout the nation. He specifically referred to “the western third of Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, the northern two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, and northeastern New Mexico.” That area is pretty much the same as the Dust Bowl boundary formally designated in 1939 by the Soil Conservation Service as the geographical extent of the severe wind damage by 1939.

Perhaps it’s appropriate the words “Most Severe” lay across the most south east county in Colorado  in the map below.  This map shows the degree to which various South Central Plains were impacted by the Dust Bowl.

Most Severe Dust Bowl  Source:  http://1.usa.gov/1wkB08k

Source: http://1.usa.gov/1wkB08k

Baca County Colorado is the most south east county and is comprised of 1,637,426 acres.   Nary an inch of  that acreage was spared during the midst of the dust bowl era in the 1930’s and again during the severe drought of the 1950’s. Baca County was hard-hit experiencing severe dust storms the locals called rollers, “dirt drifts”, buried fence rows, jackrabbit drives and grasshopper plagues of what must have seemed to some to be of Biblical proportions.  While I was recently visiting Baca County the following comment came up.

You could always tell when someone was getting ready to leave during the Dust Bowl because they would kill the milk cow

A desperate action by folks who could no longer take air quality so poor that residents hung wet rags in their windows attempting to keep blowing soil out of their homes.

Many have read Tim Egan’s Worst Hard Time or watched Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl Documentary.  It is true, that we must give them credit for a product well done.  However,  as I observe such stories and compare them to the stories I have heard and the photos I have seen growing up in Baca County I have often felt I have seen more and better Dust bowl artifacts and stories than Tim Egan or Ken Burns could collect in a lifetime. The trick I suppose is in compiling and presenting those stories.  A perfect example is a recent Dust bowl conversation I had with 92 year old Herb Homsher, a lifetime Baca County resident,

Herb’s first job during high school was for the railroad as part of a shovel gang that worked to keep the railroad tracks clear between Boise City, Oklahoma and Springfield.  Herb indicated that the dirt covering the tracks would sometimes blow in and be about a foot or so covering the the tracks.

Herb tells us,

Well I was in high school at the time that the railroad from the south came in.  They were going to go on through to La Junta (CO). I took a job with those people.  During the day I would help scoop off  dirt on the track and at night the dirt would blow back over the tracks.   They put me on the shovel gang and we’d go clear to Boise City and then we would have to come back the other way and clean the tracks again.  We just would take a shovel and scoop it off the tracks.  I would go and shovel dust and then come back to town and play the trombone in the band  and when I was done I would go scoop more dust.

Herb also says,

I got my social security number from the railroad.  At that time you didn’t have to have a social security number.  Herb’s wife Lucille remembers times when Herb would list his social security number and people would ask, “Did you work for the Railroad?”

This leads us to an interesting bit of history.  In the 1930s, amidst concern about the ability of existing pension programs to provide former railroad workers with adequate assistance in old age, Congress established a national Railroad Retirement system. Because he had a “700” series Social Security number, he definitely was working for an employer covered by the Railroad Retirement Act when he received his Social Security number.  The Railroad Retirement Board issued “700” series numbers from 1936 until 1963, when the unused numbers in the series were returned to Social Security.

Although most employers in the Railroad Retirement system are pure railroad operations, there were some, like the Union Stockyards in Chicago, that were closely related to the railroads and that were included in the system. The Union Stockyards owned a famous restaurant at 42nd Street & Halsted called the “Stockyards Inn” at which the waiters and other employees were covered by Railroad Retirement. Railway Express Agency (REA), a forerunner of UPS and Federal Express was also a “railroad employer.” So was a resort in Sun Valley, California.

I know the last two paragraphs leads us down a bit of rabbit trail.  We were talking about the dust bowl and wandered off to the railroad, but that is how history is…one story leads to another which leads to another.   That’s all for now.

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