Worst of the Worst Weather-Wise
Never before had western Canada seen a year like 1936. The first week in January temperatures fell to between -35̊ and -40̊ F (-37.5 to -40̊ C) all across the prairies and for two months winter held the prairie provinces in a frozen vice, lightened only by the occasional blizzard –some lasting for days– that would bring temperatures up a few degrees.
For the first two weeks in February temps rarely went above -30̊, a lot of days saw -40̊ or colder. Winnipeg residents saw the line in their home thermometers sitting at -52̊ (-47̊ C) on the morning of Feb 6th. Alas, the official Winnipeg thermometer had malfunctioned overnight, so the record was never officially recorded.
On February 16th saw -36̊ in Calgary, -51̊ in Edmonton, -43̊ at Saskatoon, -54̊ at Regina; other spots recorded -40̊. City schools continued to open their doors, but streets were pretty much deserted; rural schools were closed and folks who didn’t have to leave home stayed put. A lot of families huddled near the heater or wood stove, wrapped in all their blankets and tried to stay upbeat. Spring was bound to come sooner or later.
Farmers put off going for fuel as long as they could. They needed a team of horses and the air tires of a “Bennet buggy” to get anywhere, since blizzards had filled the roads with snowdrifts. Otherwise it was impossible to go anywhere, even if a fellow could start his frozen engine. (This was back in the days when vehicles had cranks as starters and all-season motor oil was unheard of.) Every side road between Winnipeg and Calgary was blocked.
A thaw at the end of February brought an end to the severe cold; in April spring finally arrived. Some folks who were hoping for some respite from the drought that had wiped out most of the 1935 crop saw a bit of light at the end of the tunnel: outside the Palliser Triangle* spring rains watered the parched earth. Inside the Palliser Triangle: nada.
Hopes were soon dashed, though, as a giant heat wave built up on the US plains and sent high temps and dust-bearing winds rolling over the prairies. The dry heat sucked up what soil moisture there was; crops turned pale, then brown. By July 1st 90̊ and over temps were the rule, continuing across southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta for the next six weeks straight.
Streams and rivers ran dry; wildlife disappeared. Heat-weary city folks tried to sleep in parks or on balconies to find some night time relief but had to contend with hoppers and crickets – and in places where there actually were bodies of water, mosquitoes. Farmers often had to haul water many miles for their families and what livestock they had left.
During this time Ontario was hit by a ten-day heat wave as well and residents there began to appreciate what the West was going through. For one solid week in July, from Windsor to Belleville, the thermometer registered 100̊ F or over every day. Toronto recorded 105̊ on three successive days. Surrounded by the Great Lakes as they are, the humidity would have been unbearable; 5000 succumbed to heat prostration during those ten days.
From Calgary to Winnipeg nothing grew but dust clouds and grasshoppers. The blowing hot air was stifling, the grit inescapable. One southern town saw temperatures fall below 90̊ on only three days during those six weeks! Willow Creek, in SW Sask, recorded temperatures above 100̊ on thirteen July days. People died every day. In the West no one bothered to compile statistics; folks were in survival mode only.
In Manitoba the heat wave peaked on July 11th with temps of 108̊ in Winnipeg, 110̊ in Brandon & Morden, then hung at over 100̊ all through the third week of July. A dozen people died daily, plus many of their pets. Finally the heat spell ended in a destructive electrical storm that stretched from Winnipeg through the eastern part of the province. But Sask and southern Alberta was shown no mercy from the blast furnace until the latter part of August.
Winter came early with brief but chilly waves throughout the fall. In October the temperature dropped to -8̊F (just under 22̊ C) at times, to -20̊ in November and -40̊ in December.
In those years folks survived on hope. If they’d been informed at Christmas of the upcoming winter being another severe one, or that the drought would last another two years, how many of them would have simply “given up the ghost”?
* In 1857 the British government sent an expedition led by Captain John Palliser to assess the agricultural potential of the Northwest Territories . When he was gave his report to his superiors, he drew a triangle on his map and said the land inside this triangle was unsuitable for farming. Severe winters, undependable rainfall, large tracts of sand that would blow or clay that would bake hard by early summer. They’d had a hard enough time to cross it, never mind trying to farm it. This triangle covered a lot of southern Alberta, all of southern Sask, and southwestern Manitoba, The base ran along the US border and the point was near Saskatoon.
Nonsense, the government replied, and sold it for farmland. They put out promotional material awash with illustrations of lush wheat fields, information carefully vetted of any hints about severe cold or drought. To make matters worse, government agricultural dept advised the inexperienced homesteaders to plough deep in the fall–a practise that brought on the disastrous “Dirty Thirties”.
My sources of information:
Winnipeg writer James H. Gray lived through the years of the Great Depression. In his book, The Winter Years, he shares his own personal experience of being a ‘Reliefer’ in Winnipeg as well as giving a political and economic overview of the era.
© 1966 by James H. Gray Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada
Pierre Berton’s book, The GREAT DEPRESSION, 1929-1939
© 1990 by Pierre Berton Enterprises Ltd. Published by Anchor Canada