George E. Marsh: Dust Bowl Gypsy

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George E. Marsh (believed to be George Everett Marsh Jr.) would have been completely forgotten if not for a wonderful photo album and a few writings that he called "Piffles and Jottings from the Desiccated West" apparently written as part personal record and part personal amusement during the Dust Bowl years of 1934-1935. He was one of thousands of engineers, surveyors, academics, and hard-working honest laborers who found themselves attached to Coast and Geodetic Survey crews during the heart of the Great Depression. Great networks of triangulation and leveling were extended across the United States during this era, primarily funded by New Deal government agencies with acronyms such as WPA (Works Progress Administration), CWA (Civil Works Administration), and PWA (Public Works Administration). Ironically, this distressed era saw the greatest expansion of geodetic survey work in C&GS history as at least 10,000 individuals were employed at various times under grants from the above agencies. Many engineers and surveyors survived the Great Depression, both financially and professionally, by employment on the Survey.

George Marsh was an anomaly though. The one surviving picture of him shows a middle-aged man, apparently with a bald head, wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with bowtie. He is sitting at a desk writing, or perhaps doing computations, as he was a "computer" and sometimes lightkeeper on the triangulation party of Lieutenant Wilbur Porter, conducting surveys from Texas to Montana in the heart of the dust bowl. He looked more like an academic than a field surveyor and it is probable that was his background. He apparently spent most of his earlier life in the East (although possibly born in a Colorado mining camp) and made fun of his background as he called corrals "arenas" and had other idiosyncrasies. He was well-educated as it took a fair degree of mathematical ability to step into the role of computer on a large triangulation party. Some of his all too few writings also showed a scientific education as he discussed grasshoppers in terms of the tribe of "Orthoptera" and "rough chitinous bodies" and wrote a delightful piece on dinosaur fossil hunting in Montana. The other men on the party recognized him as an academic and naturalist as on at least one occasion he was brought an insect for identification.

He was a student of nature and human nature. Some of his pictures have become classics, particularly those of the Great Dust Storm of April 14, 1935, enveloping Stratford, Texas. This image has become an icon and published in scientific and popular press world-wide over the past few years, recently in Scientific American. Besides his humorous side, he had an ability to describe such events in memorable terms. His caption for the dust storm photos read: " The dust-clouds approached at 60 m.p.h. and were reported to be a mile high. It came rolling and boiling with varicolored portions that held the onlooker entranced. Pitch darkness came down like a knife-edge. Window ledges were covered until they could hold no more." He shared the hardships and the camaraderie of field parties more in the nature of a somewhat bemused tourist than one who had spent years in the field and "had seen it all." When the WPA funds ran out in the summer of 1935, he shared the sadness of disbanding the field party as an uncertain future lay ahead only to be overjoyed two days later as funding came in for a month or two more.

With the final dissolution of the party in late summer of 1935, no more is heard from George E. Marsh Jr. A search of the Internet finds a George Everett Marsh Jr. who was born in 1877 in Georgetown, Colorado, graduated from MIT in 1901 with a degree in physics, and endowed MIT with $5,000 in his mother’s memory when he passed on in 1953. This man died in Port Republic, Maryland, near Solomon’s Island. His will indicated that George Marsh wished this endowment to go towards the study of paleontology, probably inspired by his association with an uncle, MIT professor of geology William Otis Crosby (there is a mention of the family name Crosby in the story "Rock Springs Observations"). No mention of wife, family, or children is found in Marsh’s C&GS writings leading further credence to his being one and the same with the MIT graduate . Like many of his contemporaries working in the Midwest of the 1930’s, he came with the dust and went with the wind.

The two accompanying selections of George Marsh’s writings give a sample of what we all have missed by not knowing more of this man. The first story shares the culture of the miner and surveyor of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In general, these professions took pride in their toughness and this particular story reflects a ribald humor worthy of Mark Twain. The roots of the story probably date to territorial Montana when there was a great controversy as to whether Helena or Anaconda should become the future state capital. The people of Anaconda referred to Helena as having a "sissy" name. The story takes place in Butte, Montana, home of the Anaconda Mine, one of the great copper mines of the world. Anaconda was a smelter town close to Butte. In this instance, a bemused Coast Surveyor recants the story that he heard from a local bartender:

The Sissy from Anaconda

Several years ago I stopped off in the wonderful city of Butte, Montana, to visit some friends and to investigate the reputation of Butte. I was told that there was an old bartender down at the Mint Saloon who could tell me more than anyone else about the early days of Butte. So I went down to see him. "Well," he said, "if you’ll come back tonight, after we’ve closed up, I’ll tell you anything I know about Butte."

He was one of the old school of bartenders with the roached hair and the big waxed mustache, and he had a gold watch chain that would weigh a pound easily – the type of old gentleman bartender. I went down there and we sat on the Deacon’s seat outside the saloon in the evening. And he said, "Well, mister, so you heard Butte is tough. I tell you Butte is not tough. But we do have a tough town right near here. Did you ever hear of Anaconda??

And I said, "Yes, I have."

"Well," he said, "mister, by God, there’s where they were tough!"

"Well," I said, "tell me about it."

He said, "It was, oh, some twenty-odd years ago, one hellish hot day in August, and there was a bunch of us barflies sitting out on the porch here, and we see comin’ down the road a little old man. He was leadin’ a great big panther in one hand and biggest grizzly bear I ever see, in the other hand. They were both on leashes.

"He come right along until he got right in front of the saloon, then he stopped and reached over and he took that cougar by the ears and slammed him down on his haunches and says, "Sit there, you sonuva___! Then he turned around and looked at the bear and the bear was whinin’ and — pffft! — he spit in the bear’s eye and said, `Shut up, you b___!’ And he grabbed him and sat him down.

Then this little old guy, he walked right into the saloon, never looking to the right or left. So I went in and got behind the bar and I said, `Will you have a drink, mister?’ He says, `Yes, give me a bottle of your best drinkin’ liquor.’ So I set out a bottle and a tumbler. That’s the way we did business here. He looked at the tumbler — wham! — and threw it on the floor and it broke all to pieces. Then he up with the bottle and he drank h
er straight down. Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle! Thirty-two ounces! Down she went in the hatch in two big drinks! He put the empty bottle back on the counter and said, `Well, mister, that was pretty good liquor. Now give me another bottle of that whiskey.’ And I put out another bottle. He raised it up and was just going to start drinkin’ – when he suddenly stopped, and set it down on the counter. He reached in his shirt and began fumblin’ and feeling all around in there. And then he pulled out, mister, the g__d____est rattlesnake I ever did see! There was fourteen rattles on it and they was all clackin’ like castanets. And that snake’s mouth was open and it was drippin’ venom! His tongue was a-going every which way. The little guy looked at him. `Why,’ he said, `g__d__ you! Ugh!’ And he bit the rattlers head right off and spit it out and he says, "I’ll learn you to bite me, you sonuvab___!" And then he drank the liquor.

"I asked, `Say, mister, where do you come from?’

"The little guy says, `Who? Me?’ He had a high pitched voice.

"And I said, `Yes, where do you come from?"

"Oh,’ he says, `I come from down the road a ways; a town called Anaconda.

"`Oh,’ I said, `you come from Anaconda, do you.’


"Well,’ I said, `they must be pretty tough down there!’" `Tough!’ he said. `G__d__! They run all us sissies out of there yesterday!’"

This second story told by Marsh is a personal reminiscence of his time spent at a survey station about 5 miles NW of Angela, Montana at the present day junction of State Highway 59 and Road 208. Then, as now, this is still close to the middle of nowhere. Marsh matter-of-factly describes how his tent was blown down with not a shred of self-pity or anger. It was just part of the routine of survey work during the Dust Bowl years.

Rock Springs Observations

At the Survey station near Rock Springs, Montana, (one house functions as home, store and post office) I was visited by Mr. Yates, a ranchman, who lives less than a mile distant and who asked me to dinner. I accepted pronto, you bet. That’s Spanish for alacrity. He came out here twenty-one years ago from Little Falls, N.Y., where Crosbys and Sibleys still reside. And Mrs. Yates has an aunt named Marsh, which was more interesting, but as she was short on Mr. Marsh’s antecedents, I could not determine any relationship.

He has 1,500 sheep, no mortgage, 70 tons of hay from two years ago and money in the bank, quite a phenomenon for these times.

While we attended to the pleasure of eating, a violent but short-lived windstorm came over the hill and filled the air with dust until you could not see across the yard and the three of us rushed to close the windows. On looking toward the station where I was camped, I saw a truck and explained that I would have to leave at once, thinking that instructions from the office had arrived. Mr. Yates brought me back in his Ford and as we neared the truck, I saw that my tent was down. Inspection showed that some of the guy ropes had broken; the cot and its load of clothes were upside down, my ten-gallon milk can, that had been half full, was overturned and the water gone but nothing was wet in the slightest, and the lid was off the carton in which I had the thirty-two eggs that Ari, the horned toad from Texas, had laid a few days previously, and the contents dispersed over the county.

Daily, the truck-driver, who came to move me on the morrow, helped to reestablish camp. A large piece of canvas was found in the ravine on the other side of the hill and there was nothing missing save Ari’s potential youngsters and a piece of burlap in which the tent pins had been wrapped.

Grasshoppers? Hell, yes and then some. Everywhere in this desiccated country from Texas to Montana. And so thick in some sections. And lots of varieties. Sometimes when the truck is going at a good speed they will come into the cab en masse and their rough chitinous bodies will deliver stinging smacks on one’s face and bring anathemas damning the whole tribe of Orthoptera. The abundance of these varmints makes feeding my lizard pensioners an easy matter.

When I was in South Dakota, a farmer said the hoppers had peeled the fence posts, they were just that bad. I thought it an exaggeration. I have since been told that it is as true as gospel. When food is scarce, they will strip off the outer layers in order to get down to the less weathered wood!

A man in Miles City told me that Jordan, Montana, is the most inland place in the whole country. I asked, "What do you mean by inland?" "Farthest from a railroad. Jordan is 95 miles," he replied.

Later another informant said that Rock Springs, Wyo., claims the distinction and honor (if honor there be.) It is 125 miles off the R.R.

In the Rock Springs P.O. I saw a tiger cat sans ears and sans tail. The feline got them frozen and that was the end of them. There was also a large hound dog for whom the cat had only animosity and indoors completely dominated him. If he lay down, the cat made him get up, and if he were outdoors, he could only enter by stealth.

The dog in turn endeavored to tree the cat whenever it came outdoors.

Oh, yes, and this is good; the cat dearly loves to be the third party in a dog-fight and it will go running up or down the road in order to mix in the fracas. Wonder what the dogs think about it?

Note: For those interested in reading more George Marsh "Piffles and Jottings", see on the NOAA History Website. The author will share more of the life and times of George Marsh while on the Coast and Geodetic Survey in future issues of The American Surveyor.

Albert "Skip" Theberge served as a NOAA Corps officer for 27 years prior to retirement in 1995. During that period he was primarily engaged in nautical charting and seafloor mapping but also served a stint in geodesy working on the Transcontinental Traverse project during the 1970s. For the past 15 years he has worked as a research librarian at the NOAA Central Library and has produced a number of historical works related to the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) and seafloor mapping. He also produced the NOAA History website (http:// and the NOAA Photo Library ( which includes thousands of historic photos related to the work of the C&GS.

A 2.580Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE