Terror From Above: The Meteor Storm of 1907
Thousands of meteors streaked across the Pennsylvania sky for several weeks in October of 1907, with meteorites crashing into Schuylkill, Dauphin, Northumberland and surrounding counties by the hundreds. Across the mid-state, enormous chunks of red-hot space rock set forests ablaze while farmers and livestock alike huddled in barns and basements, fearful of their lives. From Wilkes-Barre to York, hundreds of men and women dropped to their knees in prayer, with many in hysterics. Surely, they thought, this is an omen of the end of the world.
October 1: The Terror Begins
With a roar like that of a cannon, and an explosion that shook windows and loosened shingles, the residents of the Dauphin County borough of Elizabethville were startled to the brink of hysteria at 12:40 in the afternoon of Tuesday, October 1. The mysterious phenomenon was the main topic of conversation that afternoon and evening-- it was the prevailing opinion that someone had detonated a large quantity of dynamite somewhere in the vicinity-- though no one could find the source of the blast. Others insisted it had been an earthquake. The people of Elizabethville were still talking about the strange event when they sat down to dinner, only to be startled by another terrific explosion-- this one, much closer.
Those who witnessed the phenomenon say their attention was first drawn to a light in the sky, and then a whirring noise "like a giant skyrocket" just before the meteor crashed into Berry's Mountain behind Elizabethville. The entire village was soon spilling into the streets, and it became evident that the meteor had set fire to the underbrush. Local firefighters raced to the scene, and extinguished the fire before it enveloped the heavily-forested mountain. After the fire was out, eight men examined the meteor, which they described as a "large mass of iron and stone". They attempted to roll it away, but the combined strength of eight brawny men wasn't enough to make it budge.
One witness described how he watched in awe as the meteor broke into pieces before striking the surface. "The meteor was first noticed at this place about 6:35, coming from the north in a straight line," he told the Harrisburg Telegraph. "It was about the size of an arc light and looked very brilliant... it was at an enormous height, sinking gradually as it came along."
At about four hundred feet in the air, the meteor exploded into four pieces, one of which ignited the fire on Berry's Mountain, and another landing on the farm of James Woland. It landed dangerously close to the Wolands, who were working in the field at the time. The two remaining fragments landed somewhere on Broad Mountain. Considering that eight grown men couldn't budge one of the pieces, which caused a great "shaking of the earth and houses" when it struck about a half-mile from town, one can only imagine how disastrous things could've been if the meteor had remained intact and had crashed inside the borough limits.
It was just after six o'clock on the evening on October 1 when two enormous meteors were spotted streaking over Dauphin County, and were observed by hundreds of witnesses in Harrisburg, who stated the fireballs were speeding in a northerly direction. These meteors were next observed in Schuylkill County, "speeding through space at an incomprehensible speed". The Pottsville Republican described the space rocks as balls of blue fire, giving off sparks "like the swiftly moving wheels of an engine being brought to a quick stop". But what happened next was evidence of the strangeness in the heavens during October of 1907; the two large blue meteors actually collided in mid-air!
One of these was the largest meteor to ever strike Schuylkill County, and it fell on Summer Mountain, near Rock Station and Achey Station, about twelve miles from Schuylkill Haven. The meteor was first detected passing over Pottsville and Shenandoah, in a southward trajectory around 6:30 in the evening. Nearby farmers said the object was glowing red, and about the size of a barrel when it passed over their heads. The newspaper reported that "the atmosphere was so filled with sulfur that it was almost stifling". The sonic boom created by the meteor shattered the windows in the home of Fred Krause; other nearby houses suffered the same damage. The Pottsville Republican wrote:
At the time of this singular celestial phenomenon, the farmers were harvesting grain. Some of them were so frightened that they got down upon their knees and began praying. They feared that this was the last day of the world and that judgment day was at hand. Even the cattle, fowls and birds were frightened by the awe-inspiring spectacle.
The meteor's explosion was heard as far away as Cressona, triggering a panic because the local powder mill had exploded only a short time earlier, and the residents feared that the tragedy had been repeated. One chunk was reported to have fallen in the yard of Dr. Binkley in Orwigsburg, but this proved incorrect; the piece of meteor was eventually found inside the borough limits.
Not everyone was on their hands and knees praying that night, however. Realizing that chunks of space metal weighing several tons could yield a fortune, hundreds took to the woods and mountains, lantern in hand, looking for the heavenly treasure. Some didn't have to venture too far; one man from Towanda, Bradford County, recovered a two-inch-long aerolite which fell right outside his house. He wisely allowed it to cool for several hours before daring to pick it up.
By all accounts, of the untold number of aerolites (meteors that collide with the Earth's surface) that landed in Pennsylvania during the shower, very few were ever recovered, which means there is a vast fortune scattered throughout the state still waiting to be found. One Harrisburg newspaper reported on October 8 that over fifty meteors had struck Schuylkill County alone during the shower.
Large meteors also touched down in Northumberland and Columbia counties that evening. One report claimed that a meteor had ploughed a 90-foot-long furrow in Irish Valley, while smaller fragments pelted Trevorton and Paxinos. In neighboring Columbia County, a laborer named Miller Smith was working on the farm of J.B. Kester in Mainville when, at about 6:30, he noticed that the evening sky had become as bright as morning. He glanced up just in time to see a meteor just forty feet over his head. It broke into four pieces, but disintegrated into dust before it had a chance to hit the ground. Smith recalled that the meteor had produced two large explosions, which had been heard several miles away. Residents of Mount Carmel, about fourteen miles to the south, also reported seeing the meteor sailing over their rooftops moments before hearing the explosions, indicating the meteor was traveling due north.
In Elysburg, a meteor came crashing down on the Cook farm, producing a deep hole. Many of these meteors entered the Earth's atmosphere and passed over the mid-state at around 6:30, with five of them being spotted over Hazleton moving in a north-to-south direction before "bursting into a myriad of sparks" and disintegrating. According to reports, the older inhabitants of the city regarded this cluster of flaming orbs as an ill omen of the future. At 6:25, one meteor of particular brilliance, traveling northwest to southeast, whizzed over Larksville and continued on towards Wilkes-Barre, where it split into three and disappeared without doing any harm.
October 5: Moses Baker's Narrow Escape
On Saturday night, October 5, a large low-flying meteor was reported over Cumberland, Dauphin, and York counties at approximately 9:55, with another particularly large and flaming meteor crashing into a field in the northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Fox Chase. The police spent hours scouring the area, to no avail, and abandoned their search around midnight. Witness reports matched those from residents of eastern Maryland, where "large numbers" of low-altitude meteors were spotted by concerned spectators.
In York County, railroad track-walker Moses Baker was nearly killed by a fragment of space rock-- presumably the same large meteor that had passed over Harrisburg. On Saturday night, October 5, Baker was examining a length of Northern Central Railroad track, several miles south of York city. Shortly before ten o'clock, Baker paused to rest and was sitting on a pile of ties just below the pumping station, waiting for the 10:33 train to pass, when he noticed that a large ball of fire was heading straight toward him. Baker got up and was running down the track when the meteor passed over his head and struck a nearby boulder with a loud crash. The tremendous impact caused the ground to quake, and when Baker returned to the spot the following morning, he found the boulder had been pulverized into millions of pieces, and that one side of the cut along the track had been ripped away, leaving "several cart-loads" of debris.
The description of this 9:55 meteor matched the description given by witnesses in Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey, and attracted the attention of the United States Weather Bureau in Washington.
October 7: Montgomery and Schuylkill Counties
A large meteor, yellow and green in color and emitting a trail of fire, streaked across the skies above Pottstown, and crashed into Gabel's Meadows. Witnesses reported the object as being "as large as a bucket". Meanwhile, in Schuylkill County, employees at the car shops in Pottsville and Saint Clair were in a panic over the deluge of meteors that passed overhead that evening, believing the end of the world was at hand. In Pottsville, Charles Fuller and his sister were nearly struck while walking home, as two blazing rocks crashed to earth just four feet in front of them and vaporized. Anthony Yeich reported another striking Blue Mountain, leaving a cloud of sulphury fumes.
October 8: Lancaster County
The borough of Manheim had a close call with a pair of meteors at 6:20 on the evening of Tuesday, October 8, when two balls of fire appeared to drop out of the sky, seemingly on a collision course with the Danner & Co. store on Market Street. With a hissing whistle, the glowing rocks took an upward course at the last moment and vaporized.
October 9: Northumberland and York Counties
A fragment of meteor landed in Irish Valley, near Shamokin, Northumberland County, for the second time in nine days, this one narrowly missing a farm hand who was laboring in a field, who had heard a distinct rumbling in the sky before it fell. According to the Mount Carmel Item, the chunk of meteor weighed fourteen pounds and measured seven inches in circumference, and was brought to Shamokin for public display.
York County was also terrorized again by large meteors that day; at about 12:45 in the morning, a ball of fire zig-zagged on a westerly course, first appearing as a faint glow in the east and increasing in size until it exploded in the atmosphere. The York Dispatch reported that the trail of fire from the meteor was still visible in the sky for two and a half minutes after the explosion. At 10:00 that evening, attendees at a large night picnic at Gibson's Woods in Yoe, three miles southeast of York, had a near-miss with a falling meteor. One local paper reported: Men and women were terrorized and fled. Not a dozen people had the nerve to remain and in two minutes the gathering was broken up.
October 11: Adams County
At around 10:00 on the evening of October 11, a huge meteor whizzed across the skies of Adams County in an east-to-west direction. While locals had been enthralled by the abundance of shooting stars that month, this particular aerial invader passed a little too close for their liking. The meteor had a white-yellow glow, and left behind a smoky haze as it exploded in the atmosphere and crashed to the earth somewhere in the vicinity of Littlestown. The explosion was followed by a thunderous rumble, which was heard for several miles. Though no one was injured, newspapers reported that horses being driven at that late hour were frightened out of their wits.
October 16: A Strange Phenomenon in Luzerne County
At approximately 11:30 on Wednesday night, October 16, residents of Broad Street in Hazleton observed a meteor "the size of a peach basket" fall from the skies with a brilliant glare, landing somewhere between Laurel and Church Streets.
Earlier that evening, a strange occurrence took place at the Evergreen Park Hotel near St. Johns, just north of Hazleton. The daughter of the hotel's proprietor, Al Kemp, happened to be standing near the window staring out at the dance pavilion when, suddenly, the pavilion appeared to be engulfed in flame. Her screams attracted her father, who saw the same bizarre spectacle, but the brilliant glow faded away as quickly as it had appeared.
The following morning, residents of St. Johns awakened to find the fields, roads and the roofs of houses covered in a dusting of snow-- or so they thought. Upon closer inspection, the whitish flakes appeared to be ashes of some sort. Curious locals scoured the vicinity to find the source of the strange material, and eventually discovered a "large ball of the light, flaky substance" embedded in the ground on the property of T. Woodbury near Nescopeck Pass. The substance crumbled to the touch when handled.
"The recent meteoric display is rather extraordinary," declared Dr. Walter M. Mitchell, who was in charge of the observatory at Haverford College in Delaware County. "The prevalence of these meteors at this time cannot be readily explained. It may be merely a meteoric shower displaced and swerved from its regular course, but it is entirely probable that in its path the Earth may have run into a group of meteors, and that we are to have more of them.
Like many experts, Dr. Mitchell was perplexed. In other parts of the country, few meteor showers were reported that year, but October of 1907 saw the daily bombardment of space rocks from New York to the Virginia, with most of the larger meteors striking Pennsylvania with a fury never before seen in recorded history. Astronomers had long known about the August showers and the November meteor storms, but this October phenomenon was wholly unexpected. And it was much, much different-- unlike the Leonids showers which have dazzled mankind every November since the 10th Century or the Perseids showers of August, these celestial chunks of debris did not pass so high in the atmosphere as to be considered harmless.
The point of origin was also a surprise to astronomers. While the Leonids radiate from the constellation Leo and the Perseids from the constellation Perseus, it appeared that the October storm had originated from the constellation Cygnus, according to Dr. John A. Miller, professor of astronomy at Swarthmore College. This, in itself, is not remarkable; the Kappa Cygnids shower, which is visible to those on Earth, occurs every seven years from June to September, peaking around August 13. Rarely, if ever, do the meteors associated with this shower ever reach the Earth-- they burn up thoroughly in the atmosphere. The year of 1907 fit the seven-year pattern, but, for some reason that scientists still cannot explain, the meteors were over a month late. And, for the citizens of central Pennsylvania, much too close for comfort.
Pottsville Republican and Herald, Oct. 3, 1907.
Pottsville Republican and Herald, Oct. 4, 1907.
Harrisburg Telegraph, Oct. 7, 1907.
York Dispatch, Oct. 8, 1907.
Harrisburg Daily Independent, Oct. 8, 1907.
York Dispatch, Oct. 9, 1907.
Lancaster Semi-Weekly New Era, Oct. 9, 1907.
Reading Times, Oct. 11, 1907.
Adams County Independent, Oct. 12, 1907.
Mount Carmel Item, Oct. 12, 1907.
Hazleton Plain Speaker, Oct. 17, 1907.
Wilkes-Barre Semi-Weekly Record, Oct. 18, 1907.
Mount Carmel Item, Oct. 19, 1907.
Harrisburg Courier, Oct. 20, 1907.