For today’s feature we use our virtual time machine to travel even further back in time than last.
Europe was seething with social and political discontent largely due to the divide between the haves and have-nots, but also enjoying a cultural renaissance with the music of true greats such as Mozart and Haydn being introduced to delighted audiences. It was a time of trouble, and yet opportunity as the modern age was beginning to dawn.
Across the Atlantic, the young independent nation of the US was just four years old, still a toddler on the world stage.
It was 19 May 1780. It’s officially known as New England’s Dark Day.
In this instance it wasn’t a solar eclipse but the effects of distant forest fires.
In most areas of the Northeast, the sun rose normally, but the sun was already obscured in Rupert, New York at dawn. Darkness descended over Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts between 10 and 11 a m and peaking at 12:45. By 13:10 it was no longer so dark but it remained heavily overcast for the rest of the day.
14:00 pm: Ipswich, Massachusetts. Woodcocks were whistling while roosters crowed and frogs peeped from their hiding places. A witness reported a strong smell of soot and rain water falling with a coating of particles of burnt leaves and ash.
At Barnstable, Massachusetts, peak obscurity was only reported at around 17:30 pm.
Pennsylvania seems to have escaped the dark conditions and enjoyed a normal day.
New England being a very religious community at the time, many folk believed the day of judgement had come, and that the Biblical passage about the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood was being fulfilled before their eyes.
To understand their reaction, we must remember that no devices of speedy mass communication had yet been invented. For all they knew the darkness was worldwide.
Abraham Davenport, a member of what is now known as the Connecticut State Senate, became famous for his response to the suggestion that the end of the world was at hand:
I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.
Thus proceedings continued by candlelight while frogs croaked, birds roosted in the middle of the day and members longed to go home and enjoy the fireside with their families.
For several days before the Dark Day, the sun appeared red and the sky yellow in parts of New England, while the moon appeared reddish at night. The rainy conditions and cloud cover over New England on the 19th made the darkness seem even deeper.
Research into the evidence of tree rings has attributed the cause of the darkness of 19 May 1780 to enormous forest fires in Ontario, Canada in what is now part of the Algonquin Provincial Park. Trees which are damaged by fire but not killed, display scar damage which helps to determine the date of past fires. This also explains the soot in the atmosphere and the ash and cinders which fell over parts of New Hampshire to a depth of six inches. Combined with a thick fog and sufficient cloud cover, the darkness in many areas was so profound as to resemble night. These fires also caused ash and soot to make its way into rain and rivers in New England.
Local wind speeds and directions would have determined the times and places where the darkness was most evident.
Large fires can indeed cause dark and smoggy conditions, and in this case their effects were seen and felt afar.