November 13, 2015 at 10:36 am

Cosmic Lessons – The Great Meteor Procession of 1913

Depiction of the 1913 meteor procession by Canadian artist Gustav Hahn. Credit: University of Toronto Archives (A2008-0023), © Natalie McMinn

Four preceding articles in this series have dealt with the great Siberian meteorite impact of June 30, 1908. I believe that this event is far more important than the degree of attention it has received in recent years outside the astronomical community. Perhaps the most important question that is raised by the Tunguska Event has to do with the frequency with which such events occur. I have seen estimates that varied from about once every few centuries to once every few thousand years. Having studied meteorite and impact phenomenon for a number of decades now, my impression is that the frequency of major impact events on the scale of Tunguska, and larger, has, with some exceptions, been grossly underestimated by most of the scientific community. In this article I am going to begin addressing some of the evidence that leads me to believe we are far more vulnerable to such events than is recognized or acknowledged.

February 15, 2013: A 17-meter asteroid explodes over Russia releasing the energy equivalent of 500 kilotons of TNT.

I will commence by describing an astounding event that occurred less than 5 years after the Tunguska explosion. The date was the 9th of February, 1913. Eyewitnesses from Saskatchewan, Canada, across the Northeastern United States and in ships well out into the Atlantic Ocean beheld an exceptionally impressive celestial demonstration. The Journal of the British Astronomical Association later in that year carried a report about this event entitled
An Extraordinary Meteoric Display by Canadian astronomer Clarence A. Chant (1865-1956). The account begins by describing how, at about 5 minutes after 9 o’clock that evening

“. . . there suddenly appeared in the north-western sky a fiery red body, which quickly grew larger as it came nearer, and which was then seen to be followed by a long tail. To some observers the tail seemed like the glare from the open door of a furnace; to others it was like the illumination from a searchlight; to others like the stream of sparks blown away from a burning chimney by a strong wind. The body moved forward on a perfectly horizontal path with peculiar, majestic, dignified deliberation; and, continuing its course, it moved on to the south-east, where it disappeared in the distance. Before the astonishment aroused by this first meteor had subsided, other bodies were seen coming from the north-west, emerging from precisely the same place as the first one. Onward they moved, at the same deliberate pace, in twos and threes, with tails streaming behind…They all traversed the same path and headed for the same point in the south-east. Gradually the bodies became smaller, until the last ones were but red sparks, some of which were snuffed out before they reached their destination. As to the number of bodies there was a great diversity of statement. The usual estimate was from 15 to 20; some said 60 to 100; while others said there were thousands. The entire time occupied by the display was about three minutes. Just as the bodies were vanishing…there was heard in many places a rumbling sound like distant thunder. The stretch of country over which the display was seen is unprecedented. In the present case persons dwelling 2,500 miles apart saw the same bodies. Moreover, the descriptions furnished by observers in Bermuda, in Ontario, and in Saskatchewan do not materially differ.”

Take special note of two things: the amazing distance over which the fiery objects were seen and the estimated number of meteoritic bodies,ranging from 15 or 20 up to 100.One eyewitness to the event, Walter L. Haight, gave this report:

“On the evening in question I happened to be returning from a snowshoe tramp, and was in the act of tightening up the straps on my foot when my companion called out: “Look! Look!” and I immediately threw my head up and caught sight of the large meteor, which appeared to be traveling very slowly – so slowly that the stateliness of its motion excited my liveliest surprise and wonderment…While my gaze was riveted on the large body, and just when it was about passing out of sight, my companion again called out “Look! There and there!” and I looked up and saw the first group of following meteoric bodies…Before I could recover from my astonishment a new group of smaller ones…came sailing along…I likened them at the time, and the resemblance seems yet apt and appropriate to a large battleship moving ahead with attendant squadrons of torpedo-destroyers and torpedo boats.”

So how many objects were there in this grand procession of cosmic debris? Where did they come from and what was their size? How is it that they could maintain a virtually horizontal trajectory over thousands of miles? As to the first question the above quoted journal reports that

“…Observations of the size of the bodies were very discordant, but there is sufficient evidence to show that they were of considerable size. Several observers considered the leading body to have a diameter equal to that of the full Moon, or nearly so. One observer estimated the diameter at half that of the full Moon, and another at 1/15th of the Moon’s diameter. The last estimate gives a real diameter of 123 feet. The largest bodies were probably at least 100 feet in diameter. The tail of the largest meteor is estimated to have been 39 miles long.”


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Based on a careful collation of eyewitness accounts, Clarence Chant was able to determine that the procession passed overhead at an altitude of about 25 or 26 miles. It was Chant who undertook the most comprehensive investigation of the great meteor phenomenon and first wrote up his findings in an extensive paper published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. This report contains many striking eyewitness accounts. Chant summarizes some of the details as reported to him:

“To most observers the outstanding feature of the phenomenon was the slow, majestic motion of the bodies; and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained. Many compared them to a fleet of airships, with lights on either side and forward and aft . . . Others, again, likened them to great battleships, attended by cruisers and destroyers. Should these bodies strike the earth they might prove to be destroyers indeed!”

Clarence Chant’s final remark in the above quote is worth pondering. Remember, in 1913 no one in America was aware of the Tunguska event of 1908 in Siberia.
Numerous eyewitness accounts testify to the remarkable nature of the great meteor procession. The following eyewitness testimony is culled from Chant’s report.

“I noticed a glare of light in the sky, moving slowly in a southeasterly direction. It then exploded like a sky-rocket and broke into about thirty or more meteors . . . while this large group of meteors were in view, the phenomenon developed and assumed great dimensions, for dozens of meteors came into vision . . . By this time we had turned the horse and we were scanning the heavens to the northward, and suddenly movement commenced, and I am not exaggerating when I say hundreds of tailless meteors moved slowly across the sky . . . I have seen meteoric displays and phenomena in the Arctic regions and all over Western Canada, but never have I been so privileged to see so many heavenly bodies moving at one time, or any moving so slowly or in so low an altitude”

“There were not only a dozen or fifteen meteors, large and small, but I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say there were hundreds. The duration was from 2 to 4 minutes, and in color they were reddish, not like ordinary stars. Some of the large ones had long tails. After the meteors had all disappeared we heard a noise like thunder, apparently north of us.”

“I counted seven bright stars surrounded by light. The cluster occupied a space about the size of the sun . . . behind this appeared a bright white star, as clear, but a little smaller than Venus is now; then a few clusters reddish like the first . . . say five or six clusters, but I suddenly found that the whole heavens, from the zenith to the horizon, was full of meteors.”

“They came along like a lot of fish distributed in a pond, straight and parallel.”

“They reminded one of the motion of a railway train at night. . .”

“They came into sight and went out of sight like a flock of birds. They lasted for 5 minutes or more, and were followed by a rumbling noise like an explosion. . .”

“About 9 o’clock or a little after as I was on my way home from church I saw a large meteor . . . leaving a tail of fire as long as Halley’s Comet behind it. Then turning toward the north, I saw a large black cloud, out of which shooting stars were coming, as it seemed, about 50, each having a line of fire in its path and disappearing in a large black cloud in the south. After this there began a low rumbling sound like thunder.”

“It was a cold, calm, starlit, night. Suddenly, from the northwestern sky there appeared what looked like an immense ball of red fire coming towards us at a tremendous rate, with a long tail streaming behind it at what seemed not a very great height from the earth . . . the head seemed much larger than the full moon, very red, and the tails extended a considerable distance behind, with pieces of the tails dropping off from the head every little while, but following on behind in the mad race . . . We gazed after it for some time, fairly spellbound, even after it was lost to view, and in a minute or two we saw some smaller ones coming from the same direction, one by one rushing after the bif one in the same track, as if a mighty current were drawing them along . . . what seemed like heavy rolls of distant thunder sounded. We heard no noise until after the meteors’ had disappeared.”

“. . . The vibration was quite perceptible, and the noise was like a series of blasts going off.”

“As the last detachment vanished the booming as of thunder was heard—about 5 or 6 very pronounced reports.”

“Two sounds were heard, not just like thunder, but like immense upheavals in the earth some miles away.”

“Some had tails and some seemed to shoot a red vapor which threw a beautiful red glow. They came in bunches or groups. I counted ten in one group and I think there were 20 groups. As they disappeared in the east there was a loud report like rolling thunder, and then another sound like thunder, and a tremor of the earth.”

“I looked southwest, and it was just one long stream coming from a northwest direction. I noticed the stars shining through the long line of fire which was moving along. We all heard the thunder; it fairly made the house shake, and we said there was another earthquake in Toronto.”

“They glided along so leisurely and did not seem to be falling as meteors usually do, but kept a straight course about 45°, or a little more, above the horizon. Our first impression was that a fleet of illuminated air-ships of monstrous size were passing. The incandescent fragments themselves formed what to us looked like the illuminations, while the tails seemed to make the frame of the machine . . . It took fully 3 minutes to pass. There was no noise; only beauty, beauty!”

“The display lasted perhaps 3 minutes . . . The large meteors were the most magnificent sight I have ever seen.”

“I have been fortunate enough to see nearly every big meteoric display for the past 50 years, but never saw anything as fine as this.”

“I have called it a procession of stars . . . I have never seen anything like it before.”

“The most striking feature to me was the regular movement in an even plain . . . It was the grandest display I have ever seen.”

Obviously eyewitnesses were duly impressed by the event. Let us pause for a moment to contemplate the implications of what we have just learned. On the evening of Feb. 9, 1913, a train of great meteors apparently went into a temporary orbit about the Earth, traveling from northwest to southeast. We might plausibly conjecture that these multiple objects were generated by the breakup of a larger object, which had been for a while a satellite, or mini-moon, of the Earth. In fact, many astronomers believe this to be the most likely scenario. In any case, the number of individual objects apparently numbered in the dozens, if not more.

And here is the sobering part. Many of them appeared to be at least 100 feet in diameter. This places the largest objects in this celestial train right in the same size class as the Tunguska Cosmic Body. Now consider for a moment that rather than the horizontal path of the objects through the heavens their path was even slightly inclined to the Earth. This would have brought them into the lower, denser part of the atmosphere, whereupon they would have exploded with the force of nuclear bombs, as did the Tunguska object, which blew up with the force of a hydrogen bomb when it reached down to within about 5 miles of the Earth’s surface.

And as improbable as it may seem I need to include a remark by Chant that underscores the possibility of at least one object of considerable size in the train. A credible eye witness at Mill Bridge, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles south of the trackway, reported that the lead object had an apparent diameter of ½ the full moon. Chant remarks: “. . . half the diameter of the moon as seen at Mill Bridge would correspond to a diameter of over 3000 feet. This latter value is probably a decided over-estimate. . .” Bear in mind that even if this is an over-estimate by a full order of magnitude we are still looking a major regionally catastrophic event in the case of an impact. Assuming the object was 300 feet in diameter this would make it roughly twice the diameter of the Tunguska object, but volume scales as the cube of the radius, therefore this object would have 8 times the volume of the Tunguska, and could have had 8 times the destructive potential had it struck.

By collating dozens of eyewitness accounts and triangulating between Earth and sky, Clarence Chant was able to trace the meteors path over the Earth. It reached from at least western Saskatchewan, east across the Great Lakes, and was seen by ships at sea far to the east and south of Bermuda. Over the course of the 20th Century subsequent research by various investigators has confirmed a total length for the track of the meteors of more than 7000 miles before it was last seen from ship at 14 degrees in the south Atlantic.

Photo:  The red dots mark locations where the Great Meteor Procession of 1913.
The red dots mark locations where the Great Meteor Procession of 1913.  Map via Sky & Telescope and Texas State University.

On February 9, 1913 Earth barely escaped a truly epic disaster and virtually no one today has the slightest awareness of this fact.

The flight path of this great meteor train took it directly over Buffalo and New York City and very close to Toronto. Try to imagine, if you will, how history might have been different if that stream had intersected the Earth somewhere along its flight path and unleashed a few dozen nuclear bomb scale explosions over eastern Canada or northeastern United States, including New York City.

On February 9, 1913 Earth barely escaped a truly epic disaster and virtually no one today has the slightest awareness of this fact.

Another final detail of this story is worth relating. For a period roughly 24 hours following this grand display, dozens of meteors and fireballs were seen flashing through the skies all over Canada and the northern United States. It appears the heavens were putting on a grand demonstration of their power to influence events here below.

In the next installment I will develop further the reasons I believe the number of encounters between Earth and the denizens of the sky is grossly underestimated by mainstream science. If this proves to be the case, it would, I suggest, illuminate many aspects of history, philosophy, myth and religion, while providing considerable insight into the profound importance of the cosmic connection in the affairs of mankind.

– Randall Carlson

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  1. HI – great article. I’ve a feeling that it’s only once you have seen something bigger than your average ‘Oh, look! a shooting star’ that you can take this stuff seriously. About five years ago I was having a cigarette outside my backdoor. As I stood there what I can only describe as a fireball with a tail traveled from NWW to SEE. What was odd, other than my being totally shocked, was that my brain was asking ‘Why can’t I hear it?’ I suppose we’re all so used to special effects on films but I kind of thought it should be making a roaring sound like a plane. But it was silent and that was really eerie. It lasted seconds – so must have been going really fast – unlike the objects in this article – and once it had ‘gone out’ because that’s how it seemed to ‘disappear’, I was thinking, ‘Come back! I want a better look!’ Thing was, I told loads of people about it and even when I threw in quips like, ‘We should check if Newhaven is still there!’ (a town near where I live, Brighton, UK) no one really was that interested. Maybe it’s my friends’ ignorance, or perhaps we really don’t have the respect we should have for the stuff whizzing past our heads (in cosmic relative terms). Maz

  2. My only experience: a friend and I were walking back home after going to the neighborhood swimming pool. Up above directly infront of us we saw a descending GREEN glowing fireball. Distance? I have no clue. Size? Visually the glow edges were almost as big as holding out my fist infront of me arms length. Probably lasted about 6-8 seconds. Towards the end of its show some smaller green ‘sparks’ split off of it, and it all “burned out” before it crossed the horizon line. There was a slight ripping sound (like a fighter jet sound) so I would guess it was relatively close and thus not too huge