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The Great Meteor Procession of 1913, by Gustav Hahn

The Great Meteor Procession of 1913. Image Credit & Copyright: RASC Archives; Acknowledgement: Bradley E. Schaefer (LSU) The Great Meteor Procession of 1913
Image Credit & Copyright: RASC Archives ; Acknowledgement: Bradley E. Schaefer (LSU) Explanation: One hundred years ago today the Great Meteor Procession of 1913 occurred, a sky event described by some as “magnificent” and “entrancing” and which left people feeling “spellbound” and “privileged”. Because one had to be in a right location, outside, and under clear skies, only about 1,000 people noted seeing the procession. Lucky sky gazers — particularly those near Toronto, Canada — had their eyes drawn to an amazing train of bright meteors streaming across the sky, in groups, over the course of a few minutes. A current leading progenitor hypothesis is that a single large meteor once grazed the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up. When the resulting pieces next encountered the Earth, they came in over south-central Canada, traveled thousands of kilometers as they crossed over the northeastern USA, and eventually fell into the central Atlantic ocean. Pictured above is a digital scan of a halftone hand-tinted image by the artist Gustav Hahn who was fortunate enough to witness the event first hand. Although nothing quite like the Great Meteor Procession of 1913 has been reported since, numerous bright fireballs — themselves pretty spectacular — have since been recorded, some even on video.


Did a relative see this?: Please tell us in APOD’s discussion forum

We went to the forum above and saw a post in which the writer mentioned an earlier meteor procession in 1860. Following his link, we wound up at Sky & Telescope’s website. There we found this article posted by Roger Sinnott, from  June 7, 2010:

Walt Whitman’s “Meteor-Procession”

The meteor procession of July 20, 1860, was widely covered in newspapers and magazines of the day.

Donald W. Olson

What did American poet Walt Whitman mean by “the strange huge meteor-procession” that went “shooting over our heads” with “its balls of unearthly light”? These phrases appear in a short poem from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass titled “Year of Meteors. (1859-60).”

Walt Whitman (1819–1892).  Leaves of Grass.  1900.

100. Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

100. Year of Meteors, 1859 ’60

YEAR of meteors! brooding year!
I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs;
I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad;
I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia;
(I was at hand—silent I stood, with teeth shut close—I watch’d; 5
I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the scaffold;)
—I would sing in my copious song your census returns of The States,
The tables of population and products—I would sing of your ships and their cargoes,
The proud black ships of Manhattan, arriving, some fill’d with immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold;
Songs thereof would I sing—to all that hitherward comes would I welcome give; 10
And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, sweet boy of England!
Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds, as you pass’d with your cortege of nobles?
There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment;
I know not why, but I loved you… (and so go forth little song,
Far over sea speed like an arrow, carrying my love all folded, 15
And find in his palace the youth I love, and drop these lines at his feet;)
—Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay,
Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long,
Her, moving swiftly, surrounded by myriads of small craft, I forget not to sing;
—Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven; 20
Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads,
(A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)
—Of such, and fitful as they, I sing—with gleams from them would I gleam and patch these chants;
Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings! year of the youth I love! 25
Year of comets and meteors transient and strange!—lo! even here, one equally transient and strange!
As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this book,
What am I myself but one of your meteors?



Frederic Church’s home, Olana, offers a spectacular vista over the Hudson River.
Image Credit: Roger Sinnott

It’s 150 years later, and now we know. The July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope gives full details of a new finding by Texas State University astronomer Donald W. Olson and colleagues. This press release summarizes their results, and the article is already making waves in the general media, such as New Scientist, the Los Angeles Times, or even the Tehran Times.The Texas team links Whitman’s words to a very rare celestial spectacle — a string of fireballs that marched, duckling style, across the evening sky for residents of the U.S. Northeast on July 20, 1860. The researchers clinch their case with a little-known but beautiful painting, The Meteor of 1860, by Frederic Church.This is the latest in a remarkable series of projects that Olson and his honors classes have tackled during the past two decades. And this time, I got to tag along and see them in action.For last summer’s research trip, Olson headed to the Hudson/Catskill area of New York with coauthor (and English professor) Marilynn Olson, colleague Russell Doescher, and honors student Ava Pope. The prime attraction was Church’s magnificent home, Olana, now a museum. The staff let us spend a whole day, poring through archives to look for clues about Church’s comings and goings in the summer of 1860.Church was on his honeymoon, and Olana was still but a gleam in his eyes. So the newlyweds might have stayed in Catskill with Theodore Cole, a close friend and the son of Thomas Cole, a fellow artist of the Hudson River Valley School. It’s tempting to imagine the couple enjoying the night air, perhaps on the Cole house’s wide porch, when the meteors soared by.




The Texas researchers check out the home of Thomas and Theodore Cole, situated in Catskill, New York, directly across the Hudson River from Olana. In 1860, unlike today, there would have been a grand view from this porch to the south, where the meteor procession passed.

Porches! Does anyone use them anymore? People certainly did in 1860, as we learned while going through an extensive paper by James H. Coffin in the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (Vol. XVI). Coffin trudged across New England with a theodolite, interviewing all the eyewitnesses he could. He found 16 in his own hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, crediting his good luck to “the prevalent custom of our people, to sit at the front doors of their houses in summer evenings.”Coffin’s exhaustive study helped the team get a clear idea how the meteor procession must have looked, not just to Frederic Church in Catskill, but also to Walt Whitman in New York City.This is not the first time an Olson-led team has identified a chance celestial event as the catalyst for a great poet or artist’s work. Six years ago they showed that Edvard Munch’s haunting painting, The Scream, was not entirely a fantasy of the Norwegian artist’s troubled mind. The Texas researchers learned that Munch was likely an eyewitness to a blood-red sky a few months after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, an event that vivified sunsets around the world and caused lurid twilights as far north as Oslo. The most famous versions of The Scream were painted several years after 1883.Hey — want to hear the actual voice of Walt Whitman? The foremost American poet of his age died in 1892, but not before reciting a few lines from another poem of his, “America,” into a wax-cylinder Edison phonograph. Check it out here.

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