Well, 2016 is now officially upon us and 2015 naught but a thing of the (very recent) past. As if by some sort of celestial alignment (pun intended – read on), today’s post falls on the first day of the brand-spanking new year, prompting the content of what you’re about to read. And because I may (or may not) have been out into the wee hours of the morn, I’m cutting you (me) a bit of slack with another light offering.
116 years ago, on December 31, 1899, Islanders prepared to bid farewell to what had proven to be a very tumultuous 19th century. The past 100 years had witnessed the Island evolve from a backwater colony to a (very unwilling) member of Confederation in 1873. The shipbuilding industry had gone from nearly non-existent to positively booming, before falling into drastic decline. When the century began, there had been very little in the way of highway infrastructure; by its end, a much more sophisticated network of roads had developed, in addition to a railway that criss-crossed the province (quite literally). Agriculture had taken off. Population had grown by leaps and bounds – well, by our standards, anyway. Even the all-consuming Land Question had finally been put to bed.
Given all that had transpired, what the bleedin’ heck lay in store for the 20th?
It was doubtless a question that weighed on the minds of many, much as we feverishly fretted over the coming of Y2K. And then, just as the curtain was about to drop on another century, Islanders were treated to something of a celestial send-off. On Tuesday, January 2, 1900, the Guardian reported that:
At 11 o’clock Sunday night a meteor appeared in the southern heavens which was particularly bright. A telephone message received from Souris states that a meteor fell to earth a short distance in the rear of that town, exploding as it fell with a report equalling the loudest thunder. This was no doubt the same meteor as was seen in Charlottetown.
A week later, the Guardian printed a lengthier account, submitted by a correspondent in Souris:
An hour before the dawn of the New Year, a phenomenon interesting to the philosopher and the student occurred here. A meteor of unusual size and extraordinary brilliancy passed across the heavens from west to east in close proximity to the earth, illuminating the country in its progress, alarming the uninformed and surprising the intelligent. On its disappearance a sound like thunder, and doubtless from the same cause, the returning of the atmosphere into a vacuum caused by a body rushing through it with immense velocity, burst on our astonished ears, and continued its discordant rumblings, and irregular sounds for about two minutes. Spectators differ as to the time that elapsed from its disappearance till the beginning of the thunder, but it was probably about thirty seconds which would leave it about seven miles above the earth, a distance not far astray as thunder is not heard more than ten miles. Meteors are seen occasionally of different sizes, though probably their apparent size is owing to their distance from the observer, but this is a first one, so far as I am aware that was followed by a sound like thunder in this country. Coming within the influence of the earth’s attraction at many miles distance they only become visible when they enter our atmosphere, but none ever came close enough to hear the thunder in its wake. Can any of the numerous philosophers among our readers give us the reason why so far as I have noticed they move from west to east?
Certainly an interesting – and unexpected – way to end one century and begin another!
Now, because of my exceptionally limited knowledge of all things astronomical, I did a bit of poking around in an attempt to get a handle on what exactly had happened. Here’s what my scientific (Wikipedia) research turned up.
What was the object exactly? A bird? A plane? Well no, of course not. Based on the two accounts, the object was indeed – and at the very least – a meteor. Also known as “shooting stars”, meteors emit light as they hurtle through the sky. Had this not been the case on New Year’s Eve 1899, the object would have simply been a meteoroid. So that’s settled.
Now, if the NYE meteor did actually make contact with the ground as witnesses attest, then it was a meteorite; that said, I have been unable to dig up anything in the way of evidence to either prove or disprove that claim. But if I were a betting man, I’d be inclined to venture that the meteor did not make landfall given the lack of any further news coverage on the matter. If it had, I should think that someone would have found a newsworthy fragment or two.
Lastly, the matter of the sound of “thunder”: today, we refer to that as a sonic boom. As per the “ear”witness testimony, when a sonic boom sounds off, it does so a number of seconds following the disappearance of the visible light produced by the meteor. As for the belief that it was the first such instance of the phenomenon ever recorded, I doubt that very much, although I suspect it might have been the first time anyone on the Island had been privy to it.
A history lesson and a science lesson in the same post – who’da thunk it? Anyway, that’s all for today. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to stop by this site throughout the past year, and to wish you all a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2016!
PEI History Guy
P.S. – If y’all resolve to keep visiting this site, I’ll resolve to keep writing up new material. In fact, if there’s an historical event, personality, place, etc. you’d like me to cover, drop me a comment below to that effect and I’ll see what I can do.