On the afternoon of May 18, 1780 the sky was a strange yellowish color and the clouds seemed dark and heavy. The next morning the sun came up deep red and barely visible through a haze, until by noon there was “midnight darkness” and people could not see. Candles were lighted, cattle lowed, and fowls went to roost. Men returned from their labor in the fields. The darkness stretched south from the Canadian border, covering most of Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Cory Simons took this sunset photo on July 25, 2014 as smoke from wildfires in western Canada drifted over New England
Cory Simonds took this sunrise photo in July 2014 as smoke from wildfires in western Canada drifted over New England

At 2:00 pm in Ipswich roosters crowed and frogs peeped as if darkness had fallen. A witness reported that a strong sooty smell prevailed in the atmosphere, and a dark sooty rain began to fall, full of burnt leaves and ash.The first half of the night was hideously dark, and no ray of light from moon or star could penetrate the darkness until after midnight when a blood-red moon emerged. By the next morning, dark ash lay along the banks of the Merrimac River in Newburyport, four or five inches thick.

Artist’s depiction of mid-morning conditions during the Dark Day of May 19, 1780 (from Devens, 1876)

The Boston Chronicle proclaimed “a portentous omen of the wrath of Heaven in vengeance denounced against the land … the immediate harbinger of the last day, when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light.”An alarmed Boston resident sent her servant in the midst of the darkness to ask the local minister whether he thought the blackened skies portended some coming evil. The minister glibly responded, “Give my respectful compliments to your mistress, and tell her I am as much in the dark as she is.”

July, 2014: Hundreds of wildfires in western Canada created a plume of smoke that drifted over New England. Photo by Cory Simonds, Ipswich MA
July, 2014: Hundreds of wildfires in western Canada created a plume of smoke that drifted over New England. Photo by Cory Simonds, Ipswich MA
David Stone took this late day photo on July 25, 2014. The brownish color is from smoke drifting eastward from Canadian wildfires.
David Stone took this late day photo on July 25, 2014. The brownish color of the sky reflecting on Ipswich Bay is caused by smoke drifting eastward from Canadian wildfires.

The cause of the Dark Day of 1780 would remain elusive for more than a century. Researchers examining old burn damages to trees in Ontario attribute the Dark Day to a major fire in the area that is now the Algonquin Provincial Park.In the 19th century, the logging industry harvested great swaths of large white pine and red pine trees to produce lumber for domestic and American markets. Based on observations of wind direction and barometric readings it has been determined that a low pressure weather system carried dense smoke to New England.

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