Recalling a Singular Storm which Startled People 51 Years Ago
Published: September 28, 1884, The New York Times
Correspondent writing from Bass Harbor, Mt. Desert Island, ME
“I don’t believe there has been a thunderstorm that I have witnessed for the past 30 years,” said a gentleman of this city, “which has not given me occasion to ask scores of people if they had ever seen a thunder and lightning snow-storm, and I never met but one man yet, besides myself, who ever had.”
He happened to be from Mount Desert, Maine, and was one who had witnessed the same phenomenon of this kind that I had, at Bar Harbor 31 years ago. I haven’t the least doubt that there are plenty of people there yet who remember that frightful storm and who can substantiate every word I say. They certainly remember it if they were there at the time, for no one could ever forget that sight.
I remember that it had been snowing all day that day, and a strong northeast gale came along with it. The day was made terrible enough by the natural elements without needing any aid from the unnatural ones that followed. The wind stopped blowing quite suddenly an hour after sundown, and everybody remarked the singular stillness that succeeded it. Although it was snowing still and very cold the evening was, not particularly dark until about 7 o’clock, when it began to darken and continued to increase in darkness until the blackness was intense. Then the sound of distant thunder was heard in the west, accompanied by faint bluish lightning flashes.
The thunder grew rapidly louder and the lightning more vivid, until peal seemed to pile on peal, and the play of electricity was almost constant. The thunder shook the buildings like an earthquake. In a short time after the first appearance of the phenomenon the lightning became a deep purple or violet color, and took the form of balls of fire. I had stepped in at the house of a Mr. Holden at the first approach of the storm, and when it reached its height I remember we were all nearly frightened to death, and huddled mechanically in the middle of the room like a parcel of sheep. Suddenly there came a chip of thunder that shook the house from foundation to roof, and almost immediately a ball of purple fire crashed through a window and shattered a clock that stood against the wail—one of the old-fashioned tall clocks. The shock did not affect any of us beyond creating a slight numbness, and we all rushed out of the room. Almost immediately there came another thunderclap, and the room we had left was instantly filled with a purple blaze, accompanied by a peculiar snapping and cracking sound, similar to the throwing off of electric sparks by a rapidly moving belt, only a thousand times louder. With the exception of the clock not a thing was injured about the house.
I don’t believe there ever was a worse frightened lot of people in the world than the inhabitants of Bar Harbor were that night. That purple ball lightning flashed about and obtruded itself everywhere. There was scarcely a house that was not visited by it. At one house it entered it passed through one window and across the room and out at another window, setting fire to a box of matches that lay on a table in the middle of the room. At another house a woman was rendered unconscious by a shock, which extinguished all the lights in the house at the same time. The woman’s husband was trying to find a match to strike another light, when he was prostrated by a second shock. These two recovered, but the man was speechless for a long time afterward. Scores of people were paralyzed by visitation of the lightning, but no one in Bar Harbor was fatally injured.
The storm was not confined to Bar Harbor, but prevailed all over Mount Desert Island. At Southwest Harbor and North-east Harbor vessels were dismantled by the lightning, and one sailor was killed. There was scarcely a craft of any kind in the harbor but had at least one shattered mast. The freaks of this strange electric visitor outside the buildings were most extraordinary. At one place one of the fiery balls struck the top of a flagpole. The pole was torn into a hundred pieces, and the lightning plunged into the earth. Usually that would have ended the career of the ordinary electric current. This ball, however, was not subdued yet, and after plowing its way to the bottom of the pole beneath the ground, between four and five feet, it started horizontally in an eastern direction. Although the ground was frozen as hard as a rock, this thunderbolt plowed a trench through for a distance of nearly 500 feet. The debris from this trench, consisting of great masses of frozen ground and stones weighing in some instances hundreds of pounds, were thrown in both directions, and some of them high in the air for long distances around. One mass of frozen earth as large as a fishing shack was hurled more than 73 feet, away. Fortunately for property owners and their lives the course taken by this erratic ball of fire was through an open piece of land with no buildings near it. If it had chosen a western course it would have plowed in under several residences, and in the inevitable wreck that must have followed scores of lives would undoubtedly have been lost.
A grove of trees that stood in those days between the residences, I think, of a family named Carter and one named Lodge, seemed to be an especially favorite spot for the lightning to play about. While the purple bolts shot in among the trees no less than six times, neither of the adjacent houses was touched. On the second visit of the lightning to the grove the tension on the nerves of the inmates became too great for them to bear, and they sought other quarters without delay. The grove was a sight to see next morning. Only a few trees were left standing. Great stones had been torn up from beneath the surface and lay scattered about in the snow, which had been swept entirely away in some spots as though there had never a flake fallen there. Several trees had been torn up by the roots. One of these was carried 25 feet into the yard of one of the houses. Another tree, a small spruce, hung by its roots in the upper branches of a larger tree a long distance from where the smaller one had been torn up. The thunder and lightning continued for more than 20 minutes, when the storm passed out to sea and gradually plied away. During it all the snow continued falling, and soon after the thunderstorm passed the northeast gale again began to blow.
Since that night it has once been my lot to be followed very closely for miles by a prairie fire, when one misstep by my horse or a moment’s slackening of his speed would have ended everything or me, and once to be held fast in a burning railroad car, when rescue delayed one minute would have been too late, but l look back at neither of these terrible situations with a sensation of having been so near to the borders of the other world as I felt that I was one, the night of that frightful winter thunderstorm at Bar Harbor.