Thursday, January 17, 2013

The 1860 Meteor Mystery

One hundred and fifty years ago, give or take, Hudson Valley River School artist Frederic Church (1826-1900) was at his home in Olana located on a hill across the Hudson River from the town of Catskill.

On the evening of July 20, 1860, he happened to be looking south at 9:49 pm in evening, and saw a spectacular train of fireballs streaking through the summer sky.

The Meteor of 1860 - Frederic Church

Being an artist, he painted what he saw that night from memory.

The same year, Walt Whitman, living in New York City, wrote a poem entitled Year of Meteors (1859-60) which was published in his well-known Leaves of Grass collection.  Part of it reads:

 ...the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and
         clear, shooting over our heads,

(A moment, a moment long, it sail'd its balls of unearth-
         ly light over our heads,
Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)

Even though this meteor caused a stir throughout the Northeast, and was the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles over the next few days, memory of it eventually faded.

Harper's Weekly coverage of the meteor

Path of the July 20, 1860 meteor

By the mid-twentieth century, scholars of Whitman were ascribing the description in his poem to a number of different meteor showers and events in the mid-1800s.  In 2010, however, a group of two physics professors, an English professor, and a student from Texas State University connected the dots and figured out that the 1860 meteor, Church's painting, and Whitman's poem were all describing the same event - no one had made that connection before.  They published in the July 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope (the 150th anniversary of the meteor).

The July, 1860 meteor was actually an interesting and spectacular event.  It represents an Earth grazing meteor procession.  Earth grazing meteors are those which pass through the atmosphere without colliding with the surface.  They move horizontally and appear in the sky for a long time (for meteorites, that is - they can be seen by observers for up to a minute compared to the flash in the pan for most meteorite sightings).  A procession occurs when the meteorite breaks up into fragments from the stresses of passing through the Earth's atmosphere.  They're fairly rare events - the last one was on February 9 of 1913.

It's always good for scientists to read poems and look at paintings once in a while!


  1. I live in Maryland and several years ago had a large load of Hudson River valley rock delivered for landscaping my yard. While cleaning debris out of the rocks this spring, I found several chunks of what I think is a meteorite. This week, I had some contractors burying a drainage pipe, requiring the removal of some of the river stone. I found a large chunk (roughly 350 grams), which has glazing on one side while they were doing this (it was near where I found the other chunks, just a bit deeper). This and one other chunk has glazing on one side, which I assume was the side heated upon entry into the atmosphere. Does anyone know of any other meteorite pieces found in this area?

  2. Most of the time people think they've found a meteorite locally, it turns out to be a piece of industrial slag (there's a lot of it laying around the Hudson Valley). Check out this page: If you still think it's a meteorite, you might want to take to a local college geology department.

  3. As it turns out, the meteorite apparently did not come from the Hudson River valley after all. The workers were digging on the other side of my house and discovered another concentration of fragments. Again, a few were partially glazed (it looks like the fusion crust mention in the link you provided) on one side, including one with ripples. We have recovered over 100 so far, some have the rust coloring shown in the photos on the link.