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Early Settlers Witnessed The Night the Stars Fell’

November 6, 2007

By Bill Kemp

BLOOMINGTON – It was one of the greatest natural light shows in recorded human history. During the predawn hours of Nov. 13, 1833, the heavens lit up like a Fourth of July sparkler as tens of thousands of meteors streaked through the darkened sky.

Early McLean County settler Robert Dickerson said it was like watching “showers of fiery rain falling to the ground.” Reliable accounts of the event boggle the mind. A.C. Twyning of West Point, N.Y., for instance, estimated the rate of bright meteors at 10,000 an hour.

The “fiery rain” was visible throughout North America. A writer for the Baltimore Patriot newspaper compared the innumerable meteors to “flakes of snow or drops of rain in the midst of a storm.” It was, quite simply, “one of the most grand and alarming spectacles which ever beamed upon the eye of man.” The Boston Transcript described the light show as “brilliant beyond conception.” The Washington Telegraph called it “extraordinary and sublime.”

Far from the great cities of the Eastern Seaboard, the early settlers of Central Illinois were treated to an equally brilliant show.

McLean County pioneer William Noble was 15 years old at the time. Years later, he talked to Etzuard Duis, a chronicler of pioneer histories.

“He felt no fear on account of this wonderful phenomenon,” Duis recounted of Noble, “but the next morning, when he went to mill, he met so many persons who were frightened by the meteors that he began to be frightened himself. Some people were made crazy with fear.”

It’s no stretch to believe that this meteor storm figured in the intense religious fervor of the age. Abraham W. Carlock, another eyewitness from McLean County, told Duis that “this phenomenon alarmed the superstitious, as such things always do, and many people thought the millennium was surely at hand.” Many believed the stars were literally falling from the sky, and afterward the event became known as “The Night the Stars Fell.”

In 1833, meteors were pondered and feared but little understood. One theory held that meteors were electrical in nature, akin to lighting; another supposed that they were tiny “terrestrial comets” revolving not around the sun but the earth.

Today, we know that a meteor shower occurs when the earth (which travels around the sun at more than 18 miles per second) passes through a stream of ice and dust particles left in a comet’s wake. These particles, usually no bigger than a grain of sand or pebble, then ignite in the earth’s atmosphere, often leaving a fleeting streak of light across the nighttime sky. These meteoroids are misleadingly called shooting, or falling, stars.

On Nov. 13, 1833, the earth crossed the debris stream of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. Given that this comet’s elliptical orbit takes it around the sun every 33 years, the meteor shower usually peaks with earth’s first pass through a fresh debris stream. Not surprisingly, 1833 was such a year, as was the last spectacular show in 1966.

Since meteors from Tempel-Tuttle appear to come from the region of space occupied by the constellation Leo, the annual shower is known as Leonids. This year, the Leonids arrive Nov. 18.

In 1879, 46 years after the 1833 Leonids, the Pantagraph published a local reminiscence of that miraculous night.

“Sometimes the shower would slacken for a moment or so, and then it would renew until the very heavens seemed to be ablaze,” the eyewitness wrote. “But I am attempting to do what I promised myself I would not undertake – to describe a scene which no imagination can conceive, nor tongue or pen portray.”




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