Below is an article published in the Jamestown Post-Journal in 1986
written by Norman Carlson
THE DARK DAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 1950
[Norman relates to me that he was off by one day when he wrote his article - Black Sunday was on the 24th]
By NORMAN P. CARLSON
Darkness, our most primeval fear: we fear darkness before we know death exists. The second verse in the Bible establishes darkness as an ancient infinity, a view science still holds. Then in Exodus 11:22, "Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days." Thus the last plague of Egypt.
At the crucifixion of Christ, "It was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour," said Luke 23:44.
Everyone remembers what he was doing when he heard that President Kennedy had been shot, that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, or that either world war had ended. So too, everyone my age and older remembers another event, a Sunday afternoon in 1950 when the sun ceased to give her light and our primitive fears of darkness, mortality, and powerlessness rose at least near enough to the surface to etch a lasting trace that belied our outward calm.
People remember the event and they recall what they were doing. Most also remember the official explanation: high altitude smoke from Canadian forest fires. A large majority formed and still hold a skepticism about that explanation. Their suspicion is sustained by the absence, then and since, of additional information backing up the forest fire story.
On June 1, 1950, according to Associate Dean Peter Murphy of the Forestry Department, University of Alberta, "A manmade fire started" about 20 miles north-northwest of Fort St. John, British Columbia: By the next day, it had spread to 100 acres. A ranger arrived later in the day. By then the fire had doubled in size. It was burning in slash on land belonging to the Fort St. John Lumber Company. A sort of homesteading was still going on in Canada at that time and the threatened area was slated to become agricultural land which would soon have been deforested anyhow. Other fires in neighboring Alberta were even then demanding attention so it was decided to let this fire burn.
That summer was exceptionally dry and September was hot in Alberta. On Monday the 18th, a peat muskeg fire that had been smoldering for years near Newbrook, 75 miles north of Edmonton, was activated by high winds. By Wednesday it threatened to engulf the settlement despite the efforts of 200 villagers fighting the flames. Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Laga just managed to escape their flame-encircled farm two miles from town. "
About ten days earlier, a fire had started near Wanham, about 250 miles northwest of Edmonton. Winds up to 40 miles an hour on Wednesday pushed the fire over about 30 square miles and forced the Tansen and Benson families from their farms. Their houses, crops and livestock were destroyed. Three other families stacked everything movable in the summer-fallow fields and fled.
By then there were 27 fires burning in Alberta and smoke was accumulating heavily. The Wanham fire received the most attention because it was in the most valuable timber and because it was one of two directly affecting residents. Two bulldozers were sent to attempt control. In contrast, the fire that had originated June 1 at Fort SL. Johns, B.C., had by then burned across the border into Alberta, having traveled 100 miles, but it was not even reported in that province. Any fire over 10 miles from roads, rail lines and communities was left "free-burning" by government policy of the time.
Wednesday night and Thursday the winds diminished in the Wanham area where the farmers, many of them homesteading Canadian war veterans, worked around the clock to harvest crops in dense smoke. Two of the farmers, Delbert Wells and L. Christian, dropped unconscious in the fields. Lunches were served on the job where backdrops of smoke and flames sometimes menaced three sides of the fields. Meanwhile, fire crews took advantage of diminished winds to combat the fire with backfires and bulldozers.
By Friday there were about 30 fires in progress. The situation was considered to be the worst in 10 years. Northeast of Edmonton the homes of Indians at the Saddle Lake Reserve were threatened. At Fishing Lake, near the Saskatchewan border, the log houses of Metis families were similarly threatened. Metis are a mixed French-Canadian-other population found in several parts of Canada. Both Indians and Metis were absent from their homes and hard to contact because they were working the grain harvest.
At Edmonton the temperature reached 88 degrees that day, breaking the previous record for the date by 7.5 degrees. Friday night seven bulldozers and two tank trucks were driven 25 miles from a clearing project to the Wanham fire. They arrived at 3 a.m. By then 700 men were fighting fires across the province.
Meanwhile, similar fires were burgeoning in British Columbia, particularly in a 200-mile stretch on the east side of the Alaska Highway in the northeast corner of the province. Flight Lt. J. Jaworksi, who was operations officer of the Northwest Air Command of the Royal Canadian Air Force, left Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, at 4 p.m. Friday in a Dakota aircraft, i.e. a military DC-3, with freight and passengers bound for Edmonton. Two of the passengers had been diverted when their earlier flight was unable to land at Fort Nelson, B.C. Jaworski was able to put down there, but heavy smoke had nearly prevented him from finding the landing strip. The commanding officer at the fort told Jaworski that two days earlier he had been forced to turn back on a flight to Fort St. John because of turbulence extending up to 14,000 feet and smoke so thick he couldn't see the instruments in the cockpit. He had even been forced to use oxygen to breathe.
Jaworski avoided the worst area on the second leg of his flight and emerged, from the smoke 80 miles south of the regular air route. He had observed four major fires between Fort Nelson, B.C., and Grande Prairie, Alberta, including the one that had ignited June 1 plus some smaller fires west of the Alaska Highway. He also saw an almost continuous line of fire in a 200-mile expanse from Peace River, Alberta, to the Rocky Mountains plus 50 separate fires south and west of Dawson Creek, British Columbia. Jaworksi also noticed that "The whole body of fire and smoke seemed to be moving to the northeast before the wind."
Sixty thousand square miles of timber and brush lands were aflame or threatened. On Saturday afternoon the British Columbia fires engulfed the Alaska Highway and cut the telegraph line that was the only link between Edmonton and Fairbanks, Alaska. Fort Nelson, British Columbia, was isolated. Motorists brought back Dantesque accounts until the road was closed.
Over the weekend some fires were brought under control but new ones broke out. A few showers foreshadowed the end of the dry spell, but the vast, accumulation of smoke that was boiling high into the atmosphere began to ride the jet stream to distant areas where it created memorable phenomena. It traveled east northeast and reached the upper western shores of Hudson Bay on Saturday morning. Then it followed south. A London, Ontario, woman called a radio station when she awoke to darkness wondering if she had slept through the entire day.
Locally, for some people the first hint of something strange was an announcement on the radio that lights were being turned on at the ball park in Cleveland. At 1:30 the sky began to turn a sickly yellow by most accounts, although I distinctly remember it as green. I felt like I was looking out through a ginger ale bottle - green glass in those days.
The Weather Bureau issued a special advisory, but at 2:15 telephone calls started to flood police agencies and The Post-Journal and The Jamestown Sun. The Sun took 200 calls in one hour: The Jamestown Telephone Corp. sent taxis out to pick up nine extra operators to handle the load. Jamestown street lights came on at 2:15 p.m. and were fumed off at 4:05 p.m.
Two Bemus Point residents were caught out on Chautauqua Lake in a sail boat. They made it to shore in the dark. Ball games and stock car races were called off. A Warren, Pa., drive-in movie scheduled a matinee for 4:30 but had to cancel It because of returning daylight. ,
Here in Busti the chickens had spread out for their midday foraging. Suddenly they realized they were being caught by darkness so they scurried back across the cowyard in more than usual earnest, their heads moving in delayed jerks.
The novelty of driving with head-lights in the daytime struck my father's fancy so he went around the block in his gray 1937 Plymouth coupe. He stopped to check on his uncle, Henry Carlson, who lived without radio or telephone in a shack on Mead Road. Uncle Henry was not among those taking it lightly. He was "shaking like a leaf," as my father described it. "Do you think this is the end of the world?" he wondered.
At home, my mother, sister and I couldn't seem to get any information from the radio, so my mother turned to the rural people's final resort, the party line. There we heard the explanation of the forest fire.
Although everyone remembers what he was doing, there are few really interesting anecdotes that turn up locally. People were eating, carpentering, threshing, etc. and just turned on lights and kept on with it. The confused awakening, like the woman in London, Ontario, is a common story. The Post-Journal reported that a Hotel Jamestown employee got fooled and rushed to work hours early.
Wallace Barlow of
Sugar Grove, renowned before his retirement a few years ago as the last of the
dairymen to deliver bottled milk to homes, wrote this account last March in a
letter to American History Illustrated:
My uncles, George "Billy" Fosberg and Harold Fosberg, and my grandfather, Eric Fosberg, were out in a deep woods hunting for the oriental folk medicinal herb, ginseng. All were zealots of outdoor sportsmanship, but Uncle Harold was the most fanatic of the lot. They couldn't see the sky from the floor of the woods, but they assumed a terrible storm was approaching. Nevertheless, Uncle Harold was not about to yield a minute of ginseng hunting time so they persisted until total darkness prevented them from seeing any leaves if they could have found their way to them.
The late Harry Saxton, well-known mink farmer and fur buyer from Bemus Point, was returning from the second of his four hunting trips on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula via Northwest Airlines' Anchorage to Chicago flight. He flew over the fires and landed at Chicago in the darkness. He estimated that 200 square miles
were in flames.
Saxton was a graduate in forestry from Michigan State University and had worked six years as a forest examiner and done some map-making. He had also worked major fires in Colorado and Klamath National Forest. Hence he was far better equipped to assess the fires than an ordinary observer would have been.
The next day, Monday, the local papers carried front page stories and so did The New York Times. They reported that the pall had extended over Detroit and New York City and as far south as Tennessee. The smoke was reported variously at altitudes of 14,000 to 17,000 feet. When it passed over our area, the smoke cell was about 200 miles wide, 400 miles long and three miles thick. The story in The Times, continuing onto Page 6, reported that a rooster owned by Dora Gesaman of Watts Flats crowed at 4 p.m. No doubt this was the only time in history that Watts Flats ever made a front-page story in The New York Times. Today Mrs. Gesaman remembers the roosters and the darkness, but she had been unaware of her former big-town fame. Neither local paper mentioned her so it is not clear why or how The Times acquired the information.
That day, Sept. 26, the smoke cloud passed over Newfoundland. Between Sept. 26 and Sept. 30, much of Europe experienced blue moons and related phenomena.
In the Canadian north in the week following the blackout, control efforts gradually caught up with the outbreak of new fires. On Wednesday the 27th, rain and cooler temperatures began and continued. Most of the burned territory had been brush land, muskeg which had no economic value but produced enormous quantities of smoke, and areas that had burned the year before. Even some of the good timber - spruce up to four feet in diameter - that was burned was in zones where no inventory existed and hence was not calculated in the loss.
The final cost was estimated to be around $1 million, which was one quarter of the loss experienced in 1949. The cost of fighting fires was half that of 1949 or $125,000 in the Province of Alberta alone.
Many of the fires were determined to have been caused by carelessness on the part of farmers and townspeople burning brush without added caution for the abnormally hot, dry weather. Hunters and trappers were also partially at fault.
The largest fire, the one that started June 1, burned 5,000 square miles. The total burned area reached about 7,800 square miles, more than seven times the area of Chautauqua County, or about the size of the state of New Jersey. Two farm homes had been destroyed but no lives were lost.
Professor Murphy heard a story about two trappers being caught by the fire. They unsaddled their horses and retreated to wet muskeg where they survived unharmed. Their horses were never seen again. Wildlife loss in general was not supposed to have been great, but travelers on the Alaska Highway reported the odor of roasting venison, Some domestic animals were lost in settlement fires.
Today we might marvel that public reaction was so calm even though we were at war in Korea at the time. However, the radio was relaying the Weather. Bureau's advisory. If the cause had, been unknown, that would have been reason for concern.
Locally some people first suspected an eclipse was taking place behind the clouds. E.M. Eslely of the Meteorological Service of Canada writing the following year in a British journal offhandedly listed several other fears people had expressed: an atomic explosion; a tornado, a snowstorm, flying saucers (then a new public fascination) poisonous smog, and the approach of doomsday. Most people I talk to who doubt the smoke explanation speak vaguely "the government" or "the Army" trying to see if it could black out a large portion of the country.
Some people's analysis rose no higher than their observation that they didn't smell any smoke. They might also have read in the newspaper that a scheduled All American Airways flight landed by lights at the Jamestown airport and reported no trace of smoke. However, Trans-Canada Airlines planes flying at 14,000 feet over the Great Lakes encountered a strong smell of wood smoke and landed covered with a thin, pale brown, oily film.
There have been many great fires, some much larger than this, which did not produce distant darkness. Even this fire produced only a few hours of darkness although it generated smoke for many days. Certain inversion patterns and wind conditions must be necessary to confine and convey the smoke.
This 1950 incident was most certainly not the first time since the Biblical accounts when similar strange daytime darkness had forced its attention on mankind. Pliny the Elder, living in the first century, read 2,000 books and tried to make sense and order of it all. He encountered a few such accounts and he mentions two, one after the murder of Caesar and a year of gloom during the Antonine War.
For modern instances we can turn to several works of William Corlis, who made a bibliography of strange phenomena. One of his examples, from the 1860 Scientific American, is strange indeed. On April 18 of that year, in Brazil, darkness fell at noon without a cloud in the sky and Venus became clearly visible. This would obviously be impossible if the whole sky were smoke-covered. This was said to be a repetition of similar events in 1547 and 1706. Corlis further gives a case in Amsterdam about the turn of the 19th century. An instance March 19, 1886, in Oshkosh, Wis., is eerie. On a bright windless afternoon, a wave of total darkness about 10 minutes in duration passed over the town.
Scientific American in 1915, cited a then recent Forest Service Bulletin which listed 18 dark days from 1706 to 1910, most in New England and Canada and most apparently similar to our 1950 dark day and likewise at least plausibly explicable by high altitude smoke. The most famous was May 19, 1780, which achieved renewed publicity this year, including an article in the December 1985 issue of American History Illustrated. By 11 a.m. or noon it was too dark to read or conduct normal business and the darkness remained until nearly 4 p.m. The variety of reactions was reminiscent or our own dark day. The Connecticut Legislature nearly panicked when some members thought it was Judgment Day.
A letter to National Review Jan 31. 1986, from Russell Seitz, visiting scholar, Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, mentions a 1915 fire in Siberia creating smoke that blanketed 2.6 million square miles, an area approaching that of the entire continental United States, for 51 days. The same New York Times article that described our 1950 dark day asserted that the previous June a "strange haze" covered one million square miles of the Pacific Ocean for three days.
Much of the information in this article came from issues of the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Bulletin provided as photocopies by the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Associate Dean Peter Murphy of the Faculty at Agriculture and Forestry, University of Alberta, sent me a copy of a recent study done by himself and Cordy Tymstra, and he provided some additional information. Locally I am indebted to the co-operation of Dora Gesaman and Donald Saxton.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was written by Norman P. Carlson of Busti, who makes a hobby of local history. He is former town of Busti historian.