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Judgement Day at hand? Early settlers in Norwalk likely recalled Dark Day

By Henry Timman • May 19, 2017 at 12:00 PM

It’s hard to imagine living 200 or more years ago when communication was so different from what it is today.

Sometimes it took weeks or months to learn of a family matter or a major news story such as a fire or flood, without radios, telephones, or telegraph service. Now, even those mediums are being put on the closet shelf. Add to this the fact that our ancestors knew very little about such things as weather forecasting or the cause of earthquakes or volcanoes.

An incident of 1780 in New England is a good example of an unusual occurrence which must have frightened everyone and caused them to feel that Judgment Day was at hand. Previous to May 19, 1780, a vapor had filled the air for a few days and smelled of sulphur.

About 9:00 in the morning of the 19th, it began to grow dark in the area from northern Pennsylvania along the east coast to the wilds of Maine and on to the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, and at least as far as 125 miles out to sea, east of Boston. The west limit was at the Hudson River, and then north into Canada. The worst of this unexplained darkness was over New England —  Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire. The total area affected was estimated at 800 by 400 miles.

The cloud which first appeared about 9 a.m. appeared to have dropped straight down from the sky, with some sunlight showing at the horizon. Soon most light disappeared and the day grew darker and darker. From 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m., it was as dark as night, a darkness both “extraordinary and frightful”.

People were unable to see the time on a clock or watch, and candles were necessary both outdoors and in. Many people believed that it was the end of the world, as the birds ceased to fly or sing; the chickens went to their roosts; and bats came out as they would at night. Frogs peeped their evening songs while the dogs, cows and sheep sought shelter as though a disaster was at hand.

At the Connecticut State House in Hartford, Abraham Davenport, a state councilor in the legislature, objected to adjournment, saying “Either the Day of Judgment is at hand or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I wish to be found in the line of my duty. I wish candles to be brought.”

About 3 p.m., the darkness lifted and the sky cleared somewhat, but later the dark vapor returned and the first half of the night was “hideously dark”. A full moon that night was hidden by the vapor.

There were attempts to find an explanation. It was noted that a black scum, like ashes, collected on tubs of water and that some rain was thick and dark and sooty. It was not until 2007 that a study showed evidence of a massive wildfire in the spring of 1780 in eastern Ontario Province of Canada. The smoke and debris had traveled southwest and very likely caused the Dark Day of 1780, which so badly frightened our New England ancestors. 

No doubt some of the early settlers here in northern Ohio recalled that Dark Day and told the story of it to their descendants while sitting around the fireplace on a winter evening.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in downtown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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