Posted by: alexhickey | June 5, 2022

Fire in the Sky, 1936 © Alex Hickey, 2022

A few years ago I was wandering along the beach of St. Jacques at low tide.  I was in that part of the harbour known as Burkes Cove, where, for over a hundred and twenty years the Burke family operated a variety of business enterprises.  Therefore it isn’t unusual to find the bottom of a broken wine bottle from Spain, a piece of Chinese porcelain nestled among the pebbles or pieces of green, blue or clear sea glass peering from under a mussel shell. Most metallic debris from their old wharves and schooners has rusted beyond recognition by now so any colour that contrasts with the brownish tones of seaweed is apt to catch one’s eye.  That day, something did.  A black object about three inches square stood out from the brown, beige, grey and burnt orange rocks surrounding it  The falling tide had left it and everything else slick with a sheen of water.  Sunlight reflecting from that one particular object seemed brighter than others.

I bent over to examine what had captured my attention.  At first, I thought it was a piece of coal.  That is, until I picked it up.  I was quite surprised at the weight of such a small object.  That alone told me I was not handling a lump of coal or a beach rock.  I turned it over in my hand to discover the opposite side appeared to have melted.  It looked as though a hot bubbling surface had frozen in time.  The sides of my newly discovered object seemed to have been fractured, broken away from a larger chunk.  I had no idea what I was holding other than it was intensely black and extraordinarily heavy for its size.

Later that evening I was sitting in my living room examining the object and wondering about its origin when I had a flashback to basic high school science on meteors.  After a bit of research and further examination, I felt relatively confident I had stumbled upon a meteorite that survived its entry through the atmosphere and had come to rest in St. Jacques. 

In 1936, telegraph operator Paddy McEvoy sent a message to St. John’s telling of a great  ‘ball of fire’ that had streaked across the sky of St. Jacques and exploded before their eyes!  That got me thinking about some of the people who were living in the town at that time and how they might have witnessed the event.  Here’s what I imagine three of them might have seen:

Joe Penney, lightkeeper on St. Jacques Island, was in the midst of his afternoon rounds when out of the corner of his eye a brilliant light appeared in the sky.   He stopped in his tracks, stared and shouted to his assistant Harry Young.  The urgency of his voice brought the faces of his wife Louise and his Aunt Elizabeth to the kitchen window.  They stared, transfixed by something they’d never seen before.

Mother Alphonsus O’Driscoll pulled her coat tighter across her chest to keep out the October chill.  The Presentation Convent’s front step was one of her favourite places to sit and think.  Winds were light and the crisp blue sky was typical of late fall.  She was remembering her sister Mother Joseph O’Driscoll who had recently passed on.  They had both climbed those same steps for decades, especially during their early years upon arrival from Ireland.   She closed her eyes, raised her face to the sun and smiled at the memories.  Without warning, everything turned yellowish-orange behind her eyelids.  Snapping out of her reveries she was confronted by a flaming ball of fire in the sky.  Her hands flew into action forming the sign of the cross as she blessed herself.

Afternoon lessons were almost complete in the crowded one-room Church of England school house.  Miss Gladys Price, in the second year of her teaching career, had all of her students practicing cursive writing.  She slowly walked between the rows looking over their shoulders, pausing now and then to offer a suggestion.  She was guiding nine-year-old Anne Marie Johnson in the formation of a capital G when she heard Melvin Allen, a senior student, frantically call out, “Miss, Miss! Look out the window!”  Blazing across the sky was a ball of light leaving a dark trail behind it.  “Remain in your seats,” she commanded as she rushed to the window.  Students, oblivious to danger, crowded around her staring out over the harbour.

It was October 19th, 1936. What residents witnessed that day must have felt like a biblical account of the end of the world.  During the middle of the afternoon around 2:30 a brilliant flaming ball, bright enough to be seen in broad daylight, appeared overhead, streaking at startling speed across the sky, appearing to get closer with each passing second. Men, women and children paused in the middle of what they were doing and stared at the sky, waiting, anticipating, not knowing what until it suddenly turned to a ball of dark smoke and a massive explosion vibrated the air around them and shook the ground beneath their feet.  A collective shiver passed through everyone as they watched in awe a column of smoke high in the atmosphere that continued to move forward as it began to lose its shape.  They looked around, at each other, at the sky, the ocean and the hills.   Everything in the harbour seemed to be the same.  Dogs began to bark.  They looked in the eyes of those standing nearby with questions and waited to see if another would appear.  None did. The speculation began.

By the end of the day postal telegraph reports from communities spread between Fortune Bay and Conception Bay spoke of a similar occurrence.   Some places described a fiery object almost twenty feet long falling from the sky and striking the earth.  One such site was Dock Ridge, near Avondale.   In Placentia Bay a witness reported from Merasheen Island that an object in the sky burst into flames and dropped to earth about twenty miles to the northeast of where he was standing.

An observer in New Perlican, Trinity Bay, reported that an object about ten feet long fell into the water about three miles northwest of the town throwing a large column of water into the air.  In Rencontre East, Fortune Bay, surprised residents watched as a ball of fire fell to earth a short distance to the west of their town.  A large scar on Steward’s Head, west of Rencontre is still discernable today. 

At Burnt Island, Placentia Bay, some believed they had seen a large plane flying in a northeasterly direction which was followed by an explosion.  Fishermen at sea reported seeing fiery objects dropping into the ocean sending up plumes of water, steam and smoke.  An unsubstantiated report suggested that at least one boat was hit and burned.

The St. John’s Daily News of October twentieth carried this headline, “Meteorites Fall in This Country: Flaming mass was seen Hurtling Through Sky at Several Places.”  A headline in the New York Times newspaper on the same date read. “Meteor Shower Sets Skies Aflame:  Newfoundland sees Balls of Fire Exploding and Striking Sea – World’s End Feared.” 

We know it wasn’t the end of the world.  It was an unusual daylight meteor shower. These meteorite showers which occur annually during the month of October and are known as the Orionids with the peak occurring around October 20th. Meteors are leftover particles and bits of rock and ice left behind by comets and remnants of asteroids.  When comets travel around our sun they leave in their path a trail of these remnants.  Each year in October the earth moves through the trail of a very well-known space object, Halley’s Comet.   That comet orbits the sun once every seventy-six years.  The last time it did was 1986 and will do so again in 2061. In the meantime there is plenty of debris from the 1986 visit to keep our October skies interesting for many years to come.

When the earth encounters this debris some of it collides with our atmosphere. As it heats up and glows in the sky it become visible to human eyes.  At night they are what we call shooting stars that are seen for brief seconds as they enter the atmosphere.  Others are larger and travel great distances, sometimes making it all the way to the surface of the earth.  When they do, they can appear as balls of fire which pass overhead leaving a trail of smoke behind them as they burn up.  Orionid meteors are usually very bright and fast when they come in contact with the earth.

Had a piece of this object survived the intense heat and fallen to the ground in Burkes Cove?  Had I discovered a piece Halley’s Comet seventy years after its encounter with the Earth? Possibly.  I have not been able to locate any other account of residents witnessing such an event before or since 1936.  It is possible that the object, which I am convinced is a meteorite, may have fallen centuries earlier.  However, the thought of it coming down to earth in 1936 is more to my liking.

Observing a shooting star in the sky at night is magical. It is like seeing back in time to the early days of human life on our planet when such unexplained occurances raised both fear and wonder.  Come October, be on the lookout for a clear night sky, find a spot where there isn’t very much ambient light, make yourself comfortable on a blanket, watch and wait for the Orionids. If you are familiar with the night sky, these seem to oroiginate in the regiopn of Orion, hence their name.  They won’t disappoint you.  Imagine what it must have felt like that afternoon in 1936 when the phenomenon was witnessed in the middle of the day.   There is always a chance the sky might light up as one of these bits of the early Universe gets close to earth before finally burning out with a bang right above your head!

Links to Explore

Orionids

Orionids Meteor Shower 2022

1935 Census St. Jacques

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Responses

  1. Hi Alex. , A very interesting story. I was so happy to see another post from St. Jacques. It will always be home to me. I am Emma Paul. I was born Nov.14, 1931. Our family left St Jacques in 1941 and made our home in St. Lawrence. I had met you during my teaching career at a meeting in Marystown and My son Paul has spoken of you many times. I did visit St. Jacques in 1986 and again 2018, at which time I reunited with an old childhood friend Emma (Bernsie) Skinner. I do enjoy reading and seeing pictures. I did take some while there. I have the little book and read most of John Burke’s stories from the newspapers. Would love to read more as I don’t remember a lot about the place. Thank you so much. Emma Paul Pike. Sent from my iPad

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  2. Very Interesting article Alex,This is the first time that I heard of this event.
    Thank you for your interest in the history of St Jacques and sharing this knowledge.
    This blog goes a long way in preserving the history and human interest stories of people who live there now and folks who built this place that I will always call home.


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