[meteorite-list] Could A Meteorite or Comet Cause All The Fires of 1871?

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon Aug 23 13:55:41 2004
Message-ID: <200408231755.KAA19429_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Could a meteorite or comet cause all the fires of 1871?
By Dale Killingbeck
Cadillac News (Michigan)
August 23, 2004

CADILLAC - The skies around Sherman and the village of Clam Lake
undoubtedly turned from blue to black.

In Chicago, flames were racing through the city and in Peshtigo, Wis.,
people were running for their lives. Flames from the woods near Manistee
invaded the town on a quiet Sunday - and people fought for their homes.

Within three days of the fires, thousands were homeless, hundreds from
Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan dead, and many pioneers faced the winter
without a home or crops to eat.

In the month of the Perseid Meteor shower, it is interesting to ponder -
could a disintegrated comet be the cause of the fires?

An Upper Peninsula systems design engineer thinks so, as does a former
physicist with McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Consider a statement by the Detroit Post on Oct. 10, 1871: "In all parts
of the state, as will be noticed by our correspondence during the past
few days and also today, there are numerous fires in the wood, in many
places approaching so near to towns as to endanger the towns themselves."

In Holland, fire destroyed the city, in Lansing flames threatened the
agricultural college and in the Thumb, farmers trying to establish
homesteads soon would be diving into shallow wells to escape an inferno
some newspapers dubbed: "The Fiery Fiend." Many did not escape.

Fires threatened Muskegon, South Haven, Grand Rapids, Wayland and
reached the outskirts of Big Rapids. A steamship passing the Manitou
Islands reported they were on fire.

A horror story? Yes. And so real that historic markers to the event can
be found at Manistee and in the Thumb. Lots has been written about the
storm of fire that killed 2,000 in Peshtigo, Wis., and the Great Chicago
Fire and the fires that devastated the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Theories for the fires are many - but one thing is certain, the
devouring flames showed up at the same time.

Most historians point to the dry weather of the summer and the poor
logging practices of the day for creating conditions ripe for a hot dry
wind from the southwest that blew into the area whipping up small fires
already smoldering and carrying destruction through the state.

Theories for the Chicago and Michigan fires include Mrs. O'Leary's cow
knocking over the lantern and then firebrands from Chicago being driven
across the lake to ignite Michigan. But there is another interesting
theory that continues to make the rounds on the Web and in at least one
presentation by a retired physicist who worked for McDonnell Douglas Corp.

In 1871, fire erupted in Chicago, Wisconsin and northern Michigan at the
same time. Some believe a meteorite or comet was to blame.

The Discovery Channel reported on its Web site in March a presentation
by Robert Wood, a retired McDonnell-Douglas physicist, who theorizes
fragments of a comet discovered in the early 1820s possibly caused the

Wood theorized that small pieces of frozen methane, acetylene or other
high combustive materials hit the earth sparking the flames.

That theory also resounds with Munising's Ken Rieli who believes he
found a chunk of meteorite in the waters off the Port Sanilac shore a
few years ago.

"We started doing an investigation on where the meteorite came from," he
said. His investigation also took him back to the Comet Biela that was
discovered in 1821 and returned every six years and nine months. It was
last seen in 1866 and never showed up in 1872.

"It was supposed to recycle and it wasn't there," Rieli said. He
questions how fires could start simultaneously in Chicago, Minnesota,
Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario. He also notes how dry summers and
strong winds since have never produced a similar result in America's

"If these are coming down like buckshot with real dry conditions ..."
Rieli theorizes how flaming space rocks could have ignited fires in many
places. He said he's been contacted by relatives of survivors of the
Peshtigo fire who shared stories from their ancestors about seeing fire
falling from the sky.

Physicist Wood in his report cited eyewitness reports of spontaneous
ignition and "fire balloons."

Rieli said Canadian geologists found a huge impact crater 200 feet below
Lake Huron in the Port Huron area in the early 1990s. He said he has a
relative who participated in drilling for a water pipeline to serve the
Detroit in the same area at the same depth. He said crews discovered
meteorite-like rock as they bored a hole for the pipeline.

"They were bringing it out and piling it up," he said. He said the rock
was reformulated and either was volcanic or a meteorite.

"It's another piece of evidence that the Michigan area and parts of
Canada, Illinois are ground zero for an active meteor strike zone."

Michigan State University's David Batch, director of the Abram's
Planetarium, said he had not heard the theory before and is skeptical
that a comet or meteorite could have caused the fires.

Batch said meteorites that have come through the atmosphere and hit the
ground are never hot when people have had the opportunity to run over to
the piece of space rock immediately.

"When they run over to them, there is a frost to them," he said.
"There's no known evidence of a comet or a meteorite causing a fire in

Batch said comet particles are mostly ice and would not survive to hit
the ground while the meteorite only glows hot in the very outer surface
as it passes through atmosphere.

"It's only heated to those temperatures for a very short time," he said.
"It's like the outer millimeter that is heated up. The rest of it stays

Rieli counters that if the meteorite chunk exceeds one pound and has
enough mass, it will not cool by the time it hits the ground.

"That's only true under a certain mass of rock," he said.

He said the Comet Biela had to have hit an asteroid belt when it broke
up around Jupiter and likely the debris carried a mixture of rock and
ice when the Earth plowed through the field in October 1871. The result
was hundreds of hot rocks flying through the atmosphere and in many
cases striking tinder-dry woods.

While residents around the state battled flames, information about the
area around Cadillac, then Clam Lake, is fuzzy. The first newspaper did
not start until 1872.

The village began the same year as the firestorm and by October of that
year there was a sawmill, hotels, a general store some boarding houses,
along with other buildings, according to Judge William Peterson's "The
View from Courthouse Hill."

Peterson recounts near Sherman, the area between Mesick and Sherman
Hill, there were numerous fires at the same time Manistee and Chicago
were burning down.

"It was said sparks from the fires in Wisconsin that summer or the great
Chicago fire in October or the conflagration that destroyed Manistee at
the same time, started a large number of fires in the Sherman area,"
Peterson wrote.

Among the losses were a sawmill and the prosecutor's house.

Rieli acknowledges his theory is controversial. His Web site is meant to
spark conversation - but he believes his chunk of carbonaceous chondrite
meteorite bolsters his theory. Any certainty would require more research.

"It's just a present thing we are doing," he said. "People need to
expand their minds."
Received on Mon 23 Aug 2004 01:55:27 PM PDT

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