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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Early Meteors and 'Aerolites'

The appearance of a large meteor over the upper Midwest on Wednesday night spawned many news reports and this YouTube video. It crashed into the woods near Avoca, Wis., on the lower Wisconsin River, igniting not only the trees but also the imaginations of all who witnessed it. This prompted us to investigate early meteor sightings in our state.

Perhaps the first on record was a large meteor which fell long ago in White Rapids, near the city of Marinette. Local tradition said that this was a sacred event recounted by the Menominee to the earliest white settlers, and that they were despondent when the stone was washed away in an unusual flood. One should always take tales told by white people about American Indian beliefs with a grain of salt, but the story and a photograph of the meteor can be seen here.

In August of 1856, an "aerolite" (as the press called it) or "fire-ball or meteor was seen to fall near this village (Viroqua), and that the stone or mass of native metal which caused the phenomenon, was afterwards found on the surface of the earth," perplexing the rural folk of western Wisconsin. "The occurrence has given rise to the question," wrote the local editor, "what is the cause of so strange an appearance? ... They cannot proceed from any volcano upon the earth; but one of the theories is that they are projected from volcanoes of the moon with such force as to be cast beyond the sphere of the moon's at traction and within that of the earth."

A large meteor passed over Appleton in May of 1876. It "was plainly seen though the sun was shining; it burst with a loud report and apparently fell in Lake Winnebago." Another appeared travelled above the same city a year later, "about noonday, taking a northeast direction and though the sun was shining brightly at the time it was distinctly visible. It left as a trail a white cloud and after a few seconds exploded in a series of concussions resembling the firing of a cannon in rapid succession. It was estimated to have been one hundred miles from Appleton and accordingly must have been very large."

On June 16. 1911, farmer William Gaffney took shelter from what he thought was thunder by running into his barn a few mile from Wisconsin Dells. He "had been inside but an instant when he heard a loud report 'like a cannon'," according to the press, "and saw a small stone strike the manger about ten feet from where he stood. It rebounded, struck the foundation wall, and finally buried itself to a depth of nine and a half Inches in the hard clay floor... [He] quickly dug out the stone and picked it up but could not hold it on account of Its heat. It remained warm for hours. The rumbling noise and the report was heard by neighbors for three miles around. An examination of the barn showed that the stone had penetrated three layers of shingles and a one-inch hemlock board forming the roof and then passed thru a three-quarter inch board that floored the hay loft."

Other meteors fell long ago and were discovered only when astonished farmers ran their plows into them. Here, in one of our favorite photos, Increase Lapham is shown examining a 33 lb. meteorite found in Trenton, Washington County, in 1871.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 15, 2010

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