A Near-Miss Meteor in the Pacific Northwest

On August 2, 1862, Corporal Royal A. Bensell, a California Infantryman stationed at Fort Yamhill, a few miles outside Salem, recorded in his diary:

“Saturday. Cleaned up for Sunday. One Drill. Case started for Salem. Boys expect great News in consequence of a noise heard yesterday in that direction, resembling cannon. This same rumbling sound was heard by many persons several times during our stay at this post. Cluce, old settlers, felt certain it was cannon, and either at Dallas or Salem. But it proved incorrect, leaving us in doubt and wonder. Some contend its the Surf beating on the Coast. Twenty miles distant, this seems impossible. I have twice heard this unaccountable disturbance and from all accounts of the report preceding earthquakes it bears a close resemblance. “

` The Oregon Statesman carried several reports of the event in its following editions. On August 4, a letter from Corvallis relayed the following:

“Throughout Benton county, on Friday, about 9 A.M., was heard in the air, the noise as of firing heavy guns (seven reports) as quick as artillery could be fired, and then a continued roar for a moment. People came in town to hear the news, supposing the firing was here. This was distinctly heard at Fort Hoskins, and there it was supposed to be at Salem, while persons living fifteen miles north of here, on the Salem road, heard the seven guns and long report, thinking it came from the coast. Mr. Ritz, four miles west, was on a hill, and saw balls of fire, and the explosion was close by him, causing him great alarm. Another man, on the island, five miles south, thought the explosion was in a fir tree over head. There has never occurred any thing of the kind, where people, twenty miles distant, have agreed so uniformly in their reports – seven guns quickly fired and then a sound of the blowing up of a steamboat. A. D. Barnard. “

From Polk County came the report: “There was, on the morning of the first, about 9 o’clock, a peal of subterranean thunder, in the Southwest, commencing with two or three explosive reports, followed by several rumbling vibrations, lasting something beyond the period of one minute. Cause unknown.”

But not all parties were agreed on the events. The comments of the editor in Salem were that “nothing of the kind was observed here.”

The next issue of the Oregon Statesman had a complete report from Mr. Philip Ritz of what he had experienced.

“On Friday, Aug. 1st, about 9 A.M., while plowing in the nursery, I heard what I supposed to be a cannon at Salem; directly afterward, it sounded at Corvallis, and then immediately in the direction of Fort Hoskins. I then stopped my horse and listened, wondering how they should have any news at Fort Hoskins in advance of other points, when the reports became more frequent and about as rapid as artillery could be fired, and precisely like a large cannon at that distance. Directly the sound came nearer, till it was immediately over my head, and sounded like a roll of musketry. On looking up, the atmosphere appeared hazy in the direction of the sound, and on looking the second time, it appeared grey, and I could see myriads of meteors darting amongst the grey moving haze; heard a rushing sound, and could distinctly liken it to the rushing of mighty waters. They could not have been far from the earth, as they appeared like great flashes of silver, the sun shining very brightly at the time. The scene would certainly have been most sublime if it had occurred at night. It moved rapidly a little east of north in the direction of Salem. I was about to unhitch my horse and get to a shelter, expecting a shower of meteoric stones. I thought I would get under a large leaning oak tree close by, as that would as good a place as I wanted, and where I could see the sport. I then thought of my family, and that Oregon wooden houses were not much protection against such showers, so I concluded to run there and be with them, the house being near by; but before I could unhitch, it flew rapidly by in the direction of Salem and died away in the distance. I mention these particulars to give some idea of the time. I thought it lasted about five minutes. I was not “greatly alarmed” as Mr. Barnard was informed. On the contrary, I never felt more calm. I always enjoy the most terrific thunder and vivid lightning, and all such natural phenomena very much. There was nothing that appeared as subterranean thunder near me, as your Polk county correspondent mentions, nor any vibration of the earth. It may be that the stones fell in his vicinity (if any fell at all) as that was the direction it moved. I expect I am the only person who had the pleasure of seeing it, and I don’t believe St. John ever saw anything half so sublime while on the Isle of Patmos. “

Using the testimony of Mr. Ritz, it should be safe to conclude that the Noise of 1862 was a meteor that, if it didn’t impact with the surface of the Earth in the Pacific Northwest, was certainly a near miss.

It was most fortunate that the meteor didn’t contact with the earth, or explode in mid-air. On June 30, 1908, a 200-foot-diameter meteorite skimming the earth’s surface exploded about 5 miles above the taiga forest near the Tunguska River in eastern Siberia with the force of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. Over 1,200 square miles of forest were destroyed, as well as everything living in the forest.

But for the grace of God such a scene could have been visited on the Pacific Northwest in 1862.

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