Holy Week was observed this year at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Westfield from April 1, Palm or Passion Sunday, through April 7, Holy Saturday. During this week, the theme of "darkness" prevails, particularly on Wednesday in the Tenebrae Service of Darkness and again on Good Friday at the crucifixion of Christ, "It was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour," from Luke 23:24. Participation in these services of Holy Week always seems to remind me of a day in 1950 during my childhood when on a Sunday, just past noon, the sky began to darken. In April 2009, I wrote the following BeeLines, "A history mystery from almost 60 years ago, explained," about that day.
"Back in early fall of 1950, I - Marybelle, age 9 - was outside with my family, dad Don Blackburn, mother Fran Blackburn and my brother Ranny, age 6, at 169 North Portage Street, Westfield, where we had lived for less than a year since moving from the farm on Persons Road. It was a Sunday afternoon in late September, about 1 p.m., or so, and we noticed that the sky was becoming dark, but with a strange color, a yellowish or greenish or even orange-brown. Having been to Sunday school and Church that morning, my brother and I wondered if the 'hell-fire and brimstone' preacher had been right about the impending end of the world. Mother and daddy, being a bit more aware of the larger world and its escalating politics of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R, atom bomb tests and so on, speculated it might be some sort of horrible weapon or bomb test perpetrated by the Soviets. By mid afternoon, it was as dark as midnight and even the streetlights had been turned on. Radios seemed to have no information, and it wasn't until some days later that the truth of the matter was published and broadcast."
Until I was researching another, totally unrelated topic last year, I'd almost forgotten about the day, until I found an article from a 1995 Jamestown Post Journal, written by Norman P. Carlson, a local genealogist and historian from Busti whom I know from the Chautauqua County Genealogy Society, of which we are both members. His article was headlined, "The Dark Day, September 24, 1950." Carlson starts off his article from a similar perspective as my brother and I had experienced - that the darkness had something to do with the "wrath of God" - as he quotes several bits of Biblical scripture from Moses in Exodus and from Luke's crucifixion story. According to Carlson's article, "Most (people) remember the official explanation: high altitude smoke from Canadian forest fires. A large majority formed and still holds skepticism about that explanation. Their suspicion is sustained by the absence, then and since, of additional information backing up the forest fire story."
However, Carlson continues a thorough explanation from much research into newspaper articles from that summer and fall in 1950. Apparently, on June 1, a manmade fire started about 20 miles north-northwest of Fort St. John, British Columbia. Since larger fires were already burning in neighboring Alberta, demanding immediate attention, the British Columbia fire was allowed to continue to burn as it was in an area slated for deforestation for agricultural lands. The summer was exceptionally dry, and September was hot in Alberta. During week before the "Dark Day," a peat muskeg fire that had been smoldering for years 75 miles north of Edmonton was activated by high winds. The smoke from this fire joined more than two dozen other fires burning in Alberta and other fires burning in British Columbia over the next several days. Temperatures were in the high 80's and winds of over 40 mph were driving the fires over more and more square miles of western Canada. At some point the fires cut off the Alaskan Highway and telegraph connections with Alaska. Planes were unable to land and/or were forced to use oxygen masks over the greater than 60,000 square miles of burning timber and brush lands.
Locally, people shared interesting and novel accounts of their experiences as the huge accumulation of smoke boiled high into the atmosphere and was carried eastward to Hudson Bay and then southward toward the Great Lakes. Streetlights came on about 2 p.m., in Chautauqua County cities and villages, but by 4 p.m., daylight returned and the lights were extinguished. According to Carlson's researched account, "A Warren, Pa., drive-in movie actually scheduled a matinee for 4:30 but had to cancel it because of returning daylight." Some of the funniest stories tell of people awakening in the midst of the darkness and rushing off to work hours early, or of chickens and roosters hurrying in to roost and then a rooster crowing that it was morning at 4 p.m., in Watts Flats.
The New York Times, on Monday, reported that the huge smoke cloud had extended up to 14,000 to 17,000 feet, and over Detroit and New York City, and as far south as Tennessee. Over our area, the smoke cell was about 200 miles wide, 400 miles long, and three miles thick.
Marybelle Beigh is the current Public Historian for the Town and Village of Westfield. Her office is located at 3 East Main Street in Westfield, N.Y, 14787 - inside Parkview Ice Cream Parlor. Her scheduled office hours are Monday through Friday 9 to 11 a.m.; other hours by appointment.
Beigh can be reached at email@example.com or by calling 326-2457 (office), 326-6171 (home) or 397-9254 (cell).
Carlson not only thoroughly researched this particular "dark day," but went on to describe similar daytime darkness episodes researched by Pliny the Elder in the first century AD, as well as a more modern bibliography of strange phenomena researched and published by William Corlis and articles in Scientific American, American History Illustrated, The Edmonton Journal, and the National Review, to name some of his sources. Note: Norman P. Carlson, of Busti, makes a hobby of local history, and is a former Town of Busti Historian.
Recently, an article in the Westfield Republican of Sept. 27, 1950, "Phenomenal Skies Turn Day To Nite," "came to light" in the Patterson Library microfilm archives. "Probably Sunday's phenomenal skies will long remain in the memory of residents. Nothing like it had ever been experienced before. A weird darkness began to descend accompanied by a light copper hued pall ... in an hour it was black as night ... Some wondered if the world was coming to an end ... Soon after, the weather bureau reports on the radio stated that the unusual darkness was caused by terrific forest fires in Alberta, Canada, and the smoke had spread as far as Iowa and south to West Virginia ... It was the first time in history that Cleveland had played baseball under the arc lights in the daytime at the stadium there ... Cars proceeded on all highways with full lights on. Many were parked on the Oxbow watching the strange skies during the entire time ... In Jamestown there were so many calls coming into the telephone office that a taxi was dispatched for nine operators who were off duty ... for the emergency calls."