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      11-13-1833: Spectacular Meteor Shower

      Another spectacular display occurred as recently as 1966.
      A â??remarkable display of the meteoritesâ?? was observed at various points across the United States during the early morning of November 13, 1833. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft writing from Mackinac Island described the phenomenon as â??radiating balls, streams of fire or falling stars from the zenith into the lake.â??

      On the east coast, â??those who were up at four saw the grandest site.â?? There were three distinct lights in the night sky besides the usual array of stars. There were â??shooting points of lightâ?? that emanated from a center point and cascaded to the horizon, â??resembling a thick shower of luminous snow.â?? Then there were â??luminous bodies which hung dimly in the air.â?? Finally, the most spectacular sight was the â??falling fireballs, some which burst, while others went out of sight.â?? They were so bright that even the smallest object could be seen as the meteors lit the night sky. One of the fireballs was reportedly larger than the moon; another was â??like a serpent coiling itself up,â?? while others resembled â??square tablesâ?? or â??pruning hooks.â?? The ones that burst left â??trains of light behind them, some tinged withâ?| prismatic colours.â??

      Schoolcraftâ??s brother-in-law, William Johnston, was in northern Minnesota â??on the sources of the Mississippiâ?? at the time and concurred that the event was nothing short of wonderful. â??The weather,â?? Johnston wrote, â??is still very pleasant, with very little frost at night. About two or three in the morning one of the men came and awoke me. â??Come and see a strange sight,â?? he said. We went to the door, where we saw every now and then, stars shooting or falling. The center from whence they first appeared to the eye was, to us, nearly in a direct line above our headsâ??from whence they went in all directions, to all points of the compass.â?? He related that he and his companion went into the house, sat down and smoked their pipes, shaking their heads in astonishment at what they had seen.

      They decided to take one last look before retiring. â??What a sight it was!â?? exclaimed Johnston. â??The whole heaven appeared to be lit with falling stars, and we could now more plainly seeâ?|the center from whence they would shoot. The night was calm, the air clear, nothing to disturb the stillness, but the hushed breathings of the men. The stars were accompanied with a rustling noise, and, though they appeared to fall as fast and as thick as hail, above them, now and then, we could see some of the fixed stars, shining as bright as ever. I can compare it nothing more comprehensive than a hail storm. The sight was grand beyond description.â?? Johnston watched the heavenly display until â??the bright streaks of dayâ?? appeared and â??the light of the sun caused them to disappear.â??

      The heavenly phenomenon was the Leonid Meteor shower, probably the most spectacular of modern times. At Fort Snelling, a diarist noted the â??shooting stars were seen early in the morning and continued flying in every direction until daylight. They were extremely brilliant and very much alarmed the Indians.â??

      Schoolcraft said some called for mild weather because of the spectacular event. The prediction of warmth held true with December ending up the warmest twelfth month at Fort Snellingâ??s (near present-day St. Paul) record; a remarkable 14.8 degrees above the long term average. The coldest reading until the day after Christmas was a balmy 14 above zero.

      The last great Leonid shower occurred in 1966 (Image 2 above). The peak of the Leonid this year will occur late Thursday night into Friday. Right now, it looks like high pressure will be settling into the Upper Great Lakes, so the sky should by clear, or at least partly cloudy. While this installment of the Leonid meteor shower will not be as spectacular as the 1833 or 1966 episodes, it is worth a look anyway.