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A history mystery: Do you remember the “Dark Day”?

July 16, 2015
Westfield Republican

By Marybelle Beigh

Westfield Historian

With all the drought along the entire west coast of this country and up into Canada, there have been a plethora of wildfires and forest fires sending smoke and ash up into the high reaches of the atmosphere to be carried eastward by the Jet Streams. As a result we've been having glorious sunsets more many weeks as the particles reflect and refract the setting sun's ray; and along with that there have been a number of very hazy days when, despite no clouds, the particles in the atmosphere have dimmed and yellowed the sun's rays noticeably. It reminded me of a very scary day from my childhood.

Back in early Fall of 1950, I (Marybelle-age 9) was outside with my family (Dad, Don Blackburn; Mother, Frances Blackburn; and brother, "Ranny" - age 6), at 169 North Portage Street, Westfield, NY, 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 1:00 PM 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 USSR, and atom bomb tests, and so on, speculated that 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 street lights 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.

While I was researching another, totally unrelated topic about 4 years ago (2011), I ran across an article from a 1995 Jamestown Post Journal, written by Norman P. Carlson, a local (Busti) genealogist and historian. It was headlined, "THE DARK DAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 1950." It was interesting to note that Carlson started 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 quoted several bits of Biblical scripture. Carlson wrote, "Most [people] remember the official explanation: high altitude smoke from Canadian forest fires. A large majority formed and still hold 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 continued with a thorough explanation from much research into newspaper articles from that summer and fall in 1950. Apparently, June 1st a manmade fire started about 20 miles NNW of Fort St. John, British Columbia. Since larger fires were already burning in neighboring Alberta, demanding immediate attention, the BC 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 the 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 80s 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 of the Alaskan Highway and telegraph connections with Alaska. Planes were unable to land and/or were forced to use oxygen masks of the greater than sixty thousand square miles of burning timber and brush lands.

Locally, people shared interesting 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. Street lights came on about 2:00 PM in Chautauqua County cities and villages, but by 4:00 PM daylight returned and the lights were turned off. The New York Times reported that the huge smoke cloud had extended up to 14,000 to 17,000 feet, over Detroit and New York City, and as far south as Tennessee. Here in Chautauqua County the smoke cell was 200 miles wide, 400 miles long, and three miles thick.

About a year after discovering Norm Carlson's story about the "Dark Day", an article in the Westfield Republican of September 27, 1950, "Phenomenal Skies Turn Day to Night," came to light (pun intended), 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 nightSome 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 Cars proceeded on all highways with full lights on. Many were parked on the Oxbow watching the strange skies during the entire time"

Faithful readers please share ghost stories, legends, myths, and mysteries, including photos, and other ephemera with the Westfield Historian for this new BeeLines series. Email, or contact Marybelle Beigh via cell: 397-9254. Thanks!



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