On almost any fine night, after a short watch of the heavens, we may see the well-known appearance of "shooting stars." At ordinary times these are small, are far between, and occur indifferently in all parts of the heavens; but on certain nights they show themselves in great number, and of such brilliancy as to present a spectacle of much magnificence.
- Rocky Mountain Sun, Aspen,
Colorado, Sept. 30, 1882
Meteors and all matters related to astronomy fascinated people living in the Victorian era. The darkness of communities along with people's attunement to their natural surroundings made the sightings of meteors a common occurrence. Many of the magnificent sightings made their way into print, and with possibly exaggerated details.
A meteor streaked across Aspen's night sky in early November 1886. The trail of fire along its decent from the southwest over Aspen Mountain to the head of Hunter Creek caught the notice of grocer and Aspen Mayor, Bob Hardeman. The next morning Hardeman and a friend proceeded to Hunter Creek and along the way gathered accounts from others reporting a whizzing sound and the meteor's fearful velocity, which caused livestock in fields to stampede and cows the next morning to produce sour milk.
Seven miles up Hunter Creek Hardeman found a grove of timber on fire leading to a five foot deep crater containing the still hot meteorite. Extracting the meteorite with a shovel, the party dragged the 20 pound object into the creek to cool it. The Rocky Mountain Sun reported the submersion of the meteorite into Hunter Creek proved fatal to "hundreds of trout." The newspaper also reported that Mr. Hardeman "brought several of those fish to town and had them cooked and vouches for them being quite palatable with the exception of a faint taste of brimstone, which could not be eradicated without a plentiful supply of salt." Undoubtedly, the meteor's display in Hardeman's store brought attention to his establishment and an increase in business.
The viewing of shooting stars was a spectator sport. The November 1899 appearance of the Leonids drew great anticipation. However clouds, snow, and rain hid the meteors from view. "It was a great disappointment to savants and lovers", wrote the Glenwood Post newspaper, "and it will be thirty-three years before the Leonids visit us again."
From Denver to Fort Lupton, the daylight sky was further illuminated by a meteor on Dec. 7, 1900. So large was the meteor that Dr. H.A. Howe, astronomer of the University of Denver's observatory, sought information from any witnesses. Three months later J.E. Shippey of Walden offered a meteorite for sale but it was unclear if this specimen was from the Dec. 7 event. The Glenwood Post newspaper, however, tired of the constant talk of meteors. On Feb. 16, 1901, the Post wrote, "Of course this meteor business may be all right from a journalistic standpoint, but the fault we have to find with it is this: When old things once get started falling in a (newspaper) field they just keep it up. One little old meteor down in Texas has been falling now for years."
As the 20th century progressed, the published accounts of meteors decreased. However, curiosity about the fireballs in the sky continued to drive professional and amateur hunters to seek and collect meteorites. Two prospectors by the names of Moore and Pitts, discovered a meteorite near the Bookcliffs outside of Rifle in the late 1940s. They sold their specimen to meteorite expert Harvey Nininger, who then donated the find to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. For years it was thought that the Rifle meteorite was part Arizona's Canyon Diablo meteor, discounting the Rifle meteorite's origins. In the decades to follow, the meteorite has been further studied. It has been determined to be of a different composition from the Canyon Diablo meteorite. Rifle's Yellow Slide meteorite, described as a coarse octahedrite, now has its own listing in the Catalogue of Meteorites.
Meteors will continue to awe and inspire mankind. They are the inspiration to turn our vision upward and imagine and study an ever changing universe.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Frontier Historical Society and Museum. "Frontier Diary," which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.