On the night of February 9, 1913, Torontonians were treated to one of the most unusual heavenly events of all time. But what did they really see?
If you were in Toronto the night of February 9, 1913, firstly, congratulations on your extraordinary longevity. But more importantly, you might have witnessed the celestial spectacle of a lifetime.
Shortly after 9 p.m. that day, turn-of-the-century Torontonians might have looked up and popped a monocle or corset stay at the sight of a host of bright, comet-like objects travelling east in formation across the night sky.
The event became known as the Great Meteor Procession, and although it was reportedly seen over a total distance of some 10,000 kilometres, by far the largest cluster of sightings was in central Canada—and more specifically, Toronto.
A meteor procession (or train) is no garden-variety meteor shower—ephemeral and delicate as a fruit-fly ballerina. A procession occurs when a meteor breaks apart as it grazes the earth’s atmosphere, creating a chain of fireballs moving in the same direction across the sky. These events are so rare that only four have ever been recorded.
But was the 1913 event really a meteor procession, or was it something even stranger?
The principal chronicler of the event was University of Toronto astronomy professor Clarence Chant, who didn’t see the procession himself. He received so many inquiries about it afterwards, though, that he set about gathering eyewitness testimony and conducting an investigation. In his 1913 paper, published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Chant notes that accounts of the number, appearance, and behaviour of the fireballs were “very discordant.” Some observers reported a dozen or fewer objects, while others claimed to have seen hundreds or even thousands. Some described the orbs as red in colour, others as yellow. The orbs’ tails were likened to searchlights and to streams of sparks. (A few said there were no tails at all.) Some, but not all, observers reported rumbling sounds loud enough to rattle windows.
Witnesses commented on the slow speed and horizontal trajectory of the meteors—atypical behaviour for shooting stars, which plunge rapidly toward the earth. The procession also apparently lasted for an unusually long time. Spectators reported variously that the display went on for between one and seven minutes. The average reported time was 3.3 minutes (“giving ample time for the fortunate observer to make several wishes if he were so inclined” notes Chant, in a vintage Edwardian knee-slapper).
The meteor train was visible over an unprecedented distance. Chant’s research uncovered that sightings had been made from as far apart as western Alberta and a ship in the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil—a total distance of some 9600 kilometres. Earlier this year, astronomers Don Olson of Texas State University and Steve Hutcheon of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, Australia, dug through century-old maritime archives and came up with seven more ship reports, extending the known path of the procession by another 1600 kilometres—an extraordinary distance for meteors to follow the curvature of the planet without plunging to earth or skipping back into space.
There’s still debate over precisely what buzzed Toronto in 1913. Was it a standard meteor captured during an Earth fly-by or possibly a mini-moon making its death lap? Whatever the case, the scientific consensus has always been that while out-of-the-ordinary, the Great Procession was a natural phenomenon. Astronomers quoted in newspapers at the time reassured the public that the parade of fireballs didn’t signify imminent apocalypse and could in fact be readily explained.
But not everyone agrees.
Charles Fort, the early-20th-century chronicler of the unexplained, suggested in his 1923 book New Lands that the procession, or at least some elements of it, might have been the work of an unknown intelligence rather than a rogue space rock. He noted that virtually no sightings were reported in New York State, which was surprising given the track established by Chant. The lack of such sightings has been attributed to cloudy weather over the northeastern US that night, but surely something should have been spotted in one of the most densely populated areas of North America?
Of course, Fort’s stock in trade was reporting bizarre incidents, not solving them. He was known neither for his investigative diligence nor for his commitment to the scientific method.
However, the descriptions of first-hand observers also hint at a greater mystery.
Chant writes: “Many (witnesses) compared them to a fleet of airships, with lights on either side and forward and aft; but airmen will have to practice many years before they will be able to preserve such perfect order. Others, again, likened them to great battleships attended by cruisers and destroyers…Still others thought they resembled a brilliantly lighted passenger train, traveling in sections and seen from a distance of several miles.”
Even more puzzling was the sighting over Toronto the following day. As reported in the Toronto Star on February 10, 1913, workers in a building on Wellington Street West observed what appeared to be a “fleet of airships” moving over the harbour at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Clarence Chant references this event in his report, speculating that what was seen might have been meteoric stragglers. But this is unlikely, given that the witnesses reported the objects moving first from west to east, then returning in the other direction before disappearing out of sight—impossible behaviour for a meteor.
Those interviewed by the Star insisted that what they had seen were not clouds or birds. Airships did exist in 1913, but largely in Europe, which was busy gearing up for the multilateral slaughter of the Great War. Certainly no fleet of terrestrial aircraft would have been casually cruising over Toronto. Unfortunately, photography was a specialized and cumbersome art at the time, and, as with the procession itself, no pictures were taken.
Mike Bird runs ExoPolitics Canada (formerly Exopolitics Toronto), an organization that wants to “inform and fully disclose to the citizens of Canada the facts about UFOs, extraterrestrial visitations, and classified advanced energy and propulsion systems.” Bird says he spent two weeks reading through all the eyewitness letters received by Chant, and that he, Bird, believes the procession was not a meteor event, but an “armada of spaceships.” (Bird did not elaborate on what specifically within the correspondence led him to this conclusion.)
On the continuum of probability, the meteor theory is far more likely than the extraterrestrial. But there remain many unanswered questions, and for believers, the Great Procession remains an enigma whose true nature has yet to be revealed.