OTTAWA’S LOST METEORITE
Bright moving light in sky on April 24, 1910, came with extremely loud, ‘peculiar’ thunder
A woman in Gatineau said she saw it, as she looked south across the Ottawa River from her home on Aylmer Road. At first, she said, it appeared as a bright light in the sky but, after it broke in two, she watched one piece as it travelled west, “throwing off tongues of fire as it went.”
Few people reported seeing the supposed meteorite that was said to have crashed into an Ottawa Carbide Co. coal shed on Victoria Island on April 24, 1910.
The object itself was never recovered, so the event is not recorded among the slightly more than 70 confirmed meteorites to have struck Canada.
But numerous residents, including the Gatineau woman who saw it, reported being awoken early that Sunday morning by what sounded like extremely loud and “peculiar” thunder.
Fortunately, one of the people who heard it was Robert A. Johnstone, a mineralogist with the Geological Survey of Canada and, at the time, curator of the National Meteorite Collection of Canada. Johnstone, who lived on Bronson Avenue near Nepean Street — just a 15-minute walk from the presumed impact site — immediately recognized the characteristic sound of what was described as a “detonating” meteorite — “a heavy explosion followed by noise resembling pounding and which are caused by the revolving meteorite presenting different faces to the atmosphere,” the Citizen explained at the time. “These pounding noises continue till the meteorite hits the Earth.”
The exact time of the impact was 2:10 a.m. Based on the size of the hole in the roof of the shed (a hole that had not been there a week earlier), Johnstone said he believed the meteorite was approximately the size of a man’s fist or slightly larger.
According to Richard Herd, who from 1983 to 2011 was, like Johnstone before him, curator of the National Meteorite Collection of Canada, the accounts from the time are at least consistent with a rock from space entering Earth’s atmosphere and eventually striking the surface. A meteorite that size, he adds, might have been 10 times larger when it first hit Earth’s atmosphere, travelling at roughly 20 kilometres a second (or approximately 72,000 km/ hr.), and taking fewer than 10 seconds to travel through the atmosphere as it “catastrophically ” slowed, losing its cosmic velocity, heating up, possibly breaking up and, finally, landing at a terminal velocity likely in the neighbourhood of one to a few hundred kilometres an hour. The pounding sound heard in 1910, he adds, would have been the meteorite breaking up.
That it allegedly landed in a building filled with coal and coke, however, as opposed to, say, in someone’s kitchen, was most unfortunate. Many meteorites wouldn’t look out of place in a coal shed — which partially explains why more than 30,000 meteorites have been discovered in Antarctica, and only about 70 here in Canada. “That’s worse than a needle in a haystack,” says Herd. “It might have just ended up in someone’s furnace.”
Following the 1910 incident, according to the Citizen, “a number
of men are now engaged in searching under the coal in the shed through whose roof it fell, for the message from the sky.”
The message was never found. “No trace has yet been found of the meteorite which bored a hole through the roof of a coal shed in the Chaudiere district some time ago,” the Citizen reported on May 6, almost two weeks after the incident occurred, “and it is thought it must have been carted away.”
That same day, King Edward VII died, and the story of what was possibly Ottawa’s first (and only) meteorite was relegated to the dust of cosmic history as the nation turned its gaze elsewhere.
A heavy explosion followed by noise resembling pounding and which are caused by the revolving meteorite.