Historical Descriptions of Aurora Borealis: “those who did not see it missed a rare sight”

Earlier this week I was up early (5:45am or so) and I was able to watch the most amazing aurora borealis event I’d ever had the chance to witness. In person, they largely looked like grey-green wispy clouds with the occasional hint of purple or blue, but the colours really came out in the photos. I managed to take a few really decent photos with my phone on night mode, either with me bracing my arm against a tree or a picnic table for stability, or with a 5-second delay and then placed flat on a picnic table to be completely stable.

This display of course got my mind thinking about historical accounts of aurorae. I popped over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, which has a large selection of entirely digitized, full text searchable, small town newspapers from what are now Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, to see how people described encountering the aurora borealis generations ago. Apparently, the feeling of people saying “oh my gosh it was amazing, let me describe it in detail” to those who slept right through amazing light shows is a traditional response.

AURORAL DISPLAY
The gorgeous display on Saturday evening of the beautiful aurora borealis seen in this district, is one which, though not often witnessed, will never be forgotten by the happy beholder. The electric storm (for such it is known by many) began about ten o’clock, and it seemed to centre in our Zenith, and then expand and radiate out from this centre to all the points of the compass, in ever changing shades and forms. There were displayed in the most beautiful and grotesque manner all the colours and shades of the rainbow. It was really such a profusion and richness of beauty and colouring which no wealth could purchase and no poet adequately describe, so in our humility, we will leave it to our considerate readers to imagine all the attractiveness of the scene which our poor pen has left untold.

The Calgary Weekly Herald, September 21, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The Aurora
It is very seldom that the Aurora, or Northern Lights, look more splendid than they did yesterday evening just after darkness had set in. The sight was a magnificent one, the lights shooting far to the south of the zenith(?), and being all colors from a deep rose to a pure white. They shifted and changed their position constantly, at times only illuminating a portion of the heavens, at others spreading all over it. The sight was witnessed by numbers of our citizens, and the general opinion seems to have been that it is rarely – even in this district where the sight is not an uncommon one – the lights show out as magnificently as they did last night.

The Brandon Daily Mail, September 17, 1883. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

SPLENDID NORTHERN LIGHTS
Some Recent Displays of Aurora Borealis in the Far Northwest
The northern lights have been uncommonly fine and bright at Edmonton, N.W.T., for some weeks and the wise ones say that we shall have a long, sharp winter. Others hold that the aurora dances only when a cold spell is breaking up in the north and that we may expect mild weather so long as they are active. But whether the prophets say warm or cold, the people are sawing wood just the same and are not taking any chances. Last winter the mercury dropped to 40o below zero and the Edmontonians don’t propose to be left out in the cold in consequence of any northern lights.
The other night there was a remarkable outburst of polar lights that intensified until at 2 o’clock next morning, more than half of the sky was filled with them. A peculiarity of this display was that the arch was lifted so high and tilted, on our side of the earth, so far southward that it was seen not to be an arch but an immense circle, girdling the northern hemisphere, with its axis somewhere along the Mackenzie. In other words, the electrical core or magnetic pole, seemed to have shifted down until it was comparatively near us. . . . After keeping its place in mid-heaven for a time the band broke into clouds and receded toward the north.
A few nights ago an uncommonly brilliant display occurred, the celestial fireworks being visible during sunset. They lasted through the night and on the following evening were still there, showing themselves before the west was dark. Where the rays bunched themselves together the light was clearly intensified, and the still forest stood out against it in black silhouette. These rays frequently shot to the zenith and as they rolled together, formed beams of throbbing green light like that of the early gloaming in point of luminosity. It suggested indeed that the spear of Odin and the clubs of the frost giants were brandished above the domes of Walhalla in despair at the coming of Goetterdaemmerung; and, as if the fires of mundane destruction were alight already, there was a blood red glow at the northern horizon, a glare(?) as if the earth’s crust had been lifted out, and the boiling lava was surging out. For a time during the display portions of a double arch were seen, two segments of pale fire pushing out beneath the main arch, and afterward being absorbed by it. Frequently the lights assumed the form of drapery, a curtain thousands of miles long, and hundreds of miles high, spangled with stars, its green and blue and golden fringes flapping against the earth as it billowed(?) and tossed and rolled from side to side in the strain of gales blowing out of space, a loosened sail of the earth ship bounding – whither?

Qu’Appelle Progress, November 19, 1891. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Beautiful Display of Aurora Borealis
The heavens were illuminated last night with the most beautiful display of the aurora borealis it has ever been our experience to witness. About 9.30 in the northwestern sky appeared to mirror an immense fire and the apparent reflection cast a rich red hue over the heavens. This changed into the old fashioned northern lights with shooting rays from west to east. For a time the sky appeared to have cleared, but it was at 11.30 that the display reached its prettiest. At that time the whole sky was enveloped in a sea of loveliness which beggars description. From every corner of the horizon it was covered with a curtain that would make Joseph’s coat fade into insignificance. These flimsy curtain-like rays appeared to be gathered up in the centre immediately overhead and held by a large rosette of flaming red. From the centre the red faded into a soft cerise which, mingled with all the colors of the rainbow, created a setting which stood out as if defying the most skilled artist to paint anything half so beautiful.
The effect was wonderful and those who did not see it missed a rare sight.

Redcliff Review, August 9, 1917. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

NORTHERN LIGHTS FINEST SEEN HERE
Bishop Newnham Says Aurora Display Brightest Since 1870 in West
The northern lights witnessed in Edmonton last Thursday evening played havoc with the telegraphic wires all over Canada and resulted in big delay[s] in telegraphic business according to city telegraphic men.
The display was one of the finest ever witnessed in the west. Bishop Newnham of Prince Albert, who is a great student of this phenomenon, says it was the most striking that he has ever seen.
In a statement to the Canadian Press he says:
‘The only time I have seen anything like it was in 1870, when, during the Franco-Prussian war, Paris was besieged by the Germans. I [saw] that from London, England, and many people were under the impression that Paris was being burned.’
Bishop Newnham says that the aurora Thursday night was of a bright red color similar to the reflection of a gigantic fire. The news dispatches indicated that the aurora was visible in England and probably aided a German aerial raid.

The Edmonton Bulletin, March 11, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
The Edmonton Bulletin, March 8, 1918. Archived on Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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Hair Pins and Hair Nets for Sale in 1918-1919

Eaton’s Fall and Winter Mail Order Catalogue, 1918-19, from Library and Archives Canada. (Follow link and zoom in for higher resolution image.)

One thing I’ve been doing this past year is experiment more with my hair. I am inspired by historical hairstyles partially because I enjoy the aesthetic, and partially because I have waist-length hair and the majority of women’s hairstyles prior to the 1920s (and even some popular hairstyles during the 1920s) are designed with my hair length in mind. I have acquired quite the collection of hair sticks but I rely a lot on hair pins and bobby pins. I ran across this page from a mail order catalogue circa 1918-1919, and there are some delightful details – including the fact that some hair pins have largely remained identical in design for the last 100 years.

Other details I’d like to draw your attention to:

  • Several of the hair nets they advertise were made with actual human hair.
  • For the false hair additions, they specifically note that for “drab and grey shades”, send in a sample of your own hair and they’ll send the product that’s the closest match.
  • Apparently it was a popular enough request that they had to explicitly ask customers not to send them “combings” (which I believe are the hair leftover on your hairbrush) to make into new items, that that wasn’t a service they provided. My understanding is that people in the Victorian and Edwardian eras would often make their own hair pads or hair “rats” (to bulk out their hair and comb their existing hair overtop) from their own discarded hair. I wonder if there were any companies that made them professionally with the customer’s own hair?
  • For that matter, now I want to know more about the industry that must have existed around selling your own hair to companies who would make products like this, considering the number of items on this page that advertise as being made of real human hair! I worry if I dig even a bit deeper I’ll uncover something horrific about poverty and poor women selling their hair, though. That would track for the period.
  • I also have to wonder how “natural” the fake beards and toupees actually looked in real life.

A Glimpse into Two Canadian National Parks in 1919

I always seem to find the best gems while looking for something else. I was delighted to stumble across this 1919 promotional video about national parks in Canada on Library and Archive Canada’s youtube channel. Let’s take a closer look!

One thing that a lot of folks don’t realize is that national parks can in fact cease to exist. They need the support of visitors, staff, and federal funding continuously over time. This video shows shots of the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909 – 1939) in Alberta. After being decommissioned the land was passed to a different federal department and became Canadian Forces Base Wainright. (For a deep dive into the history of Buffalo National Park, check out Jennifer Brower’s book Lost Tracks. You can follow that link to download a free PDF of the book on Athabasca University Press’s website.)

(Another “lost” national park I want to know more about is Nemiskam Antelope Park, which only existed for about two decades in southern Alberta and was meant as an “animal park” to protect pronghorn. There were others, including Menissawok and Wawaskesy national parks, all in the prairie provinces, all defunct by the end of the 1940s.)

Anyway, it’s interesting to see film footage of the bison herds they had in Buffalo National Park, and a mention of supplementing the food they could forage in the winter with hay. That had to happen in part because of the limited range and overpopulation issues that ended up greatly contributing to it being shut down in the late 1930s. It’s also why there are now wood / plains bison hybrids up in Wood Buffalo National Park today – they sent over 6000 plains bison from Buffalo National Park up to Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922 to try to deal with the overpopulation issue without slaughtering a species that had so recently come back from the brink of extinction. So that one little detail hints at so much to come!

The video also shows yaks, and yak hybrids. Brower talks about these animals – it was a part of a series of experiments the federal government ran at the time. The idea was that yaks were in the middle of a continuum of evolution between “primitive” buffalo and “civilized” domestic cattle, and so by trying to hybridize bison and yaks they could see about jump starting evolution. The park staff also experimented with hybridizing bison and domestic cattle, creating “catalo”. Overpopulation and close encounters with yaks and cows are likely the ways that the plains bison became infected with cattle diseases such as bovine tuberculosis.

There’s also a shot of a warden feeding some affectionate female elk and I have to wonder if it’s the same warden as in this postcard from Buffalo National Park in 1920?

Image from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The video at that point moves on to Jasper National Park, which does in fact still exist. It’s interesting that some of the “must see” places highlighted in the video are still highlights of the park today: the beautiful administration building (now their visitor centre I believe?), Maligne Canyon, and Mount Edith Cavell. One interesting detail is that that section both begins with a shot of the train station and ends with a shot of a train. At that time, Jasper and Banff were mainly accessed by rail. I don’t believe reliable roads where built from Edmonton and Calgary until some time in the 1920s.

Jasper Station, circa 1940. Postcard courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

So there you have it! A brief glimpse into two different Canadian National Parks in 1919.

Dramatic Photographs of Fighting Fires in Winter in Manitoba in the 1910s and 1920s

It has been a chilly few days here in the depths of north-central Saskatchewan, so I got curious about historical fires. After a quick image search on Peel’s Prairie Provinces (my favourite archive of western Canadiana, hosted by the University of Alberta libraries), I fell down a rabbit hole of postcards of dramatic photographs of the aftermath of fighting fires in the wintertime in the 1910s and 1920s. I don’t use the word “dramatic” lightly, either.

The Architectural Scars of War: the Bombardment of the Reims Cathedral

Sketch of the elaborate facade of the Cathedral of Reims, with two towers, huge rose windows, and gothic details.
Cathédrale de Reims, drawing by Adrien Dauzats (1804-1868). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As a Canadian visiting France, I marvel at the age of the built heritage all around me. Stained glass windows in some churches are considered relatively new if they’re from the 1500s and it isn’t unusual to see windows from the 1200s or earlier. A friend of mine used to spend the summers in the south of France in the family “cabin”: a partially collapsed medieval watchtower with a more “modern” 19th century roof. Many think of these historic buildings as somehow “timeless” or untouched, but in many cases they have lived through centuries of turbulent history and it is quite frankly a miracle they’ve survived to the present day to be seen and photographed by the likes of me.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the city of Reims for the first time for the National Association For Interpretation International Conference. (Pronunciation guide: “Reims” rhymes with the French pronunciation of the word “Prince”.) Every day on my way to the conference centre, I walked past the magnificent cathedral. Before I left town, I had a chance to visit the Palais du Tau museum next door, which explored the history of the building and the coronations that were once held there. There were several displays showing some of the Cathedral’s old gargoyles, and I am so glad I didn’t rush right past them.

These gargoyles look like they’re vomiting metal. Why? The massive cathedral in Reims, where generations of French kings were once crowned, was partially destroyed by bombardment during the First World War. The roof collapsed, leaving only the intricate Gothic façade. After the cathedral was hit, the lead roof melted from the heat of the flames. The molten metal flowed down through the gargoyles, which were after all designed to shunt rainwater from that very roof. These remnants are a powerful reminder of the effects of war. I had to stop and gape at them in astonishment after I fully understood what the little info cards next to them were telling me.

Once I got home, I of course felt compelled to look up historical photos from the war. I’d visited the interior of the cathedral before visiting the Palais de Tau, and at the time I’d had no idea of the extent of the damage and the post-war restoration work. It’s disorienting to see the following photographs of a place that I had just visited. The building now looks, to my inexperienced eye, nearly untouched.

 

 

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View of the interior of the Reims Cathedral from the coronation area, 1917. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2570). 
We read about the world wars in books and we see archival footage in documentaries, but in North America the wars feel somewhat removed. However, the signs of war are impossible to ignore in north-eastern France. It may be random post-1950s buildings in an older quarter: signs of post-war rebuilding. Maybe it’s countryside that looks unnaturally landscaped: grassed-over trenches and battlefields. Those older buildings, too, have literal scars. Some places in some other cities, like the Palais de Justice in Rouen, kept the pockmarks from shrapnel and bombardments deliberately as a reminder of the horrors of war. In the case of Reims, they rebuilt a facsimile of the medieval building, though they have new stained glass in 20th century style in some of their windows. That restoration took over a decade and must have been a monumental effort, considering the scale of the damage. Churches and cathedrals are symbols of their communities, and having something like this happen to one must have been a huge blow. I am not surprised that it was the focus of restoration work – but also that this incident remains a point of fascination to people like me even a century later.

Read the Plaque: Off the Beaten Track in Elk Island

Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)

Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.

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It tells an interesting point of history:  the plaque marks the spot of a cabin staffed by the first fire warden in the area, William Henry Stephens. (No mention that there were in fact two wardens at the time – the other man was a Lakota-Sioux man named “Black Jack” Sanderson.)

The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail.  I think bison see it more often than people do.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.

Want to know where to find this plaque? See the map on this entry of ReadThePlaque.com.

Further Resources

 

The Great Roundups: Getting Michel Pablo’s Bison Herd To Canada, 1907-1912

By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter,  less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.

Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1931].peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005137.html
“Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park.” Wainwright: Photo Carsell, 1931. PC005137. Image Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.

The roundup was to be no easy task.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don't want to go. Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don’t want to go.
Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.

These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.

Further Resources

Bronco Busting On Christmas Day In Sunny Alberta

Out of curiosity, I was searching the Peel’s Prairie Provinces archive for historical images of Christmasses past in Alberta (such as this photo of the Christmas decorations along Jasper Ave, Edmonton, Alberta, in 1924), and I happened across this photoset of some bucking “broncos” being “busted” on Christmas Day in Medicine Hat, circa 1913.

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I was just planning to go for a gentle family snowshoe hike on Christmas Day. Clearly, Canadians in the past had much more epic Christmas Day events than we do in 2014.

Flowers From No Man’s Land

Last winter, I worked as a research assistant for an author writing a book on the Battle of the Somme. While I was at the Canadian War Museum, going through boxes and boxes of mud-splattered diaries and letters written on battered paper from a century ago, I ran across this surprising object. It is a little glass circle containing a clipping of a poem, perhaps from a newspaper, with pressed flowers, presumably from No-Man’s-Land. Holding it in my white gloved hands, I shivered.

Flowers From No Man's Land

We will remember them.

Postcards That Intrigue Me, #4: Moose-Drawn Carriages

Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?

Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005072.html
Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher) . Canadian scene, an old team - but they can go some. Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., Montreal, cca. 1911. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC009664.html
Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher). “Canadian scene, an old team – but they can go some.” Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., circa. 1911.  PC009664. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”

Edit: Further information can be found in this St. Albert Gazette article. Apparently Mr. Day (also called “Buffalo” Bill Day) raised these moose and used the buggy to deliver mail to the City of St. Albert.