“On Friday evening, a few minutes before 10 o’clock,” the account begins, “I was standing with a friend in Thirty-fourth-street, near the southwest corner of Madison-avenue, when we observed a luminous body rising rapidly from behind the houses on the southerly side of the street.”
The author believed the light at first to be “a fire-balloon, made of green tissue paper, and quite near us.”
But within moments, the apparition that appeared in the heavens on a July evening in 1860 Manhattan showed its true self.
“The meteor soon emerged from the clouds and came on rapidly eastward,” the anonymous author wrote to The New York Times. “It lost its greenish color, and broke up into four parts, which continued their journey all in the same line. The first two had the appearance of blazing torches whose flames are driven backward by the wind.”
One of the most striking things about the Russian fireball last week was how impossibly improbable and exotic it seemed. Who would ever witness such a thing?
But from 1807 — only 13 years after science recognized the extraterrestrial origin of meteorites — when a 300-pound space boulder screamed across the Connecticut sky and burst open across farmers’ fields 50 miles northeast of New York City, to the modern day, when, in 1992, a football-size projectile shot through a car trunk in Westchester County, the New York region has seen more than its share of meteors and meteorites, including some of literature’s most significant landings.
Statistically speaking, of course, the odds of a heavenly body falling are spread evenly across the entire planet. But the local population density means more potential witnesses to any cosmic debris that passes this way.
The heyday of local fireball sightings would appear to have been the 19th century: The Times carried such reports on a semiregular basis.
“This morning at 1:40 the most beautiful meteor seen in this vicinity for years flashed across the northern sky nearly from horizon to horizon,” read an 1875 dispatch from Utica, N.Y. One from Schroon Lake, N.Y., in 1880 began, “Lake-side cottage in this pleasant Summer resort had a narrow escape from destruction by a meteor last night.”
Eight of the 14 meteorites collected in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut listed in the Meteoritical Society’s database fell from the sky in the 1800s.
Not to mention all the mistaken sightings, and even hoaxes. A fist-size “curious meteorite” of “bright vivid green” that was “soft and plastic” upon landing at Troy and Fulton Avenues in Brooklyn during a storm in 1887 does not seem to have made it into the record books. (Nor has the object mentioned in a Times article in 1897 that began “Prof. Wiggins believes that the aerolite that fell near Binghamton a few nights ago, and is alleged to have contained a piece of iron with hieroglyphics, was really a message from Mars.”)
Denton S. Ebel, a cosmochemist and curator of the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History, theorized that meteor and meteorite sightings were to some extent casualties of the modern age.
“People’s habits have changed,” he said on Wednesday. “And there’s more light pollution. Also there’s more noise pollution. People spend more time watching TV, especially in the night. I just think that people aren’t as in touch with the natural world as they used to be and that includes meteorites.”
This is not to say that the 20th century was without its highlights. In 1936, after a blinding light flashed over New Jersey, Abram M. Decker of Red Bank found a 13-ounce fragment that had apparently fallen through his work shed, bent a screwdriver and buried itself 20 inches in the ground. It gave him, The Times reported, a “bad fright.”
In 1971, a 12.3-ounce meteorite came to rest in the ceiling of Paul and Minnie Cassarino’s home in Wethersfield, Conn., south of Hartford. Their son used a handkerchief to pick it up. In 1982 in the same town, Robert and Wanda Donahue’s evening television viewing was interrupted by a meteorite that bounced around the living room.
And on a Friday night in 1992, camcorder-wielding high school football fans across several states tracked the voyage of a fireball of nickel, iron and stone that eventually found its way to 207 Wells Street in Peekskill, N.Y. Its 27-pound remnant smashed through the trunk of Michelle Knapp’s 1980 Chevrolet Malibu at a speed of about 160 miles an hour.
Things continue to fall from local skies in the 21st century. In 2007, a metallic meteorite described by a Rutgers scientist as “a good candidate for the core of an asteroid” crashed into a house in Freehold Township, N.J. and damaged a bathroom.
Or did it? Dr. Ebel and several colleagues at the museum and the City University of New York concluded that the object was man-made, and it is not recognized in the Meteoritical Society database.
“It was probably a piece of airplane debris that was tumbled around on a runway, then caught in tire treads, and then dropped when landing gear was deployed over Northern NJ,” Dr. Ebel wrote in an e-mail. “Air bases and airports in abundance. A nice story.”