Science and Nature

The Purple Fire Snowstorm of 1853 – 20 Minutes of Terror Downeast

A snowstorm raged for a full day in Downeast Maine on March 13, 1853, when at sundown the winds suddenly grew calm. The snow continued falling steadily, gently down, and the people of Bar Harbor remarked at the stillness as the night sky darkened.

It was not, it turned out, a good sign. It was the start of the purple fire snowstorm of 1853.

purple fire snowstorm

Storm-Tossed Ships Wrecked on a Rocky Coast (National Gallery of Art, Johann Christoph Dietzsch)

More than 30 years later, a writer would recall: “I don’t believe there ever was a worse lot of frightened people in the world than the inhabitants of Bar Harbor were that night.”

The signs that something worse was on its way emerged around 7 pm with a rumbling of thunder from the west. Then, as the snow continued, lightning flashes began illuminating the sky.

Purple Fire Snowstorm

The thunder intensified, becoming so strong it rattled the houses. Balls of lightning began streaking down from the sky, rolling along the ground leaving havoc in their wake.

A syndicated account of the storm was carried in newspapers around the country. A correspondent of the Gardiner, Maine, Fountain, writing from Bass Harbor, Mt. Desert, described the storm as 'awful and sublime.'

“A severe snow storm accompanied by lightning occurred in a part of Maine on the 13th," wrote the correspondent. "A thunder cloud passed over the place, which, for terrific appearance, exceeded anything ever witnessed here."

The lightning was purple, he wrote, and sometimes appeared like balls of fire. It came in through windows and doors and down chimneys, while houses trembled and shook to their foundations.

"Mrs. E. Holden was near a window, winding up a clock," he wrote. "A ball of fire came in through the window and struck her hand, which benumbed her hand and arm. She then, with all in the house, retreated into the entry. Another flash succeeded, and, in the room from which they had retired, resembled a volume of fire, whirling round and producing a crackling noise."

Many people saw the fire and heard the crackling noises inside their houses, the Fountain reported. Some said the noise sounded like breaking glass.

Injuries, But No Deaths

“Capt. Maurice Rich had his light extinguished, and his wife was injured," continued the Fountain. "He got his wife on to a bed, and found a match; at that instant another flash came and ignited the match, and threw him several feet backwards."

A man named John L. Martin received so severe a shock that he could not speak for a long time.

Many people received slight injuries, according to the Fountain.

“Some were struck in the feet, some in the eye; while others were electricized, some powerfully and some lightly," the newspaper reported. "But what was very singular, not a person was killed or seriously injured, or a building damaged."

The purple fire snowstorm created a bizarre effect among a cluster of trees, fortunately away from any buildings. The 'electric fluid' took them out by the roots and threw them in every direction. Some hung by their roots from the tops of the adjacent trees, their roots up and their tops down.

Truly Awful

The lightning then struck the earth to the depth of several feet and about 10 feet in diameter, and divided into four different directions.

In one direction it made a chasm several feet deep and 370 feet long, 'lifting, overturning, and throwing out chunks of frozen earth, some of which were 10 or 11 feet long, by 4 feet wide, and hurling at a distance rocks, stones, and roots,' the Fountain reported.

"The power here displayed was truly awful, and had it fallen on a building, it would have thrown it, with its inmates, into ten thousand fragments," reported the Fountain.

The purple fire snowstorm also destroyed the masts of several vessels in  Southwest Harbor and Northeast Harbor.  It knocked down one man, but didn't kill him.

New England has no shortage of stories about blizzards and storms, as snow is a part of life. And the purple fire snowstorm lasted only about 20 minutes before it pushed out to sea.

It stayed, however, in the memory of the people who witnessed it forever. In 1884, the New York Times published an article recalling the singular purple fire snowstorm of 31 years earlier.

This story about the purple fire snowstorm was updated in 2019. Dan and Leslie Landrigan, authors of the New England Historical Society, have written a book about Bar Harbor called Bar Harbor Babylon: Murder, Misfortune and Scandal on Mount Desert Island. It will be available on May 15, 2019 and you can pre-order on Amazon here

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Renee Williams Dayton

    March 13, 2015 at 7:46 am

    So what kind of phenomenon was that?

  2. Jerry Berg

    March 13, 2015 at 7:49 am

    Crazy weather story. I have a friend that lives close to Bar Harbour.

  3. Tiny-Fred Hankin III

    March 13, 2015 at 10:35 am

    WOW. Awesome painting, and unbelievable horrific story. Mother Nature being savage.

  4. Patti King

    March 13, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Almost sounds like a hurricane in winter

  5. Merlynda Thibodeaux

    March 13, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    That’s just Mother Nature doing what she does best.

  6. Molly

    March 29, 2015 at 10:36 am

    It’s hard to even imagine such a terrible storm!

  7. Cecelia Harris

    March 8, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    What an interesting story.

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