There was a day when Hawley, Pennsylvania was sought out as a refuge, a place where people would travel to feel safe and secure- from a comet in the sky.
HAWLEY- There was a day when Hawley, Pennsylvania was sought out as a refuge, a place where people would travel to feel safe and secure- from a comet in the sky.
Yes, a comet.
We're talking about Halley's Comet, which rounds the Sun like clockwork every 75- 76 years and came especially close in May of 1910- so close the Earth was brushed by its tail.
"Owing to the great calamities with which mother earth was threatened by it's passage through the comet's tail, some of Scranton's fair sex made comet visits to their Hawley friends on that much dreaded day of May 18th, thinking our town a more safe retreat in case of disaster than the Electric City," penned the Hawley correspondent in the May 25, 1910 edition of The Honesdale Citizen.
We wish we knew more about this. We are not given the names of the refugees or who they went to see. Why not Honesdale or Hamlin or Milford? No, Hawley was (understandably) seen as the place to go.
The Erie railroad gave easy passage from Scranton to Hawley, some 30 miles away. Arriving at the West Hawley Depot, our ladies in distress must have felt a sense of relief to step out onto our enterprising and prospering community which was Hawley in 1910, yet small enough for people to care and embrace its visitors fleeing into its arms for whatever reason.
Hawley and Scranton, in fact, enjoyed a historic link thanks to the Pennsylvania Coal Company's gravity railroad which took people, coal and other cargo between Dunmore and Hawley between 1850 and 1885, replaced by a steam train connection.
Some people feared the comet's tail would be a shocking experience. An article in the Citizen on May 18th advised people not to use the telephone unless necessary on that day, due to the possible extra charge of electricity generated by the comet's disturbance on the atmosphere. Wireless telegraphy was thought to be safe, and the article sought to assure all that life and limb would survive unscathed.
The "Electric City," Scranton, was so-named for its network of electric trolley lines. Our Hawley comet visitors must have heard that the promised trolley line connecting Honesdale and Hawley had not yet been completed (and never was but probably nothing to do with Halley's Comet). Good thing they probably didn't didn't hear that Hawley, ever so progressive, was not so backwoods after all, being served by the Paupack Power Company since the 1890's. Its turbine was moved by the cascading Paupack Falls shared by the Silk Mill. Plans also were afoot to dam the Wallenpaupack River thanks to the hydroelectric vision of its forward-thinking citizenry and capitalists from beyond.
The newspapers of the day were full of comments about the long-awaited comet, remarking on its visibility, the scientific theories prevailing then and fears still held by many people.
The May 25, 1910 Honesdale Citizen must have tried to alleviate concerns with the conclusion by at least part of the scientific community that the comet's 20 million mile tail was so sparse it would weigh less than an ounce. "The gasoline smell of some automobiles weighs more than that," the editor penned.
"Professor Young used to say that if a comet should fall into the earth, it would disturb the inhabitants thereof just as much as the dropping of a feather bed into the ocean would disturb the whales," the same issue announces.
An article on April 6th discussed the anticipated impact of the comet's tail on the Earth, due May 18th. Scientists were not in agreement over just what would happen during the three and a half hours our planet would pass through the the thin dust and gas of the tail, but most affirmed there would be no harm to any living creature. "But the superstitious are almost certain to be stricken with mortal terror during those three hours," the article's writer added.
Some prognosticators even predicted the end of the world.
"Halley's comet did no harm to Mother Earth as predicted by Sir Robert Ball," the Citizen's editor reports in a roundup of news briefs on page 1 also in the May 25th edition. With this is a cartoon of the aforementioned scientist and the passing comet, smiling at the distinguished gentleman as it went by.
Sir Robert Ball (1840-1913) was an Irish astronomer.
While some were fearful, probably most enjoyed seeing the marvel of nature gracing the eastern sky. The brilliant comet stretched across much of the heavens. Unfortunately you had to get up in time to milk the cows (as many more did in those days than today) to see the morning comet.
"It will suit us much better to take a look at that invisible comet in the evening than have it disturb our morning slumbers," the Sterling correspondent said in the May 27th Citizen.
One article told of its appearance, referring to the constellations in which it overlapped. The constellations are named without explanation, seeming to infer that the average citizen of that day may have had a general knowledge of the sky above them more so than their descendants a hundred years hence.
The June 3rd Citizen mentioned an elderly man in Westmoreland County that rose to see the comet but unfortunately tripped and broke his arm. He was quoted as saying the next time Halley's Comet comes around (in 1986) he wouldn't be getting up to see it.
Remarkably, another but unexpected bright comet graced the night sky in February 1910, and yet another in November 1911.
The May 20th, 1910 edition of the Citizen had on top of page 1 the headline, "COMET ARRIVES" with a report of its awesome spectacle. We wonder if anyone noticed the juxtaposition of a similarly sized headline bumped against on the right, "AWAIT FUNERAL" (concerning King Edward of England).
Some more ink spent on this subject in 1910 (and again in 2014):
June 8th: "If the comet is the cause of the weather we are no having, then we can give thanks that it will not come back for another 75 years."
June 8th: "(Damascus) "there seems to be very little to complain of, except the few that always kick about everything from the toll bridge to Halley's comet."
June 10th: "(Indian Orchard) A great many in our vicinity say that if the comet has caused the cold weather during the spring thus far, that they do not care to see it again for at least 75 years."
July 13th: "At any rate, the comet did not squelch the corn. That's coming in Wayne County as it seldom has before."
The article in the Citizen on April 6th advised, "At any rate there seems little danger to come to us of the earth. The thing to do is to hold tight, don't lose courage, and keep your eyes open. For you are likely to see things you can tell to your grandchildren."
Halley's Comet next returned in 1986, but was quite the dud as far as a public spectacle was concerned. A lot farther away this time, the writer of this story managed to see it in binoculars from the countryside near Beach Lake. Funny, he didn't sense an immediate urge to flee to Hawley, though it was nothing personal, he adds. Maybe a few did.
Next time around, in 2058 (not as long away as it sounds), perhaps Hawley's tourist and business promoters better get on the comet wagon and invite folks to come on over. We could even make up some nice T-shirts.