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Thousands dotted the hillsides to see comet

Published May 15. 2010 09:00AM

Thanks to its visibility and relatively short orbital period of 75 years, Halley's comet has been spanning the generations for over 2,000 years.

William Miller was an octogenarian living on Hunter Street in Tamaqua at the time of Halley's arrival in May 1910. This marked his second sighting of the comet.

As a boy living in West Brunswick Township, Miller had a clear recollection of the comet's appearance when the earth passed through its tail in 1835.

He recalled the sky being brilliantly illuminated for many minutes and people rushing from their homes thinking that the end of the world had come.

The cosmic event ended in a short time, however, and Miller said "the people simply retired to their homes and went to sleep."

During the 1835 sighting, many towns in the region were in their infancy population-wise. It had been less than 50 years since Philip Ginder made his discovery of coal on Sharp Mountain near Summit Hill, an event that would eventually lead to a thriving local industry, providing job opportunities for many immigrants. This led to a population boom.

At the time of the comet's appearance in 1835, Tamaqua was one town that was just establishing roots. Most of the early inhabitants settled in the Dutch Hill section since the lowland area was just wilderness and swamp. A band of faithful worshippers organized the first church - St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church - that same year.

While William Miller recalled seeing the brilliant celestial event when Halley's Comet visited in 1835, most citizens of Tamaqua did not feel as rewarded by the 1910 show. Due to the great amount of preliminary hype provided in newspaper coverage, people were primed to see something spectacular.

Large groups of people dotted the hillsides throughout the area on May 18.

"Some were so enthused over the comet's arrival that they traversed to Table Rock and the brow of Sharp Mountain, but most people were content to go to the nearby hills to watch," a writer for the Tamaqua Courier said.

At one point, the flicker of some bright light in the distance sparked some interest.

"Many believed it was the advance guard of the aerial hobo," the writer said. "It was only lanterns in the hands of gazers."

A writer had some fun with what turned out to be the great non-event in the Courier's May 19 edition.

"Fully two thousand people took positions on the town's high altitudes and sat and watched - and, well, the fellow with his best girl probably did more than that, but we of the blessed estate simply watched.

"We could have kept up our silent vigil until the present moment had we had the patience, but like most others we got disgusted with the promised ethereal pyrotechnics and went to bed," the writer said.

Some of the more devoted sky watchers remained on the hillsides until after 4 a.m. and the break of dawn.

One eyewitness, William Haber, claimed that he saw the comet at exactly 3 a.m. He described it as being "about 12 inches long with a vaporous tail several feet long."

The writer, however, was unimpressed and proclaimed the event a fizzle.

"If Halley's comet wants to keep Tamaqua awake nights, hereafter it's got to put up a better show than it did last night," he quipped.

There were some strange stories that emerged from the Halley's visit in 1910.

Twenty-three-year-old Harry Cull of Silver Brook traveled with some friends to the summit of Spring Mountain but the event proved too overwhelming.

Thomas Feeley, a coal company foreman, first spotted Cull on his knees sobbing when a search party located him about 15 miles from his home. Cull was said to be "a mental and physical wreck." One newspaper reporter offered his opinion.

"The delusion that the comet is a visitation intended for his own destruction has complete possession of the young man," he stated.

Cull was taken to Hazleton where he received medical attention. The good news was that he soon returned home. The bad news was that it was only for a short stay.

"He was taken to his home by friends who will keep him under close observation for several days before committing him to an institution," a reporter stated.

In some lighter commentary, the Courier blamed the comet for the hot temperatures during the months of May and June.

"Now that the we are all perspiring and putting on fly net underwear we declare, from the the depth of our great wisdom, that the excess of heat is due to the fact that the comet is receding from the earth," he wrote. "By this token we contend that the further away the comet gets, the hotter it will get. Since the comet has turned its tail on us and is hitting a pace of about a million miles a day, the chances look good for some old fashioned sweltering."

There was also a bizarre story out of upstate New York concerning a weird sighting with an egg. According to the State College of Agriculture at Cornell University, a man named William Scott reported that his hens did not lay an egg during the Halley's comet event. The first one that was laid, however, "was a soft shell egg with a tail two inches long" extending from the rear, which was made of a harder substance.

Star-gazers disappointed by all the Halley's hype could have looked to New York where the egg "sighting" was at least more visible.

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