From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

Krakatoa was a small volcanic island in what is now Indonesia. As part of the Dutch East Indies, located in the ocean about 100 miles from Jakarta, it was the main one of three volcanic islands probably created by a major eruption around the 5th and 6th centuries. In August of 1883, the volcano which made up the main island of Krakatoa erupted. Earlier in May, there had been reports of tremors, and people claimed to have heard explosions, but everyone believed the volcano to be extinct since its last eruption in 1680.

            The volcanic eruption occurring on August 26, 1883, was one of the most devastating in human history. More than 36,000 people were killed, most not by molten rock or toxic volcanic gases but by the ensuing tsunami. The explosion was so powerful that it sent six cubic miles of rock, ash, and debris into the atmosphere, which caused the darkening of the sky and vivid sunsets around the world.

            As interesting as this is, you’re probably wondering what it has to do with the Rochester Historical Society. There are two connections. First, one of our collection items at the museum (pictured here) is a vial of ashes from Krakatoa donated by Harold Taylor; however, there is no information as to how he came in possession of them. If anyone knows anything about that, I would love to learn the answer to that question.

            The second connection to the Historical Society is that Abraham Holmes, in his memoirs, writes of a day that had many Rochester residents believing the end of the world was upon them. In a letter to his daughter in 1836, Holmes wrote that May 19, 1786 (50 years prior to his letter) was “that remarkable dark day which arrested the attention, the surprise, and the apprehension and fears of all the people thro’ the New England States.”

            He recounts that the darkening began on the banks of the North River and, by 11:00 am, reached Rochester. By noon it was at its height. People lighted candles indoors, “cattle came up and laid down where they usually spent the night; the Dunghill fowl went to roost and the Whip-poor-will sung as usual, as in the evening.” Without the scientific knowledge for an explanation, the most common reason was that the world was ending.

            Interestingly, Holmes’ s date doesn’t line up with New England’s “Dark Day,” which occurred on May 19, 1780, but then all history, especially local history, relies on memory and anecdotes as well as facts. Scientists in the 2000s believe the “Dark Day,” which stretched from Maine to New Jersey, was caused by thick fog and cloud cover created by massive wildfires in Canada. They determined this by examining tree rings and comparing the ring size with related atmospheric or weather events of corresponding years.

By Connie Eshbach

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