In the great river of daily news, there are some stories that float by us that are too hard to ignore and even harder to explain. I found one of those curiosities the other day as I was reading a New York Times article from December of 1901.(don’t ask me why) The dateline was Toledo, Ohio and the headline was “Saw City In A Mirage”. That hooked my interest and upon further reading, I found a remarkable story. It was published on December 21st of 1901, and relayed the bizarre tale about a group of Toledo area ice fishermen who claim they saw, on the horizon over the frozen ice of Lake Erie, a startling vision of a large city. The NY Times article said their claims were being “vouched for” by prominent citizens and names a one “Harry Ashley” of Toledo as the first ice fisherman to spot the apparition. When he alerted his companions, the others looked up, and they too witnessed the same strange spectacle. What they described was the mirage of a large city with hundreds of buildings and streets. As the vision grew brighter and stronger, they even saw fire break out in one of the buildings. The Maumee Bay fishermen told reporters they could see flames and smoke and also saw people pouring out of buildings and fire apparatus in the streets. The unfolding scene played out for about a half an hour, according to the “startled” fishermen, before the sight gradually faded away.
Wire services at the time, carried the story, coast-to-coast and it even got some global notice. What the Times article did not try to do was to explain the phenomenon, but merely reported it in a matter-of-fact style that offered no opinion as to its credulity. So what was it? A real mirage, or a giant hoax, concocted by a group of whiskey-fueled fishermen who thought they’d also try landing a whopper of a tale to see who would bite. That’s was my reaction when I first read the story, but I soon changed my mind. After doing some follow-up research, I found that it may well be that these unsuspecting fisherman probably glimpsed a real mirage, a type of rare mirage known as a Fata Morgana. According to numerous online sources, the Fata Morgana is complex and unusual but has been observed at numerous times over the centuries around the world. It might even be at the heart of the famous and mythical “Flying Dutchman” ghost ship. Like all mirages, it is created by light refraction bent against the layers of the sky and this particular phenomenon occurs when rays of lights are strongly bent as they pass through air layers of different temperatures, especially during times of a thermal inversion. Seeing such a mirage over a field of ice on Lake Erie would not be surprising according to a Wikipedia entry:
Fata Morgana is most commonly seen in polar regions, especially over large sheets of ice which have a uniform low temperature. It can however be observed in almost any area.
After further research, I found the mystery of such strange events on the Great Lakes is certainly not that rare. The web is filled with stories of people in Ohio who claim to have seen mirages of lakeside cities in Canada, as if they were only a few miles from the Lake Erie shoreline, instead of a distance more than 50 miles(and beyond the earth’s curvature). In 1894, it was reported that thousands of people in Buffalo and Rochester New York witnessed a spectacular Fata Morgana that presented a reflection of Toronto, Ontario(over 50 miles away), over the ice of a frozen Lake Ontario. Witness accounts says it was so clear that one could easily count the steeples of Toronto’s churches. The spectacle was reported to have been witnesses by over 20,000 people who lined the shores of Lake Ontario to see it. A similar story unfolded on cold winter’s day in Cleveland in 1906 as witnesses claim to have seen a “up close” vision of Canadian city on the other side of Lake Erie. So perhaps, that “city on the ice” glimpsed by Harry Ashley and his friends on Maumee Bay back in 1901, was neither a hoax nor hallucination, but was in fact, a lesson in the science of optics and physics. Perhaps it was merely the refracted mirror image of a real city, many miles away, captured on the lens of the sky and played out on the retina of ice. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
For more information on the Fata Morgana and these other sightings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fata_Morgana_(mirage)