Black Sunday

On September 24th, 1950, something mysterious happened in Eastern Canada and New England.  During the afternoon, the sky turned an odd colour, varying from yellow to lavender depending on location.  Then the day went dark.

It was sudden, unexplained and, to many, terrifying.  These were the days of war in Korea, when nuclear bombs were a familiar fear.  Some thought the Russians were conducting cloud seeding or smoke screen experiments.  Some thought it was martians.  Some thought the end of the world had come.  There was no 24 hour tv news program to quench speculation. Newspapers, police stations and the Weather Bureau were swamped with calls.

People turned on their headlights, called their children indoors, watched chickens go to roost, and waited to see what would happen.  Eerie silence settled with the darkness and a drop in temperature.

As suddenly as it had come, the phenomenon was gone. Although there was a day that became dark, there was not a day without a sunset.  Those evening rays must have been a great relief to those who were very afraid.

The Toronto Star published a map of the Great Smoke Pall

When the radio came through with an official explanation for the dark day, it was forest fires in Northwest Canada that were blamed for blacking out the sun.  Some witnesses remember smelling smoke or a strange odour, others are sure there was no smell associated with the event.  Many are certain they saw stars.  Could smoke from so far away travel across so many miles and remain thick enough to completely block the sun for several hours?  Reports of a blue moon (and sun) were coming in from Britain!  You can hear this one, from Manchester, here at the CBC Archives.

It is a rare phenomenon, one mentioned only a few times since recorded history began, but it was indeed wild fires that caused what became known as “Black Sunday,” “The Great Smoke Pall,” or “the dark day”.  Norman Carlson researched the day for his 1986 article for the Jamestown Post-Journal.  He cites a rash of fires through BC and Alberta as the source of the smoke that obscured the sun.  It’s a very interesting read, well worth your time.

Carlson mentions, in particular, a fire raging near Wanham.  Of 27 burning in the province that week in 1950, the Wanham fire threatened the most valuable timber.  It also put residents, their crops and livestock in danger.  700 fire fighters arrived to help, but Wanhamites had to decide whether to gather what they could and flee or attempt harvest in the thickening black smoke.

This was the pall that accumulated in Northern Alberta, rose to upwards of 11,000 feet and got caught up in an eastward-moving weather system.  The smoke formed in layers, thousands of feet thick.  When it reached New England, it got stuck in a Northwesterly current that concentrated the smoke until it blotted out the sun.  You can read more details from the U.S. Weather Bureau here.

A phenomenon like Black Sunday is extremely rare and not likely to happen twice in a lifetime.  It must have been amazing for witnesses, whether they were afraid or not, to experience such an event.  And what was it like for the people of Wanham to live through such a ravaging fire?

If anyone has a story from September 1950, either first hand or told to them, Town Spirit wants to know!  Share it with the rest of the Spirit River area by leaving a comment or emailing

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