Moodus Noises

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Twenty years before Lewis and Clark documented the "artillery of the Rocky Mountains," Daniel Jones of the American Academy of Arts and Science studied similar occurrences near West-River Mountain in New Hampshire. Jones remarked that "the peasants . . . became pussessed with the idea of gold."1 Earlier in Colonial days, booming sounds were occasionally heard a few miles south of present-day Hartford, Connecticut, at a place local Indians named Moodus, meaning "strange noises."2

While crossing the Canadian Rockies in the spring of 1807, David Thompson observed: "The Mountains are loaded with Snow,the continual rushing down of which makes a Noise like Thunder."3 Similarly, Alexander Henry attributed the startling explosions to avalanches. "[On] perpendicular summits, so steep that no human being could ascend them, . . . I observed an emmense depth of snow, where a part seems lately to have seperated and fell down the Mountain . . . . The noise occasioned by the fall of such a great body of Snow will cause an explosion equal to loud Thunder, as it sweeps away every thing that is moveable in it[s] course to the vallies below."4

In 1872 the Northern Pacific railroad sent Thomas P. Roberts to Montana to conduct a survey of the upper Missouri River, and map a right-of-way for a proposed narrow-gauge railroad around the Great Falls of the Missouri. On August 7, when Roberts and his party were camped at the mouth of the Sun River, they recognized sounds similar to those Lewis and Clark had reported. "Altogether," he confided to his journal, "there was something strange in the coincidence."5 During the 1890s, scientists in Nova Scotia and England put out calls for accounts of the phenomenon, and responses came from all corners of the globe. Each locality had its own name for the sounds.6 Cornwall thumps (Ontario); water guns of Lough Neagh (Ireland); detonations of Comrie (Scotland); the sounds of Morecombe Bay (England). British officials at Barisal in Bangladesh, near the mouth of the Ganges River, termed them Barisal Guns. Nova Scotians referred to air quakes or sea farts; Haitians called them gouffre, Italians knew them as baturlio marina, and Hollanders and Belgians said mist poeffers. In central New York state they were the guns of Lake Seneca; in the Florida Gulf, just "air sounds." Natives around Lake Bosumtwi, in West Africa, said Bosumtwi oto atuduru; "Bosumtwi has fired gunpowder!" They've startled people in Syria, Egypt, and Constantinople; in Switzerland, Provence, Alsace, Tuscany, Burgundy and Paris; in Lapland and the Eastern Himalayas.7

The most recent reports of sonic anomalies were recorded between December 2, 1977, and May 31, 1978. Nearly 600 separate "mystery booms" were heard along the east coast of North America, from Nova Scotia to Charleston.

They elicited enough fear and anxiety among American taxpayers to prompt Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey to demand a Congressional investigation, and the Naval Research Laboratory was given the assignment. The NRL estimated that two-thirds of the "events" were caused by supersonic aircraft; the rest were ascribed to "unknown causes."

An analysis of the NRL report by two east-coast researchers led to the conclusion that the majority of the unattributed noises had a natural origin, possibly but not necessarily associated with earthquakes.8 Recently a suggestion was made to Professor MacDonald that he and his co-author bring their book up to date, but there was insufficient new data to make the effort worthwhile.9 It seems that an impenetrable pall of noise pollution, dominated by sirens and jet engines, has obliterated such experiences from our ken.

1. "An Account of West-River Mountain,"Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1784, Vol. I, pp. 312-15; cited in Sandra Claflin-Chalton and Gordon J. MacDonald, Sound and Light Phenomena: A Study of Historical and Modern Occurrences (McLean, Virginia: The MITRE Corporation, 1978), 75.

2. K. W. Golde in The Foretan, October 1941, p. 7; from the Buffalo Evening News of March 2, 1940. Cited in William R. Corliss, comp. Strange Phenomena: A Sourcebook of Unusual Natural Phenomena (2 vols.; Glen Arm, MD: William R. Corliss, 1974), I:GSD [Geology-Sounds-Detonations], item 013. Following a series of microearthquake swarms during the 1980s, scientists sank boreholes in the "Moodus quadrangle," but the results of the research contain no references to the mysterious sounds.

3. June 7, 1807. Barbara Belyea, ed., Columbia Journals: David Thompson (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), 42.

4. Elliott Coues, New Light on the Early History of the Greater North West: The Manuscript Journals of Alexander Henry and of David Thompson. 3 vols. (New York: F. P. Harper, 1897), 2:689.

5. Thomas P. Roberts, Report of a Reconnaissance of the Missouri River in 1872 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1875), 49.

6. W. F. Ganong, "Upon Remarkable Sounds Like Gun Reports Heard Upon Our Southern Coast," Bulletin of the Natural History Society, New Brunswick, Canada (1897), 40. Also G. H. Darwin, in Nature (October 31, 1895) 52:650. George Howard Darwin was a son of Charles Darwin.

7. See Corliss, passim; also Encarta (Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 1994), s.v. Barisal guns.

8. Sandra Claflin-Chalton and Gordon MacDonald. See note 1.

9. Personal communication, November 29, 1994.