The Dark Day & The Yellow Day

The Dark Day - New England’s Dark Day refers to an event that occurred on May 19, 1780, when the sky grew unusually dark across Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. The darkness was so complete that candles were required from noon on.

For several days beforehand, people had noticed unusual activity in the skies over New England. After one of the most bitterly cold winters on record, the air was now warmer, but it was also thick and heavy. The sun had taken on a reddish hue in at dusk and dawn, and the moon had begun to glow pink at night. General George Washington, encamped with his Continental Army in nearby New Jersey, commented on the strange weather in a May 18th diary entry. “Heavy and uncommon kind of clouds,” he wrote, “dark and at the same time a bright and reddish kind of light intermixed with them…”

On May 19th, people awoke and began to mill about their towns and farms like normal. It wasn’t until around 8 or 9 a.m. that most noticed something was amiss. A rust-colored clouds suddenly blew in from the west and began to blot out the still-rising sun. Instead of growing brighter, the skies dimmed and turned hazy and copper-colored. Children were sent home from school. Bewildered chickens went to their roosts, frightened cattle returned to their stalls, the night birds whistled, and frogs peeped as they did at midnight. Save for a few peeks of sunlight in the afternoon, the shade lingered over the Northeast for the rest of the day.

Many regarded the Dark Day with a mixture of terror and astonishment. Preachers referenced it for decades to come, using its apocalyptic overtones to entice new converts to the faith. While the pious took solace in prayer, others made a beeline for the nearest tavern and a much-needed drink. In Salem, Massachusetts, one lawyer noted that a group of booze-soaked sailors “went hallooing and frolicking through the streets” and encouraged the town’s ladies to strip off their clothes and join them in morbid celebration. The night that followed was remembered as one of the darkest on record.

The primary cause of the event is believed to have been a combination of smoke from forest fires, a thick fog and cloud cover. It did not disperse until the middle of the next night. While the darkness was present, soot was observed to be collected in rivers and in rain water, suggesting the presence of smoke. Also, when the night really came in, observers saw the moon colored red. It would take several decades before the forest fire theory won wide acceptance.

It was finally confirmed in 2007, after researchers from the University of Missouri discovered signs of a massive, centuries-old wildfire in the Algonquin Highlands of southern Ontario. “Fire scars” in the rings of the affected trees allowed the team to date the blaze to the spring of 1780. After studying weather reports from the period, they concluded that low barometric pressure and heavy winds had most likely carried smoke into the upper atmosphere and over the Northeast, blotting out the sun.

In Connecticut, members of the State Council feared the Dark Day signified the Day of Judgment. Some member clamored to adjourn the session. Abraham Davenport earned lasting fame for his response: “I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”


The Yellow Day - On Sept. 6, in 1881, a heavy, burnt yellow mist covered New England and beyond, from Millinocket, Maine, south to Virginia and west to Chicago. The day was later known as Yellow Day, or Yellow Tuesday. The skies over Massachusetts obscured enough sunlight to make noontime look like twilight. The grey fog of the morning turned amber as the sun continued to rise. Witnesses described the yellow skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on. Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues. The mist was so strong it made green grass appear blue, and the blue flowers look bronze. Many farm animals went in to sleep, as they could not tell night from day. The dim afternoon silenced street vendors and forced farmers to stop their work. Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day. Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day.

Some people reasoned the yellow color was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, but no one smelled smoke. Others attributed the hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees. Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand. Groups of Second Adventists were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end. More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.

Yellow Day was caused by a great forest fire in Michigan called The Thumb Fire, as the fire was started by a lightning strike near the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Drought and high-speed winds swept over Michigan, allowing the fire to spread quickly, with 20 villages ultimately destroyed and almost 300 people were killed. Smoke, soot, and ash were sent high up into the atmosphere and obscured sunlight on the east coast of the United States.

As the afternoon wore on, the smoke began to dissipate, and by nightfall, the stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England. New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780.