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HIDDEN HISTORY: The day the sky turned dark over Batavia

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Posted: Sunday, October 24, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 9:24 am, Tue Dec 10, 2013.

Sept. 24, 1950, started out like a normal Sunday in Batavia. The temperatures were unseasonably cool but people went about their regular weekend routines.

Then, early that afternoon, a strange phenomenon occurred. The sky began to darken as a blanket of smoke covered the atmosphere, giving it an eerie, ominous appearance. Some wondered if a bad storm was on the way, but no rain was in the forecast.

The Daily News described it this way in a front-page story on Sept. 25, 1950: ''The sky was generally overcast when the light-colored smoke appeared high in the air, drifting with the clouds and at times becoming part of them.

"An eerie light was noticeable when great quantities of the smoke gave an amber hue to the atmosphere. Many people turned on lights in homes as the sky grew darker.''

Batavia was not alone. A huge swath of Canada and the northern United States was similarly affected. In some cases, the conditions were worse than those in Batavia, as day literally became night.

Lights were turned on for major league baseball games in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Street lights blinked on in many cities and people saw stars twinkling in the sky. Confused chickens went into barns to roost. Panicked residents flooded police stations and newspapers with phone calls. Some people in that Cold War era thought it was the end of the world.

So, what was this mysterious phenomenon of 60 Septembers ago? Meteorologists alternately call it ''Black Sunday'' or ''The Dark Day'' and say it was caused by smoke from about 30 huge forest fires in western Canada.

Based on the article in The Daily News, the phenomenon lasted for only a few hours. By late afternoon, the skies cleared, although the air currents brought back the smoky skies Monday morning. But that was it.

Reading The 1950 Daily News article about ''Black Sunday'' piqued my interest in that day, so I checked the Internet. Not surprisingly, I found a website dedicated to the subject, with lots of interesting information and remembrances. Even some conspiracy theories that cast doubt on the forest fire explanation. Some claimed the smoke was atomic fallout or a government experiment with the clouds. One witness thought the ''end times'' were near because of man's penchant for ''playing God.'' (I have to question that last theory. Sixty years later, we're still here!)

Anyway, I did find one detailed web posting from a woman named Sylvia that is of local interest. I'll share it here:

''I remember this day very well. I was a little kid driving with my parents from Batavia to Buffalo, N.Y. along Genesee Street (Route 33). It had been a clear sunny day and then along the horizon the sky began to darken (as if a thunderstorm were approaching). The sky got darker until my Dad put on the headlights. My Mom was rather afraid but my Dad said we would just keep going back to Buffalo.

''Along Genesee Street at that point in time there were dairy farms and I can remember seeing cows' confusion and then some started walking back to their barns. We got to Buffalo and home and the street lights were on. It was just plain nighttime and the stars were out. Neighbors were out on the street and very frightened.

''At about 4 p.m. that day, the sky gradually got lighter and normal daylight occurred. Not many people had TV in those days -- we did and later it was said there was a forest fire in Alberta, Canada which seemed absurd even then. There have been forest fires in the west since that day and there was never another day like this. It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life. I've tried to find out more about it over the years and even asked people in my age group who lived here if they remember. I've found that they either did not remember or if they did were extremely reluctant to talk about it.''

Interesting stuff and a very detailed account of an event from long ago. Good job, Sylvia.

The Daily News did not run a photograph with their story about ''Black Sunday.'' Recently, I found a front page from the old Buffalo Courier Express that includes a photo of a darkened Main Street in Buffalo on that fateful day. A clock in the photo shows that it's about 3:50 in the afternoon, yet it appears to be nighttime.

If any Batavia area residents remember this day in 1950, I would welcome your memories. E-mail them to mgraczyk@batavianews.com or just post to this story.

For more information about the events of Sept. 24, 1950, see http://the-red-thread.net/sunday.html

(Daily News Managing Editor Mark Graczyk writes a blog called ''Mark My Words.'' Look for it at www.thedailynewsonline.com)

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