Cities in the Sky
A mirage is usually defined in terms of an atmospheric distortion and
an optical illusion. Light from an object may be bent (refracted) or reflected
by air, and the mind of the beholder is liable to see something which is
not what it appears to be. For example, a thirsty traveler in the desert
may be looking at the sky reflected on a layer of hot air over the sand.
The mind, however, sees instead a pool of water and may even add to the
imagined scene the palm trees of a surrounding oasis.
Some Canadian scientists have used "mirages" to explain a
lake monster as being nothing more than a piece of wood floating on a placid
lake or a UFO as a bright planet seen through a turbulent sky. Although
this may be true sometimes, I would rather see some explanation as to how
a vast and detailed image of a city might be projected into the sky, if
it is only a mirage.
In the Transactions of the British Association for the Advancement
of Science of 1847, Dr. D.P. Thomson reported that "during the exhibition
of a panoramic model of Edinburgh, in the Zoological Gardens at Liverpool,
on Sept. 27, 1846, about 3 P.M., an erect image of Edinburgh, depicted
on the clouds over Liverpool, was seen by two residents in the Great Park
at Birkenhead, for a period of forty minutes." Edinburgh is about
325 kilometers north of Liverpool.
Another extraordinary mirage was reported in the London Times
as having occurred on July 28, 1846, at 3:30 A.M., near Stralsund (then
part of Pomerania and now Germany). During a short walk from the city on
the Baltic shore, witnesses saw in a pale blue light the image of Stralsund
looming over the Isle of Rugen on the opposite shore for a period of 15
minutes. The image was clear enough that details of the facade of the Gothic
church of St. Mary could be "distinguished with ease."
An American prospector, Mr. Willoughby, claimed he heard an Indian legend
of a city appearing in the sky each summer near Mount Fairweather, on the
Alaska-Yukon border. Mr. Willoughby said he first saw the mirage in 1887
and offered a photograph as proof that the phenomenon was real. In 1889,
the New York Times reported that the city in Willoughby's photograph
had been identified as Bristol, England. This story and the photograph
were included in a later edition of Miner Bruce's Alaska.
Two other cities were said to have been seen over the Muir Glacier in
Alexander Badlam's Wonders of Alaska. Badlam reprinted Willoughby's
photograph, which depicts a view of a city from a hillside with house fronts
and church steeples clearly visible; and, if not claimed to be photographed
in Alaska, it could readily be accepted as a photograph of Bristol. However,
a second photograph is presented with an African or Asian city superimposed
upon another of a glacier. Badlam writes that the photographer had captured
the mirage's image by aiming his camera into a pan of quicksilver and that
the city seen in the sky was believed to be sunken in the waters of the
bay in front of the glacier. The third city was supposedly sketched from
a photograph, but the fanciful spires and towers of the artist more closely
resemble the looming mirages of Arctic icefields or the Fata Morgana of
the Straits of Messina than anything else.
Badlam's stories are as hard to swallow as a plate of "snow worms"
set before a tenderfoot in Alaska, yet the stories of cities in the sky
were repeated by other witnesses. One of the members of the Duke d'Abruzzi's
expedition to Mount St. Elias, C.W. Thornton, told Miner Bruce he saw what
looked like a city in the summer of 1897; L.B. French was quoted by the
New York Times in 1889 as seeing houses, streets, and large buildings,
either mosques or cathedrals, near Mount Fairweather; and, a correspondent
of London's Weekly Times and Echo returning from the "Yukon Goldfields,"
saw a city in the sky in June of 1897 and wrote: "...whether this
city exists in some unknown world on the other side of the North Pole,
or not, it is a fact that this wonderful mirage occurs from time to time
yearly, and we were not the only ones who witnessed the spectacle."
Phantom cities may have loomed over Alaska, but the fact that no sizeable
city could be found within a thousand kilometers of Mount Fairweather did
not deter the scientists of the time from speculating that some extraordinary
property of the atmosphere would show a scene from distant Bristol. What
other evidence apart from the testimony of witnesses and Willoughby's photograph
would offer any credence to cities being seen above the wilderness of Alaska?
The same phenomenon exists in Ireland. The "Duna Feadhreagh,"
or fairy castles, have long been reported. On the coasts of Antrim, Donegal,
and Waterford, enchanted islands have been seen rising from the depths
into the skies.
The Chronological Description of Connaught, written in 1684, says: "There
is, westward of Arran in sight of the next continent Skerde, a wild island
of huge rocks; there sometimes appear to be a great city far off, full
of houses, castles, towers, and chimneys, sometimes full of blazing flames,
smoke, and people running to and fro. Another day you would see nothing
but a number of ships, with their sailes and riggingsa; then so many great
stakes or reekes of corn and turf."
At Rathlin, in 1817, a green island was believed to arise out of the
sea every seventh year upon which could be distinctly seen people "engaged
in various other occupations common to a fair."
At Youghal, a walled town was seen distinctly in October of 1797. By
June of 1801, the mirage had grown into an unknown city with mansions and
Such marvels were recounted by Dr. Thomson in his Introduction to
Meteorology and before the British Association for the Advancement
of Science in 1852 by Mr. M'Farland (who had witnessed a fairy island arise
from the ocean off Portbalintrea in June of 1833). Sir Charles Lyell, the
distinguished geologist, wrote of seeing a mirage of Toronto in the sky
over Lake Ontario during his second visit to North America.
What I find intriguing is that such accounts of extraordinary mirages
take on forms which are recognizable, they are seen on repeated occasions,
and sometimes a panorama of images and events are observed. Not only have
phantom cities been seen in the skies, but also armies and ships, described
in detail. Such phenomena may have less to do with atmospheric conditions
than with displays of a ghostly nature on a vaster scale.
In the British science journal Nature, accounts of mirages in
Scandinavia, such as the one here in May of 1882, may have helped prompt
an earlier acceptance of tales from a sourdough in Alaska and the legends
of the Irish:
The frequent observations of the mirage in the south of Sweden is [sic]
very remarkable. From time to time we are told that whole landscapes, cities,
and castles, with moving objects, have been observed reflected on the sky
for hours, and we again learn that a similar display of the forces of Nature
was seen one afternoon last month over the lake of Orsa, in a remote part
of Dalcarlia, lat. 61 degrees, which is stated to have reflected a number
of large and small steamers, as if plying on the lake, and from whose funnels
even the smoke could be observed to rise. Later on the scene changed to
a landscape, the vessels now taking the form of islands in the lake, covered
with more or less vegetation, and at last the mirage dissolved itself in
a haze. The phenomenon, which lasted from 4 to 7 o'clock, is said to have
furnished a most magnificent spectacle.
When I read of the latest sensational sightings of Ogopogo, the Loch
Ness monster, or another flying saucer in the newspapers, I am as inclined
to wonder as do modern scientists if the object viewed was nothing more
than a "mirage."
However, would the scientists of today be as willing to swallow reports
of cities seen in the skies as mirages of distant places? Such a phenomena
requires closer examination.
Not all mysteries are what they first appear to be. "Snow worms" taste just like spaghetti.
"Cities in the sky" was first published in the Whig-Standard Magazine, 12 (no. 14; January 19, 1991): 22.
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