Cities in the Sky

by X

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 forests behind.

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:

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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