Visions — and mirages — from long ago

Ray Crippen

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared July 14, 2007.

WORTHINGTON — Elizabeth Custer — Mrs. George A. Custer — wrote of the May morning her husband and the U.S. 7th Cavalry rode from Ft. Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota, traveling the first mile on their fateful journey to the battleground on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory.

“From the hour of breaking camp, before the sun was up, a mist had enveloped everything,” Mrs. Custer remembered. “Soon the bright sun began to penetrate this veil and dispel the haze, and a scene of wonder and beauty appeared …

“As the sun broke through the mist, a mirage appeared, which took about half the line of cavalry, and thenceforth for a little distance (the cavalry) marched, equally plain to the sight on the earth and in the sky.


“The future of the heroic band, whose days were even then numbered, seemed to be revealed, and already there seemed a premonition…as their forms were reflected from the opaque mist of the early dawn.”

Silent, ghostly soldiers rode across a morning sky.

In 1904, Bernard Smith published a report on mirages in Kansas:

“… in Barton County, in the summer of 1876.

“The Santa Fe Railroad passed in front of my house, about one-third of a mile distant …

“One afternoon a passenger train came from the west. … The entire train…sailed along silently above … as though floating through the air. … Except for the faces at the windows and one or two persons standing on the platforms, there was no sign of activity. The whole made a most remarkable sight …”

Arthur Rose wrote of mirages once seen at Worthington:

“The autumn of that year (1872) … was a genuine Indian summer. The nights were crisp and frosty, but the days were soft and crystal clear …


“On some mornings the looming mirage cast a glamour over the prairies and changed them into an enchanted land. People at first doubted their senses and feared for their reason when they saw the country for 50 miles in all directions raised into view, lakes, groves, villages …

“The most wonderful phenomenon of this nature occurred Oct. 1, 1872. The mirage lasted until nearly an hour after sunrise and was witnessed by many people …

“So clear was the atmosphere and so distinct were remote objects that the houses in the village of Hersey (Brewster) … were revealed, almost to their foundations. The timber on Graham Lakes appeared like a grove … and as far north as the eye could see there were dim outlines of more timber, probably on Lake Shetek. … The line of timber along the Des Moines River could be traced from Jackson to Windom.

“Groups of houses stood out above the prairie in every direction, looking like small villages.”

Mirages in the sky are a familiar story in books of the American West, continuing to the early 20th century.

Mary Austin, born in Illinois, a pioneer in California, wrote in a 1932 autobiography, “It was dry in April, but not entirely barren; mirages multiplied on every hand.” Austin told of what appeared to be aerial “poppies coming up singly through the tawny, crystal-sanded soil, thin, piercing orange-colored flames …”

There is an explanation for these ghostly scenes but I can’t give it. Someone in the natural sciences at Minnesota West could lead us through a story of refractions, reflections, ozone and optical illusions.

The only mirages I have seen are the water puddles which appear to be ahead of the car on highways, especially on a summer day.


Why aren’t visions in the sky common today?

I am told they were caused in an earlier time on this continent by great quantities of oxygen which were produced by the dense native grasses across tens of thousands of acres — the great Sea of Grass.

Bernard Smith, in his Kansas report, spoke of “a sea of liquid air,” and he described a remarkable sunrise from 1876. He first saw “the distant city of Atlanta (Kansas) in a flat cloud” along the horizon. Atlanta was inverted, as mirages images sometimes are. The “roseate glow” of the sun began to appear along the actual horizon and also in the Atlanta mirage above.

Two suns coming together, one rising and the other in the mirage, “looked like a long line of prairie fire extending north and south.” I wish I could see one of those fabled prairie mirages.

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