© Mark Bushnell
The corner of Church and College streets in Burlington was the site of a mysterious incident in 1907 in which people reported seeing a ball of fire that dropped toward the ground and exploded. It was followed by a downpour. Here is a rendering of how it might have appeared.
It is a bolt out of the blue. Just a typical day - nothing seems unusual in the moments before the giant blast strikes Burlington. It is shortly before noon on July 2, 1907, a Tuesday.

Nobody bothered to record the mundane details of that day, but we can imagine the scene downtown: people ducking into and out of stores; others working at their office desks; some walking home for an early lunch. This being summer, children are playing on the sidewalks and streets. Much, probably most, of the traffic is horse-drawn. Few cars yet rattle through Burlington's streets.

In the midst of this imagined scene, we know exactly where some people are. There is John Stephen Michaud, the bishop of Burlington, and former Vermont Gov. Urban Woodbury, chatting at the corner of Church and College streets. Alvaro Adsit can be seen through the window of Ferguson and Adsit's Store, the grocery he co-owns on the corner of College and Mechanic streets. W.P. Dodds is in his office at the Equitable Life Insurance Co. on College Street.

Then, things get weird in a hurry. A bright ball of light catches Dodds' eye. It is in the sky to the northwest and descending.

Adsit sees it, too. Looking out his store window, he sees a "fire ball" drop in front of a nearby furniture store.

When the ball is about 15 feet above the street - Boom! - it explodes.

People rush into the street to see what has happened. They find a horse lying lifeless in the road in front of the Standard Coal and Ice Co. But moments later, it stirs and gets back on its feet.

People cluster and talk excitedly about what happened and share what they have seen. A young man working at the Strong Theater, a block away on Main Street, says he saw the fireball. Another unidentified man says he saw the ball strike College Street, knock over the horse with its blast, then shoot back into the sky.

The next day, the Burlington Free Press reports the incident to readers, suggesting that lightning had been the cause of the boom. The paper writes:
"A forerunner to one of the heavy and frequent thunderstorms that have characterized the early summer in this vicinity startled Burlingtonians yesterday just before noon. Without any preliminary disturbance of the atmosphere, there was a sharp report, the like of which is seldom heard. It was much louder in the business portion of the city than elsewhere, and particularly in the vicinity of Church and College Streets. People rushed to the street or to windows to learn what had happened ..."
The reporter, who interviewed the ex-governor, writes: "Governor Woodbury said his first thought was that an explosion had occurred somewhere in the immediate vicinity, and he turned, expecting to see bricks flying thru the air."

The writer gives less credence to the unnamed witness who reported seeing the fireball bouncing on College Street, calling him a "man with a vivid imagination."

"The unusual disturbance," the reporter concludes his article, "was followed in a few minutes by a downpour of rain, which continued, with brief interruption, for nearly two hours."

That might have been the end of the story, if not for the claims of Bishop Michaud, who was the witness with either the best visual acuity or the most active imagination. Michaud's detailed account of events has made the incident live on. It doesn't show up so much in the pages of conventional history books, but in the pages and Web sites of believers in UFOs. Given Michaud's elaborate narrative of things (which no one else apparently saw), it is easy to see why the Burlington incident has drawn curiosity.

A month after the event, Burlington's weather forecaster William H. Alexander wrote a report that appeared in the national Monthly Weather Review. Alexander, who interviewed witnesses, quoted Michaud at length.

The bishop explained that he was talking with Gov. Woodbury and a Burlington businessman "when, without the slightest indication or warning we were startled by what sounded like a most unusual explosion, evidently very near by."

What was more unusual was what he said he saw next:
"Raising my eyes and looking eastward along College Street, I observed a torpedo-shaped body some 300 feet away, stationary in appearance and suspended in the air about 50 feet above the tops of the buildings. In size it was about six feet long by eight inches in diameter, the shell cover having a dark appearance, with here and there tongues of fire issuing from spots on the surface resembling red-hot unburnished copper."
The object at first was still, but then it began to move slowly over a nearby store. "As it moved," Michaud said, "the covering seemed (to be) rupturing in places and through these the intensely red flames issued."

The bishop's first thought was that he had seen an "explosive shot" from the upper part of the Hall Furniture Store, which stood on College Street. The object was encircled by a dim halo of light about 20 feet in diameter. An "angry-looking cumulonimbus cloud approaching from the northwest" was the only sign of bad weather, according to Michaud. He said a downpour erupted, but it came about 20 minutes after the blast and lasted perhaps 30 minutes or more, which is a longer delay and shorter storm than the Free Press had reported.

The bishop was shaken by the event. "Four weeks have passed since the occurrence of this event, but the picture of that scene and the terrific concussion caused by it, are vividly before me, while the crashing sound still rings in my ears," he told Alexander. "I hope I may never hear or see a similar phenomenon, at least at such 'close range.'"

Though Alexander quoted Michaud extensively in his article, he doesn't seem to have given much credence to his claims. Instead, Alexander looked for a known phenomenon to explain the incident. "The most prominent feature (of recent weather in Vermont)" he informed his readers, "was the large number of violent, and in many cases destructive, thunderstorms that occurred."

What was distinctive about the storm in Burlington on July 2, he wrote, was the "single peal of thunder or explosion attended by what is believed to have been a case of 'ball' or 'globe' lightning."

David Ludlum, a Vermont weather historian, came to the same conclusion in writing "The Vermont Weather Book" in 1985. He explained that ball lightning "is a relatively rare form of lightning, consisting of a reddish, luminous ball, of the order of one foot in diameter, which may move rapidly along solid objects or remain floating in mid-air."

Even if Burlington's big bang was caused by ball lightning, that doesn't strip all the mystery from the incident. Ball lightning is still not completely understood, says Chris Bouchard, a meteorologist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, who agrees such lightning is the most likely explanation of the episode in 1907.

"We don't have a satisfactory explanation of how it forms," says Bouchard, "but it has been seen by enough people over the years that it is generally believed to exist."
Though Bouchard hasn't witnessed ball lightning, he has friends and family members who have.

The meteorologists at the Fairbanks Museum got a call a couple of years ago from someone who had been driving on Interstate 91 near St. Johnsbury when a large luminescent ball of light, perhaps 6 feet in diameter, appeared right in front of the car. The driver couldn't avoid the ball, which disappeared in a flash as the car drove through it.

A strange and interesting incident. Too bad a bishop or former governor wasn't there to witness it.

Mark Bushnell's column on Vermont history is a regular feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine. A collection of his columns was published in the book "It Happened in Vermont." He can be reached at [email protected]