Witnessed Fall: Washougal, Washington, USA

A July 1939 Witnessed Fall: Washougal, Washington, USA

Early Independence Day Fireworks

-and my Wife’s Birthday Meteorite!

birthday cake

Washougal

As the only witnessed fall in state of Washington, Washougal is prized beyond its rare classification and miniscule total known weight. 

Washougal is a beautiful stone, and a valuable entry at any size into any collection. Reeking with diogenite crystals and a eucritic matrix, it could easily be poster child of howardites. Unfortunately, it could just as easily be on the side of a milk carton as a lost main mass.

According to historylink.org, the name Washougal is a Cascade Chinook term that could mean “Small rocks and pebbles.” So it is fitting that the Washougal meteorite is made up of small eucrite and diogenite rocks and pebbles.

Washougal, when still a fireball, sailed over over a populated area during the daytime–two things that should have made recovery a simple matter. However, things don’t always work out as we would like since although the single known mass was recovered less than 24 hours after it fell, it still took more than six weeks before Washougal saw the light of science-long after it “had ceased to make news.”

When considering the time lag between fall and formal recovery, I think a term is needed for that conceptual gap between meteor and meteorite. In the attempt to coin a term, I put forth the word “meteorary” to be the stage of existence after a meteor, but before a meteorite. The ‘ary’ suffix means “like or connected with” so meteorary is something that is connected with a meteor and that something is the belief that there will be meteorites found in the future. But until found, the imaginary objects are said to be meteorary.

Nevada State Journal
Reno, Nevada
Tuesday, July 4, 1939 

Explosion Which Rocked Portland Was Meteor,

but Scientists Can’t Find It

PORTLAND, Ore., July 3. (UPI) – A terrific explosion which rocks Portland and neighboring cities early Sunday was identified Monday as a meteor, but definite conclusions may not be drawn for perhaps another year.
A wide variety of guesses – ranging from belief that a powder cache had exploded to hints of a bombing – narrowed down Monday to eyewitnesses accounts of a heavenly body streaking across the sky and disappearing to the northwest.
Bend, Eugene and Portland accounts of the “fireball” apparently confirmed the meteor theory.
Astronomical observers, however, pointed out it might be another year before the meteor, which apparently exploded in mid-air, could be found.
The explosion was believed to have taken place fifty miles northeast of Portland. Residents of Woodland, Wash., said a black cloud was observed rising out of the Cascades Mountains northeast of the community.

Washougal


According to an article by Professor E. F. Lange that was published in The ORE BIN (vol. 30, No. 8),

 

On Sunday morning, July 2, 1939…

“a spectacular fireball or meteor passed over Portland just before 8:00 a.m. Somewhat to the east of Portland the meteor exploded, causing many people to awaken from their Sunday morning slumbers as buildings shook, and dishes and windows rattled

No damage was reported. Several climbers on Mount Hood and Mount Adams reported seeing the unusual event. The fireball immediately became known as the Portland meteor and stories about it appeared in newspapers from coast to coast.”

Lange describes the stone:

“The Washougal meteorite is about the size of a tennis ball and weighs almost one-half pound. It has a light gray interior, throughout which are scattered many small nickel-iron particles. A fine, smooth, black fusion coating formed by its fiery passage through the atmosphere covers the entire surface.”

Washougal

The Washougal meteorite posing with a dime. Yes, a dime. 

A United States dime has a diameter of 17.91mm or 0.705 inches making, in my rough estimation, making Washougal’s diameter about 15% smaller than a tennis ball.


Lange continues… 

“Between 1932 and 1939 Pruett had collected enough data from cooperating observers to be able to trace 13 bright fireballs that had passed over the Northwest skies. After each meteor, people sent him a variety of rocks and minerals which suddenly seemed different to them.

None, however, proved to be meteorites until August 18, 1939, more than six weeks after the Portland meteor had ceased to make news, when he received in the mail a small box containing a fine, freshly fallen stony meteorite. It had been sent by Jerry E. Best, Washougal, Wash., who had found the interesting stone in his backyard on July 3.”


Washougal

Great gifts come in small packages. Like gemstones from space, the olivine crystals wink beauty at the eye of the beholder. 

Although the fall day and month of Washougal is the same as my wife’s birthday, there is no doubt I am the only one in the house that is excited about owning some Washougal.

In fact, I’m sure that in the time since this lovely specimen entered my collection, my lovely wife has forgotten that she shares a birthday with it. Oh well. It’s the thought that counts, right?


Washougal

Fresh crust on a rare achondrite whose fall was witnessed is something that never gets old. 

The beauty of the complete individual that fell 70+ years ago did not escape Leonard, but until the main mass is found again, the fully crusted main mass will exist only in the collective imagination of those who hold these stones in high regard.

The case of the missing main mass…

After acquiring the specimen highlighted in this article, I realized that I had not only one of the very few pieces of Washougal in the world, but also a disproportionately large specimen given that the main mass of this fall is unaccounted for. The Catalogue of Meteorites lists the main mass as living at the University of Oregon which is in Eugene, Oregon. The Natural History Museum in London professes a 17g piece along with a gram of dust. Arizona State University claims 8.1g, and the Bartoschewitz Collection with one gram. However, I could not locate the main mass during an extended time at the University of Oregon. So I dug around in the literature.

Leaflet No. 165, published in November, 1942 by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific includes an article by J. Hugh Pruett titled The Portland Meteor and Resulting Meteorite. The article contains the following excerpt:

The sample was mailed to Dr. H. H. Nininger of Denver for positive identification. “Specimen genuine meteorite,” a telegram replied. 

Dr. F. C. Leonard of the University of California at Los Angeles later inspected it and pronounced it a “beautiful little aerolite.”

After the presentation of a small slab to Dr. Nininger, the remaining 206 grams became a prized part of the writer’s meteorite collection.

James Hugh Pruett, known as an amateur astronomer and a frequent contributor to Sky & Telescope magazine moved on to the next world in 1955. I’ve heard that the Washougal main mass resided in the museum at the University of Oregon, but even when allowed access to the back room-given that no such specimen was on display-nothing was found except a multi-pound rusty slab of the Willamette meteorite wrapped in a plastic bag.

The pebble of Washougal howardite in my collection represents a physical sample of worlds beyond ours, as well as a brief but important moment in meteoritics. Three things are often cited as key for meteorite recovery. First, there must be someone to recover the stone. Second, the amount of competing background rock must be low enough to make the task reasonable. Third, there needs to be the intellectual curiosity to pursue the unknown. In Washougal’s case, all three were present in abundance. But sadly the stone, at least for the moment, cannot return the favors.

Until next timeā€¦.


The Accretion Desk welcomes all comments and feedback. accretiondesk@gmail.com 


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About the Author

Martin Horejsi
Dr. Martin Horejsi is a Professor of Instructional Technology and Science Education at The University of Montana. A long-time meteorite collector and writer, before publishing his column The Accretion Desk in The Meteorite Times, he contributed often and wrote the column From The Strewnfields in Meteorite Magazine. Horejsi is currently a monthly columnist in The Science Teacher, a journal by the National Science Teachers Association. Horejsi specializes in the collection and study of historic witnessed fall meteorites with the older, smaller, and rarer the better. Although his meteorite collection once numbered over a thousand pieces with near that many different locations, several large trades and sales have streamlined the collection to about 250 locations with all but 10 being important witnessed falls. Many of the significant specimens in Horejsi's collection are historic witnessed falls that once occupied prominence in the meteorite collections of Robert A. Haag, James Schwade, and Michael Farmer. Other important specimens were acquired through institutional trades including those from The Smithsonian Institution, Arizona State University, and other universities.
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