In the spring of 1922 an event took place that put Ocean County on the front page of most newspapers in the country.
To get in the mood, you have to think back 100 years. It was finally possible to drive to Long Beach Island via the Causeway and then drive from Beach Haven to Barnegat Light on a gravel road. At the time, there were few paved roads throughout the county.
If you traveled at night you would find that there were few lights. The causeway was dark and most of the hotels on the island were closed for the season. Darkness is hard to imagine today, but on a clear night you could be standing on the Beach Haven boardwalk or on the steps of the District Courthouse in Toms River and watching the famous twinkling light at Barnegat Lighthouse.
If you looked up, you would see something that today’s light pollution has kept you away – thousands of twinkling stars in a dark sky. The limits of nocturnal travel also brought stillness; the sound of a single car could be heard miles away.
With this in mind, in April 1922, Ocean County was about to receive a visitor from space. One of the first reports came from the Philadelphia Ledger on the 24th
“A giant meteor that passed over this city at 9 a.m. last night struck the earth somewhere within the area bounded by Asbury Park, Brown’s Mills in the Pines and Beach Haven, NJ at 9:05 a.m . And exploded with a roar and a shock that shook the earth.
“Window panes were broken and noxious gases were detected. Although reports vary as to where the meteor struck, search parties are looking for it today.”
Information started to come in.
“Sheriff Brown of Toms River states that the meteor fell into the sea just off Beach Haven. …People from West Creek and Tuckerton, west of Beach Haven, across the bay, he said, saw the meteor and carefully noted its fall. At first they feared Beach Haven had been hit, but later found that it had plunged into the ocean just offshore. As far as I can tell, the force of the explosion was heard for fifty miles. It looked like the moon with a tail.”
That New York world picked up the story and said: “The Coast Guard lookout was attracted to a bluish light in the sky and saw a fireball. It was accompanied by a roaring noise and a massive explosion occurred as the mass hit the water. An earthquake was felt over a significant area in and around Toms River. Reports that the meteor fell on land have been disproved. … The meteor appeared about a quarter the size of a full moon and was the largest ever seen by the observers who reported it. … The meteor first appeared as a large blue-green orb, and its brilliance increased as it fell toward the horizon, changing to yellow and almost white and black to blue and green as it disappeared.”
Those who had not seen the visitor soon became aware of his presence.
“In Lakewood, many who did not see the meteor believed that there had been an explosion in the Lakehurst government offices. Windows in residential buildings in Toms River were shattered by the blast and the fumes, which polluted the atmosphere for more than 15 minutes, forced residents to hold wet handkerchiefs to their nostrils.”
The New York Times began his coverage with “A large fireball, trailing an iridescent tail like a comet, streaked across the sky near the southern New Jersey shore at 9 a.m. last night and disappeared in an explosion that covered a 30-minute radius could be heard kilometers away on earth.”
The newspaper then began to speculate, saying: “Every person who could be reached explored the idea, first put forward by Coast Guard stations near Asbury Park, that the mysterious object was a missile. All insisted that the flash-like illumination that accompanied its rapid flight across the sky and the terrible detonation with which it struck, shaking buildings and shattering windows, ruled out that it was nothing less than a celestial body.”
That Asbury Park Press printed an eyewitness account.
“The object was described as being about the size of the moon. WT Mason, a Lakehurst police officer, stood outside police headquarters. The night was clear. He was startled by lightning like lightning. He looked at the sky.
“‘I saw a fiery body sweeping across the sky in a southeasterly direction,’ he said, ‘it was a purple ball of light, like a rocket, but much larger. It had a colored flame tail. It seemed like 10 or 15 miles away. It was far beyond the size or brilliance of any ordinary shooting star. It couldn’t have been a rocket. It didn’t start and then shut down. It came straight down from the sky in a long, falling arc.’”
When the meteor fell to earth, it reacted.
“‘I ran to the station to tell the other cops. Dwight Johnson was across the street when I walked in. He heard the thing burst with a roar like a cannonball. Inside things were lit up so when the thing fell down the men thought there was lightning.’”
With that, darkness and calm returned. Subsequent searches found no crater or damage to support the idea that the meteor had fallen into the sea.
The nation soon forgot about the 1922 Ocean County meteor, but 15 years later another would fall to earth at nearby Grover’s Mills and become the star of one of the most famous radio shows of all time: “The War of the Worlds.”
Next week: ZR-1 To update.