Seth Nelson and the rain of fire

Look up, tonight.

Take a moment to look at the skies. This time of year, the Leonid Meteor Shower is happening, and meteors can often be seen streaking across the sky. It’s worth a look; there’s a sort of triumphant, fascinated feeling you get when you’ve spotted one.

This is an annual thing, and it’s been going on for a long time. The shower varies in brightness and intensity; some years are bigger than others. And the reason I bring all this up is because it’s the anniversary of one of the brightest on record, and it created a big historic event right here in Clinton County.

It wasn’t even Clinton County yet, actually — it was still parts of Centre and Lycoming. Lock Haven had just been founded nine days before. Jerry Church sold off the first lots on November 4, 1833, and people were building their new homes. And then, on the night of November 13, 1833, a wonderfully bright meteor shower happened.

It became known as the Rain of Fire.

Thousands of meteors could be seen shooting across the sky. People ran from their homes, assuming it was the end of the world. When the world failed to end after a few minutes, they all calmed down to watch the show.

The meteors were all headed to the northwest. Why the northwest? I’m sure there’s some important astronomical reason, but I’m not in the mood to call up astronomy professors and ask about it. For purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that the meteors were headed to the northwest because Seth Nelson was there, and they were looking for him.

That’s probably what Nelson assumed, too.

I’ve written before about Seth Nelson. He was a panther hunter from Keating Township who claimed to be the toughest, most unstoppable guy around. There were actual incidents when he considered himself too tough to actually fire his gun at a bear or panther, preferring to take them on in hand-to-hand combat instead. He claimed to be immortal, and to have recovered from blindness, and to be able to jump any height and paddle across the Susquehanna without even a boat. He was something of a show-off, is what I’m saying here.

Nelson was also an eyewitness to the Rain of Fire, though his account of it is somewhat suspect. He was camping up at Altar Rock, just off present-day Route 120. In his journal, he wrote about the incident, and his account is reprinted in Robert Lyman’s excellent book “Amazing Indeed.”

Nelson woke up at about 2 a.m. to the sight of a meteor shower above him. He watched the entire thing for nine hours, mainly because when you’re camping in 1833, there’s very little else to do. He said,“It seemed to me as if everything was on fire. Such magnificent sight I never saw. The stars were falling all around me. These meteors were falling as fast as any heavy snow storm. They appeared to be as large as my fist and at once on touching the earth they disappeared.”

It’s not hard to believe that Seth Nelson witnessed the Rain of Fire; practically everyone did that night. What’s a little more difficult to buy is his physical description of the event, especially when you read on as he claimed to have been actually hit by the meteors.

“They fell on my head,” he described, “But I can’t say I felt more than a slight sensation if anything.”

Because of course, if charging panthers and bears couldn’t stop the indestructible Seth Nelson, what chance did a random meteor have? He claimed that the meteors consistently fell on him until dawn, when they faded out.

Nelson was the only one who claimed the meteors actually hit him, and you have to be a little dubious about that. But the Rain of Fire was a fascinating incident, and something similar happens every year about this time. So if you happen to be out tonight, take a look at the sky and watch for meteors.

And if you’re not as indestructible as Seth Nelson, be prepared to duck.


Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at or 570-748-3321.