Remarkable Tales: The "Canyon Diablo" Meteorite



2018-01-25 16:24:50

The subject of this week's remarkable tale is the Canyon Diablo meteorite, and a man who paid a high price for his groundbreaking theory.

Our story begins more than four billion years ago, and 200 million miles away, in the Asteroid Belt between Jupiter and Mars.

And it ends in the Arizona desert in 1929, with a bankrupt man desperately digging for something which doesn't exist.

This beautiful piece of iron is known as a 'Canyon Diablo', one of the most sought-after meteorites in the world.

(Image: Christie

(Image: Christie's)

Described as resembling an abstract Henry Moore sculpture, the 13" meteorite is the star lot of a forthcoming Christie's auction, where it's expected to fetch up to $250,000.

But it's been a long journey to the auction block.

The 'Canyon Diablo' meteorite was once part of the molten iron core of an asteroid, which tumbled through outer space for billions of years before breaking apart and deflecting into an Earth-intersecting orbit.

Approximately 49,000 years ago a piece of that asteroid finally made its way through the atmosphere, and landed in the northern Arizona desert with explosive results.

The meteorite struck the Earth at a speed of approximately eight miles per second, causing a blast more powerful than 100 atomic bombs.

The force of the explosion caused a shockwave that flattened everything in a 12 mile radius, and dug out 175 million tons of rock, with debris scattered over a 100 mile radius.

When the dust eventually cleared, what was left was a crater measuring 600ft deep and almost one mile across. There was, however, no-one around to see it, unless you count

giant ground sloths and woolly mammoths. 

Scientists first began studying the site in the late 19th century, after it was discovered by American settlers heading west.

It was named the 'Canyon Diablo Crater' after the nearest town of Canyon Diablo, a lawless Old West town settled in 1880 and populated with railroad workers.

Locals believed the crater was that of a dormant volcano, linked to the active San Francisco volcanic field less than 50 miles to the West.

They had no reason to believe it had been caused by a meteorite – and with fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses, four brothels and two dance halls in town, they had other things to occupy their time.

The discovery did attract significant attention from the wider scientific community, but geologists concluded it was the result of a large volcanic steam explosion.

They said that the huge amount of meteorite fragments discovered on the rim of the crater – like the example offered at Christie's - were merely coincidental.

One man, however, didn't agree.

Daniel Barringer was a renowned geologist who made his fortune through silver mining ventures in Arizona.

His instincts had made him a wealthy man, and when he first learned of the crater he was convinced it was a meteor strike.

What's more, he was convinced that buried beneath the crater was a 100-million ton iron meteorite, just waiting to be discovered.

If knew that if he could find it, it would be a scientific revelation. It would also be worth more than a billion dollars to whoever dug it up.

In 1903 he created the Standard Iron Company and staked a mining claim to the land. President Theodore Roosevelt granted the claim, and authorized the establishment of the nearby Meteor Post Office.

Barringer shipped his mining equipment to what was now officially titled the 'Meteor Crater', and prepared to strike it even richer.

He then spent the next 26 years digging an empty hole.

There were two problems with Barringer's theory. The meteorite which had caused the crater was far smaller than he believed, and most of it had vaporized on impact. There was nothing for him to find.

In one way, his first instinct had been right. His excavations and research clearly demonstrated that the crater had been caused by a devastating meteor strike.

It was the first time anyone had ever proven the existence of an impact crater on the Earth, and his theory proved highly valuable to science.

It did not, however, prove highly valuable to Daniel Barringer.

He spent more than $600,000 and over a quarter of a century digging for a fortune that wasn't there, before passing away of a heart attack on November 30, 1929.

According to legend, he died soon after reading a scientific paper which proved the meteorite had been destroyed on impact, and that there was never any iron to be found.

Barringer left behind him his wife Margaret Bennett, his eight children, and a hole more than 1,375 ft deep.

However, his family were determined to pay tribute to him, and they also had a nose for business.

Together they formed the Barringer Crater Company, and four generations later the entire area remains in family ownership.

Today the crater is a popular tourist destination, attracting visitors from around the world, and remains an important research site for scientists studying impact phenomena. 

It was also used by NASA throughout the 1960s and 70s to train astronauts for the Apollo missions, and some (less scientific minds) have suggested it would have been the ideal spot to film a fake a moon landing.

The Diablo Canyon crater may not have been the iron mine Daniel Barringer was so desperately searching for.

But in the end, it turned out to be a veritable gold mine for his ancestors.

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