The Great Comet of 1881

Looking for something completely different in John Bidwell’s diaries, I came across this notation for June 26, 1881:

Events: Slept in tower to watch the comet

The tower of Bidwell Mansion would be a great viewing platform for watching a comet, and it was a comet well worth watching. It was considered a “Great Comet” — a majestic comet, visible to the naked eye, with a long, prominent tail. I have never been lucky enough to see such a spectacle during my lifetime.

The room at the top of the tower is small, but big enough to hold a cot or a mattress, where the General could get a little shut-eye before waking up to admire the heavenly visitor. And without the light pollution that we suffer from today, the comet would have stood out brilliantly from the dark night sky.

San Jose Mercury-News 29 June 1881

Discovered just a month previously by astronomer John Tebbutt in New South Wales, Australia, this unpredicted comet is designated C1881 K1.

It was much remarked on by the newspapers of the day. The San Jose Mercury-News, for instance, showed its readers how the comet would look at various times. It was visible both in the evening and the morning, leading some viewers to surmise that it was two comets.

Astronomical photography was in its infancy, so few photos exist of the Great Comet of 1881. But a French artist and amateur astronomer, E.L. Trouvelot, created this beautiful chromolithograph, based on his observations.

How I wish I could see that from the tower of Bidwell Mansion!

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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2 Responses to The Great Comet of 1881

  1. Marian Ware says:

    Good reminder of what an unpolluted sky would reveal. BTW, I so enjoyed reading your entries around Christmas time that included the
    menus , guest lists and more from John and Annie’s diaries.
    Thank you,

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