In Episode 201, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger go on a fishing expedition in the Olneyville section of Providence, Rhode Island. At an unremarkable intersection it once rained fish down from the sky back on May 15, 1900, but that wasn’t the only weird thing to make the headlines that day. Just across town, an explosion in a trolley car covered the occupants with a mysterious goo. May 15, 1900, may just be Providence’s weirdest day.
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[FISHING LINE BEING CAST INTO THE WATER]
JEFF: It’s a beautiful summer day for fishing, Ray.
RAY: It sure is! And it’s a hot one today, too!
JEFF: Catching anything?
RAY: Nah… the Woonasquatucket River here in the Olneyville section of Providence, Rhode Island, has been pretty quiet as far as fishing goes.
JEFF: That’s too bad. What if I told you there was a place we could go… and it’s nearby… where you can catch more fish than you know what to do with?
RAY: I’d say sign me up!
JEFF: Then pull in your line, Ray. Because we’re heading to a part of town where it once… rained fish.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to episode 201 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. And thank you for all of the great feedback on our 200th episode special. We’re proud to be part of this growing community of legend seekers who love finding and sharing these stories. We get so many story leads from you guys. Like this one that came from Frank Grace.
JEFF: Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to our podcast, because it’s free. And do us a favor and share it on social media, and please post a review for us on Apple podcasts – all of that goes a long way in helping others find us which leads to more great stories for all of us to share.
RAY: Before we go on this fishing expedition, we want to take a moment to thank our patreon patrons who have been so supportive of everything we do. For just $3 bucks per month these legendary folks get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. If you can help us out, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
JEFF: Okay, Ray… are you ready to catch some fish… I mean a LOT of fish?
RAY: Oh, I’m ready.
JEFF: Okay, then hop in the car, and let’s take a short ride.
[DOORS SHUT, CAR DRIVING]
JEFF: We’re heading over to Harris Avenue near the intersection of Grove Street.
[CAR STOPS / DOOR SHUTS]
JEFF: Okay, we’re here! Ready to catch some fish?
RAY: So I see some multi-family houses. I see a cement wall with some spray paint on it. On the other side of that are train tracks leading into downtown Providence. There’s a chain-link fence over there.
JEFF: All true.
RAY: I don’t see any water! No rivers, streams, ponds. Nothing! Are you sure we’re in the right place?
JEFF: We sure are! It was right here that it rained fish one day in May of 1900. And that’s not the only weird thing to happen that day. There was also a strange explosion on a trolley car that left the passengers stunned.
RAY: An explosion too? Okay… let’s head back to May of 1900, and find out what happened.
JEFF: It’s May 14th, 1900… and the weather has been unseasonably cold here in downtown Providence. But all of that is about to change.
RAY: We’re talking near freezing temperatures, which is unusual for this time of year. In fact, it’s been so cold that some of the early vegetable and strawberry crops in the state have been ruined. So folks around the Olneyville section of Providence are dressed warmly, and their spirits are bitter.
JEFF: Of course! It’s been a long winter. Once the weather starts to warm, we expect it to stay that way. Still, a reprieve is coming. The following day… May 15th…. is off to a warm start. The weather forecasters for the Providence Journal newspaper got the first part of the day right. The morning paper reads…
NEWSMAN: Today is a day for the lightest of clothing, for the glorious outing shirt and for straw hats and long, cool drinks.
RAY: The paper ain’t kidding either… it’s 2:00 PM when the mercury tops out at 93 degrees here in Market Square. It’s hot. Especially compared to the temperatures over the past week.
JEFF: It looks like our ride’s here, Ray. Let’s jump on this electric trolley car…
[TROLLEY BELL / ROLLING ON TRACKS]
JEFF: And start making our way toward the Massachusetts state line.
RAY: It’s stifling hot in this trolley. And folks are packed in pretty tight. There are a couple of well-dressed women sitting in that seat over there. I see a Catholic priest sitting in the second seat from the back of the car. There’s a young boy sitting in the last seat, and he’s got some kind of glass jar on his lap.
JEFF: It’s stuffy in here for sure. Hey, can we open some of these windows?
RAY: The slight breeze coming through the windows is the only break from this heat and humidity. It’s strange, it feels like one of those hot days where the afternoon pressure is building. There are only a few clouds up there right now, but you just get that feeling more are coming, you know?
JEFF: I DO know.
RAY: So the trolley is chugging along, and the breeze coming through the window is only helping slightly. The priest just took his hat off to fan himself, and the boy in the last seat is starting to doze off.
[TROLLEY ROLLING ON TRACKS]
JEFF: It’s hot. Stuffy. Folks are sweating. It’s too hot to even speak, so we’re riding along in silence… until that silence is broken in a big way.
JEFF: An explosion! A pop! Something loud just went off inside this trolley car.
RAY: Oh God! What in the world are we covered in? There’s slimy goo all over us, and covering every person in the trolley. Gross! The newspaper covers the story.
NEWSMAN: There was a terrific sound as if a battery of artillery had been fired. At the same instant most of the passengers arose in their seats and the tops and side of the car became deluged with some soft, sticky fluid. The two women felt something strike their new gowns and hats and became greatly excited. The clergyman received a soft blow on the head, and putting his hand there ran it into something that felt like clam chowder. Several streams of the stuff were running down his neck. The young man in the last seat was a sight. The conductor signaled for the motorman to stop the car and at the same time a man up forward felt his collar in back. He ran his fingers around there and brought them back with this sticky material on them. He smelled of the fluid and then swore volubly and like an old-fashioned pirate.
RAY: The kid in the last seat looks the worst off. He’s covered in this light-brown goo, and it looks like he has some cuts on his face. The glass jar he was holding has shattered. When the angry passengers press the young boy as to what just happened, that’s when everyone figures out what was in the jar. It was… yeast.
JEFF: Of course! When yeast eats sugar it releases carbon dioxide. If there’s nowhere for that carbon dioxide to go, it builds up. On a hot day, the reaction would speed up. Add some shaking and jostling from the trolley ride, and that pressure would build in the jar until it couldn’t anymore, and then… boom! Yeast everywhere. Thankfully no one is seriously hurt. And the newspapers have a weird story to cover. But… this yeast bomb is not the weirdest thing that’s going to happen today.
RAY: Right… we’re supposed to be fishing.
JEFF: We are. Let’s head back to Providence.
JEFF: We’re going to head just about a mile and a half west of Market Square to the Olneyville section of Providence.
RAY: It’s now 3:30 in the afternoon, and the clouds are rolling in. The air is getting still and thick. There’s barely a breeze. It’s quiet…. Too quiet.
JEFF: Oh man, it’s getting dark. The clouds are turning a deep gray. It’s just about 4:00 PM, and you’d swear the sun is setting it’s so dark.
RAY: In the span of minutes, the temperature has drop more than 20 degrees. And then…
[THUNDER / LIGHTNING / WIND / HAIL]
RAY: The skies have opened up with everything nature has to throw at us! There’s thunder, lightning, gale-force winds, rain, and even hail!
JEFF: The wind is so powerful it just pushed that horse and wagon over on its side! And look over there! a billboard has just been blown down the street like a sheet of paper!
RAY: Folks are yelling, and trying to find shelter. This storm is brutal!
JEFF: As if this day couldn’t get any weirder… look there on Harris Avenue, Ray.
[FLIP FLOP OF FISH]
RAY: There are live fish flopping around on the street!
JEFF: Catfish are falling from the sky! They’re all over the ground. People are putting out buckets to catch them!
RAY: The newspaper picks up the rest of the story.
NEWSMAN: So far as reported, the rainfall of fish occurred in two places. The better fishing ground was on Harris Avenue, near Grove Street railroad crossing. Here hundreds of pout, from 2 inches to 4-and-a-half inches in length, fell on an area of about a quarter of an acre.
The other fishing ground was on Joslin Street, near Manton Avenue, on high ground, far above the tops of the mill chimneys situated on the lower level of Harris Avenue. Here the fall of fish was comparatively small. But there was a much better variety, for there were small perch as well as pout and a pail was half filled with them.
JEFF: After the storm, locals bring some of these buckets full of live fish to the local bars to show each other. It’s one of the strangest things anybody here has seen. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: May 15, 1900 marks a weird day for Rhode Island news. By the way, most of what we know about these two events come from a newspaper article from the Providence Daily Journal that saw fit to cover both of these stories in the same article. So let’s start with the exploding jar of yeast.
JEFF: Ray, did you know I used to brew my own beer?
RAY: I think you told me that once.
JEFF: Once you’ve cooked the wort which is basically all of the flavor of your beer, you pour it into a fermenting bucket. Then you add more water, and some yeast. You then seal up the bucket and place an air lock on top. The airlock is a simple S-shaped tube with water in it. Air can get out, but not in.
RAY: Okay, got it.
JEFF: As the yeast eats the sugar in fermenting beer, it releases carbon dioxide, and the bi-product is alcohol, which is how beer becomes beer. So this one time I made a beer with a lot of stuff in it. Tons of hops and grains. And the bucket was too full. My airlock got clogged. And one day I hear this loud boom, almost like someone popping a huge balloon. I run to find my beer had exploded and spilled all over the floor. Good times.
RAY: So the yeast explosion happened because… well… science.
RAY: On that hot day and with no way for the trapped gas to escape, that jar turned into a small yeast bomb.
JEFF: That’s what happened there.
RAY: Okay, and that’s the same day fish fell from the sky in Providence. This sounds almost biblical, like one of the seven seals getting broken. Day turns to night, and fish fall from the sky.
JEFF: The crazy thing is, this DOES happen. During extreme weather, tornadoes can hit area ponds and rivers and suck the fish up into the vortex, then spit them out miles away.
RAY: I always wondered how small ponds get fish in them. I guess sometimes they fall from the sky.
JEFF: They do, and that leaves the locals with a story to tell for years, even decades after the fact. So in the end, you could sit by the river and cast your line in the hopes of catching something, or just set out a bucket here on Harris Avenue… and wait.
RAY: Considering it’s been over a 120 years since the last time fish feel from the sky, I think we’re due! I’ll get the buckets.
JEFF: Hey Ray, what do you call a fish with no eyes?
RAY: (GROAN) What?
JEFF: A fsh.
RAY: Sigh… dad jokes. If you have a dad joke to tell us, or a comment or lead, feel free to reach out to us on social media, our Web site, join our super secret Facebook group, or call or text our Legend Line anytime at 617-444-9683.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Michael Legge for lending his voice acting talents this week. And of course our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Raylene Ball in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.