by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
When the cornerstone for Winnipeg’s first city hall and civic market was laid during a ceremony on August 17, 1875, it contained a casket which included among its contents numerous coins and bills then in circulation in Manitoba or brought to the province by settlers. The casket, which was “laid with Masonic honors,” according a Manitoba Free Press report, also held photographs of the mayor and council, city officials, the fire brigade, Louis Riel and his 1869-70 cabinet, as well as photographs of numerous points of interest within the community. There were also copies of the city charter of incorporation and various civic and provincial laws.
But one of the oddest items placed in the cornerstone was a bottle containing grasshoppers, referred to as “the scourge of Manitoba,” as well as heads of wheat from a field partially destroyed by grasshoppers in 1875. These items may now seem strange, but newspapers were then filled with reports of swarms of grasshoppers descending upon the province, wiping out the efforts of hard-working farmers and dealing a blow to the province’s economy.
What the bottle actually contained was not “grasshoppers” per se, but Rocky Mountain locusts, the only species of locust then existing in North America, which ranged across the Great Plains from Texas to Manitoba and became universally known across the prairies as the “Hated Grasshopper.”
The Westbourne correspondent for the Free Press wrote on June 10, 1875: “An old gentleman by the name of Anderson informs me he had never before seen them so thick, in an experience of forty years in this country. He thinks, however, that this may very probably be the last year of them for many years to come. He remembers long intervals — one of twenty-one years — when the grasshoppers visited this settlement.”
The correspondent reported serious damage to crops, “and there is likely to be more as you cannot walk along the fences, streets or prairies here but clouds of them rise up before one steps and in some particular spots so thick as to cover the ground and grass with a gray coat of incipient insects.”
The correspondent from Palestine (now Gladstone) informed the newspaper’s readers that weather, ranging from frost to snow to cold rain, had recently struck the area, “enough it was fondly hoped to exterminate the hopper; but we only deluded ourselves as it seems nothing but fire, and that of the hottest, will destroy them, for at present them seem to be more numerous than at any time previous to this.”
The individual that the Westbourne correspondent interviewed was wrong in his assumption that 1875 would be the last year of the infestation, as it would carry on for another three years.
Both 1874 and 1875 were particularly bad years for locusts across the Great Plains. In 1875 at Plattsmouth, Nebraska, a swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts created what was then termed a living eclipse of the sun. Albert Child, a physician, measured the swarm, which afterward became known as “Albert’s Swarm.”
“According to the first-hand account of A. (Albert) L. Child transcribed by (Charles Valentine) Riley et al. (1880), a swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts passed over Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in 1875. By timing the rate of movement as the insects streamed overhead for 5 days and by telegraphing to surrounding towns, he was able to estimate that the swarm was 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometres) long and at least 110 (180 kilometres) miles wide. Based on his information, this swarm covered a swath equal to the combined areas of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.”
The Guinness Book of World Records reported that “Albert’s Swarm” was the greatest insect swarm in recorded history. Composed of Rocky Mountain locusts, the swarm flew over Nebraska from July 20 to 30, 1875, “covering an area estimated at 198,000 square miles (513,000 square kilometres). The swarm must have contained at least 12.5 trillion insects (others estimate the swarm contained 3.5 trillion insects) with a total weight of 27.5 million tons.”
(Next week: part 2)