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Barringer’s Big Bang

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Daniel Barringer examines a meteorite fragment.Creative, entrepreneurial types are driven by passion. It makes them what they are, but it can also hurt them. In 1903, mining engineer Daniel Moreau Barringer of Wayne went with his gut when he bought a mile-wide crater in northern Arizona. Government scientists had concluded—erroneously—that the crater was the result of volcanic activity. Barringer recognized the impact of a meteorite, but concluded—wrongly—that the solid-iron meteorite was down there under the crater floor, waiting to be mined.

Barringer pursued both conclusions with passion. He damned the government scientists as incompetent, offending the scientific community and slowing acceptance of his theory. He sold his house on Maplewood Avenue to fund drilling. When subsequent evidence showed the meteor no longer existed, investors fled. Broke, Barringer collapsed and died.
 

His descendants made out better. Today, they still run the privately owned site as a popular tourist attraction called Meteor Crater. Among scientists, Barringer’s big hole is known as Barringer Crater.

“His story,” wrote granddaughter Carla Barringer Rabinowitz, “provides a fascinating glimpse into the nature of discovery, and the influence of pride, personality, the profit motive, intuitive leaps and rigorous logic on the progress of science.”

Born in Raleigh, N.C., Barringer was named for his father, a Whig who’d served from 1843-49 in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he befriended fellow member Abraham Lincoln. The senior Barringer later served as ambassador to Spain and, in 1861, as a delegate to a Washington peace conference trying to avert civil war. Barringer’s mother died when he was 7; his father passed when he was 13. He moved to Philadelphia in 1873 to live with an older brother, a lawyer.

“The most memorable experience of his boyhood was a six-week trip from Raleigh to Hot Springs, Va., with his father’s friend, Gen. Robert E. Lee,” wrote the younger Barringer’s son, Brandon, in 1964. Barringer later recalled sitting on Lee’s veranda and watching Confederate veterans “creeping up behind trees” for a glimpse of Lee.

Workers in the crater that drained Barringer’s fortune.Admitted to Princeton at 15, Barringer was part of the famous Class of ’79, which also included Cyrus McCormick (inventor of the mechanical reaper) and Woodrow Wilson. He went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school and joined his brother’s practice. But Barringer soon grew bored.

Barringer went west, took up big-game hunting and was befriended by rich Easterners with similar interests. With his friends Theodore Roosevelt and Philadelphia writer Owen Wister (The Virginian), Barringer was a founding member of the Boone and Crockett Club, an early conservationist organization. Barringer wrote for the club magazine, which included his account of an 1883 encounter with a grizzly that wanted his freshly killed elk.

“The animal made a furious charge to within 20 feet, where it suddenly stopped,” he wrote. “I threw my rifle to my face and fired at her left eye. At the shot, she arose upon her hind feet and danced for all the world like a trained dancing bear back to the spot where the elk lay, and then fell backward almost across the carcass.”

Terrified that the animal was only wounded, Barringer took off running until he realized that it wasn’t chasing him. Then, he went back and collected the remains of both animals.
 

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Back in Philadelphia, Barringer’s brother had been less than successful in managing their inheritances­, so the younger sibling would have to make his own money. He decided to try geology, studying metallurgy at the University of Virginia and working briefly for the Arkansas Geological Survey. After partnering with mining investor R.A.F. Penrose, Barringer investigated dozens of mines in Spain and South America in 1892 and ’93.

He also married. Traveling through Colorado, Barringer noticed during a stop that a young Arizona woman, Margaret Bennett, was about to miss the departing train at La Junta. He pulled her aboard. They wed in 1897.

Barringer was broke. But then he got lucky: He and his partners discovered the Commonwealth silver mine near Pearce, Ariz. During its life, the Commonwealth and the surrounding mining district produced 12 million ounces of silver, providing Barringer with what Rabinowitz labeled “a considerable fortune.”

Barringer bought 37 acres on Maplewood Avenue in the southwest corner of Wayne and, around 1898, built the house in which most of his eight children would be born. According to a family legend, he quarreled with the architect, possibly over whether the home should have columns. (It did.) The children had horses. There was money for servants and to send all six sons to Princeton University.

Barringer also served as a trustee of Jefferson Medical College and the Philadelphia Zoo. He also was a founder of the Mill Dam Club in Wayne.

A large man—5 feet, 9 inches and north of 200 pounds—Barringer had a boisterous personality. He loved whiskey and cigars. When Prohibition approached, he bought enough of the former “to last a liberal expectation of a lifetime” and stashed it in the Maplewood house.

Wayne may have been idyllic for his family, but Barringer was usually down a mine somewhere. Trying to duplicate his Commonwealth success, he bought into explorations for iron, silver and gold across the Southwest and in Mexico. In 1902, a friend mentioned what was then called the Coon Butte Crater, whose rim stands 432 feet above a surrounding plain sprinkled with an estimated 30 tons of iron meteorite fragments. Discovered early in the 19th century, the crater was first seriously examined in 1891 by Grove Karl Gilbert, chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey. Gilbert saw no connection between the crater and the meteorite fragments. With no evidence of a large iron deposit that would suggest a buried meteorite, Gilbert concluded that the crater was the result of a steam explosion caused by the interaction of groundwater and subterranean volcanic heat.

Gilbert “was tolerant, generous and fair minded, with an intense dislike of controversy of any kind,” wrote Rabinowitz. In the gentlemanly club of professional geologists, “his prestige was so great that none of his colleagues or successors was willing to publicly question his conclusions.”

Barringer disagreed about the crater’s origin. But he accepted Gilbert’s belief that, if a meteorite was responsible, it must be buried there someplace. Preliminary investigation around the crater revealed fragments of iron, sandstone and limestone mixed together—as if all had been simultaneously thrown into the air and fallen back to earth together. Finding these in separate layers would have indicated that each was laid down gradually by natural geological processes.

That was enough for Barringer. He quietly acquired the property (with a patent signed by Roosevelt) and, in 1903, drilled an exploratory shaft in the center of the crater floor. The shaft turned up no meteorite but did find large quantities of pulverized silica, now recognized as prima facie evidence of extraterrestrial impact.

Drilling continued from 1903 through 1906, during which Barringer found much information, but no meteorite. Fearful his findings would leak out and others grab credit for determining the crater’s origin, he prepared a lengthy paper detailing the evidence and presented it at the 1906 meeting of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
 

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Barringer was blunt: “Gilbert,” he wrote, “had adopted the steam explosion theory on what seems to be very insufficient evidence [and] an inadequate examination of Coon Mountain. Had he examined the surface carefully, it does not seem possible to me that any experienced geologist could have arrived at such a conclusion.”

Insufficient evidence? Inadequate examination? Those were fighting words in the scientific clubhouse.

The scientists responded with silence, then with counter-theories. A Yale geologist suggested that the crater was a giant limestone sinkhole. Another ventured that the crushed silica grains could have been produced by steam pressure. The USGS and Gilbert, however, remained silent.

This infuriated Barringer, who wanted credit and an intellectual legacy. “You have boys of your own,” he wrote to sympathizer Elihu Thomson. “Someday, this crater is going to be a greatly talked-about place, and if the above credit is due, as is certainly the case, I would like to have it generally known for the sake of the children.”

Barringer’s theory gradually gained ground. But that didn’t produce the meteorite. More holes were drilled in 1907 and ’08. Thinking the meteorite may have come in at an angle, Barringer shifted drilling to explore under a section of the rim that was higher than the rest. Still nothing.

An investor dropped out. A partner died. About 1915, Barringer sold his family’s Wayne home to cover his debts. (The family subsequently lived in a series of Main Line rentals, but never again owned a house.) For most of a decade, Barringer tried to interest rich investors in the project. Andrew Carnegie, Thomas A. Edison and Joseph Wharton (founder of Penn’s Wharton School) and various London financiers all said no.

Others said yes. U.S. Smelting put in $200,000. Boston investors, $250,000. Barringer, more than he could afford.

It was all lost in 1929, when a nervous investor asked the opinion of astronomer Forest Ray Moulton. Moulton’s analysis was that the meteorite had weighed just 300,000 tons—3 percent of Barringer’s estimate—and had been mostly vaporized by the collision. The crater was caused by the meteorite’s explosion, not its impact.

“Common sense,” retorted Barringer, proved Moulton wrong. But his fellow investors voted in September 1929 to suspend operations. In November, a week after reading Moulton’s final report, Barringer died of a heart attack.

Intuition, self-interest and passion had led him toward the truth. But when the truth proved to be elsewhere, Barringer’s passion proved fatal.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
 

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