Willoughby: Viewing in real time — Hurricane Ida compared to 1883 Krakatoa

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Harpers Weekly illustration of Krakatoa before a volcanic explosion destroyed two-thirds of the Island in 1883, published a full month after the event. Library of Congress/Courtesy photo

We followed the progress of hurricane Ida in the days leading up to it reaching landfall. In real time we could watch, from our safe homes, the devastation and learn of the damage. We can see the smoke and follow hourly updates from California wildfires threatening ski resorts. 1880s Aspen experienced the world in ways so different it is hard contemplate what real time meant then.

The following is an attempt at putting us into the shoes of Aspenites in 1883 using a major event of that year, the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa. My choice is completely personal, the real story interweaves with a fictional version, William Pené du Bois’ Newbery winning children’s book, The Twenty-One Balloons published in 1947.

I used the book teaching reading. Like many of those early Newbery books it is not popular today because its reading level as measured by vocabulary and sentence length is far above the interest level. I used it because boys love it and it was good for teaching vocabulary. If you remember the book, it takes place on Krakatoa where people discovered diamonds that they would sell to fund their interesting lifestyle. They escape just before the eruption on a large platform lifted by 21 balloons.

My favorite line in the book related to Aspen’s mining commented that nature’s most precious items (diamonds) were the hardest to find and most protected by nature.

We think of Aspen in the mining days as a town where miners lived in town and worked the large nearby mines. In 1883 miners were spread out with many living in cabins near their mines. They ventured into town on an occasional basis. There they caught up on the news from others and from newspapers. They were as interested in a week-old newspaper as one just off the press. It was all relevant new news.

There was a communications revolution, the telegraph, connecting even towns like Aspen that before the railroads was very isolated. Aspen connected in 1881 with a line that ran from Crested Butte to Ashcroft and then on to Aspen. Real time then was through the telegraph, and with a daily paper. Those living in town were up to date.

Krakatoa erupted August 26th and 27th in 1883. The first local mention was on September 1st in the Carbonate Chronicle (Leadville) with a short note that two islands, including Java, were covered with ash, and crops, roads and bridges damaged. It briefly noted a tidal wave. Readers learned much later that the explosion was heard nearly two thousand miles away in Perth, Australia.

Even though the tidal wave rounded the globe, there is not another report until December 22nd. The Sun (Gunnison) published a firsthand account from a ship’s captain in the area that did not tell his story until he reached Boston in early December. The captain reported that first he encountered a very dark cloud bank that quickly overcame his ship. In total darkness the ship had to contend with sand and ash inches thick.

Shipmates would see flashes of light, they thought maybe lightning. They thought it was the end of the world. That was when they were a hundred miles away. As they got closer they began to see the damage including much of Krakatoa gone. The ocean was covered in a layer of ash and floating trees. Then they saw, on the water, fields of coconuts. Finally, most grizzly of all, they began seeing floating corpses.

One count, at the time, suggested a death toll of over 36,000. Other sources put it at 120,000. Skeletons floated across the Indian Ocean and washed up on the coast of Africa months later.

Newspaper stories and notes about the effects continued for several years. This is just conjecture on my part, but I think Aspen’s miners were fascinated by the story. They worked underground and had direct connection with geology. They knew the ore they mined found its way into cracks in the mountains from below. Earthquakes are common in Aspen, they are rarely large, but underground where the plates of rock are moving a miner is acutely aware. After hearing about Krakatoa their fear level during underground shakes must have been elevated for years.

The power of nature, in real time, was more relevant than telegraph stories of something half a world away.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at


Mountain Mayhem: ‘Tis the season

The festive season is upon us with lots of holiday events and activities on the calendar and a cheerful atmosphere with snowy slopes and twinkling lights all around town.

See more