1902 Mount Pelée Eruption: Volcano Kills 30,000 When Governor Decides Election Is More Important

By | November 7, 2020

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In April of 1902 the Mount Pelee volcano on Martinique island erupted. (Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Several months ago, when postponing the U.S. presidential election to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was on the table, the very idea caused such an outcry that it was abandoned, but the suggestion wasn't unprecedented. More than a century ago, government officials in the West Indies refused to issue evacuation orders because of an election, which ended pretty badly. Specifically, it ended with the 1902 Mount Pelée eruption, killing everyone in town.

The Paris Of The Caribbean

St. Pierre, a picturesque town on the French island of Martinique in the Caribbean, was a harbor town, center of trade, and cultural mecca of the region. As a stunning backdrop to the beautiful city, Mount Pelée soared nearly 4,600 feet above the sea. The mountain boasted brilliant green slopes with occasional deep canyons, perfect for hikers and adventurers.

Mount Pelée may have added to the splendor of St. Pierre, but beneath its mighty peak lay a hidden danger. The people of St. Pierre knew that, like most mountains in the Lesser Antilles, Mount Pelée was a volcano, but they treated it as a sleeping giant that posed no threat to them. 

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Mount Pelée seen from the Turin cove, at Carbet in Martinique. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Awakening

Although Mount Pelée appeared dormant, beneath the surface, the volcano was waking up. It's not like it had no history of activity, some of which was fairly recent. In 1792, Mount Pelée sent a fine layer of ash over a portion of Martinique. Sixty years later, the mountain sputtered ominously, although the only damage was caused by a few small mudslides. The people of St. Pierre believed that if their mountain erupted again, it would be another minor incident.

A number of strange things happened in 1902, however, that we now know were warning signs that Mount Pelée was roaring back to life. Waves of ants, spiders, and centipedes swarmed down the mountain and overran the farm fields at its base. Next, hundreds of pit vipers invaded St. Pierre, fleeing the mountain. Hikers returned with reports of a slight smell of sulfur, and by April 1902, the mountain rumbled with tremors and sent down mud flows that killed a few farmers. An underwater telegraph cable running from Martinique to the nearby island of Dominica mysteriously ruptured, but no one connected it to the tremors from Mount Pelée.