A massive Solar Storm clobbered the Earth. Auroras were seen at the Equator, and telegraph and telephone exchange office erupted into flames from the huge voltages induced in the copper wiring.
This happened towards the end of Solar Cycle 15, a nondescript cycle with nothing extraordinary, until this happened.
Sunspot AR1842 appeared, and began blasting the Earth with Corona Mass Ejections, unknown at the time.
If it happened today, it could cause major disruptions with our communications systems, and possible knock-out the GPS satellites. They're hardened quite well, but Mother Nature has a way of laughing at man's puny works.
Good reason to keep those paper maps and a good compass!
Complete article is here, at the SpaceWeather Archive site.