Eclipse Preparations In The West

Expeditions were sent to the west in July 1878 from many of the established universities. From institutions in NewYork, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Chicago a stream of astronomers issued forth, heading for the mountains to set up their instruments (see Figure 9-2). Princeton University sent a team that was reputed to be the best equipped, with the latest telescopes and spectroscopes needed for the job. The U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., dispatched five separate groups of observers to well separated points so as to be sure that they would not all be clouded out. As it happened, Monday July 29 dawned clear, after 12 days of unsettled weather. Very few observers had their plans disrupted in any way by clouds.

The choice of location was dictated to a large extent by the paths taken by the different railroad companies. The Union Pacific line from Chicago to San Francisco running through southern Wyoming afforded one possibility. Along that stretch of the railroad, near Rawlins, there were four separate eclipse parties, sampling alternative points across the track of totality.

Another route was further south. By taking the Santa Fe railroad from Kansas City to Pueblo, Colorado, eclipse parties could get to the edge of the plains in front of the Rockies. They could then decide how far north they wanted to go, on the Rio Grande railroad passing up through Denver to Cheyenne. Most did go to

FIGURE 9-2. A temporary observatory set up in Colorado for the 1878 eclipse.

Denver or thereabouts, the eclipse providing the greatest single influx of people ever seen by that city since its foundation. Others had determined that Colorado Springs was far enough. Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Allegheny Observatory, near Pittsburgh, was later to become an aeronautical pioneer: the NASA-Langley Research Center in Virginia is named for him. Back in 1878 he was reaching for the sky in a different way. Accompanied by several other astronomers he established a temporary observatory on Pikes Peak, the summit of which is over 14,000 feet above sea level. In the event their observations went well, but only after some consternation in the days beforehand, because several members of the party had to be taken off the mountain when they started suffering from altitude sickness.

As regards the general public, there was some argument in the preceding weeks with regard to whether businesses and factories should close up, in order to allow workers a chance to view the eclipse. An announcement was made in Denver the day before that all banks would close early, at 1:30 in the afternoon, 45 minutes prior to the first contact. Essentially all shops were closed by two o'clock, and the only thing one could easily buy was a piece of smoked glass for eclipse watching, boys walking the streets hawking such aids to anyone who had not had the foresight to prepare their own. As the Rocky Mountain News said, "The show was on the grandest of grand scales, free to all, without money and without price"—except perhaps in lost wages.

Several overseas visitors came to Colorado for the eclipse, in particular a group of half a dozen British astronomers, who were accompanied by Asaph Hall from the U.S. Naval Observatory. They positioned themselves at Fort Lyon, on the plains out to the east of Pueblo, where the Santa Fe Trail snaked down from Kit Carson. Hall had recently become internationally famous through his discovery, just the year before, of the two small moons of Mars we call Phobos and Deimos. In this party was Norman Lockyer, whom we met in Chapter 5. An avid eclipse chaser, Lockyer was the founder and first editor of Nature, a magazine that continues as the world's premier scientific journal. He was hugely impressed by the enthusiasm for the eclipse shown by the local people, sending home to London the following report: "As significant of the keen interest taken in the eclipse by all classes here, I may mention that on the Sunday before the event prayers for fine weather were offered in all the churches of Denver." Even more, Lockyer was delighted by the encouragement given to science by the U.S. government, contrasting it against the attitude he experienced back in Britain: "Strange as it may seem, this is the expressed feeling of all the authorities here, from the Chief of the State downwards. In interviews with which I have been honored, the President of the United States himself, the Secretary for War, General Sherman, and other members of the Cabinet have one and all insisted upon the importance of securing records of all possible natural phenomena, and expressed their gratification that such records have been secured in the present instance by Government aid."

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