Nantucket the Astronomically Blessed

Yf they say the mone is blewe We must believe that it is true.

A rhyme that first appeared in 1528, from which the commonly used phrase "once in a blue moon" is derived

How often may total solar eclipses be seen? We might say, with some appropriateness, once in a blue moon. That saying is usually taken to have the meaning "hardly ever" or "very infrequently." How that phrase came into common usage is an example of modern folklore, with a New England connection, as we will eventually learn below.

Even with rare events like eclipses it is possible to beat the odds. That is the subject we are going to consider in this chapter. A quick example to begin. You will recognize from what has gone before that a total solar eclipse might be expected to visit some random point on Earth only every few centuries. Now think about the miners who went to the Yukon Territory in the nineteenth-century gold rushes. Some of them, down on their luck, may have ended up in the northwestern corner of British Columbia, perhaps fossicking for the precious metal in the Stikine River around the settlement of Telegraph Creek. At the end of July 1851 they could have witnessed such an eclipse. Then again, the August 1869 eclipse would have swept over them, followed by that ofJuly 1878. That makes three totals in less than 30 years. Each occurred at the height of summer, when the chances of clear skies were greatest (indeed the dates are within a spread of just ten days). That the nearest mountains were titled the Spectrum Range seems almost too much of a coincidence. Each of those eclipses, the latter two especially, also passed over at least some part of Alaska, as if to celebrate the purchase of that state by the United States from Russia in 1867.

Back in the nineteenth century this was a pretty remote and inaccessible part of North America. Let's look instead at a particular spot a bit closer to the major population centers. For reasons that will soon become apparent, I'll pick Nantucket Island, a dot in the Atlantic merely 14 miles wide, lying just south of Cape Cod. This is a unique place: it is a town, a county, and also an island of course. Actually, it is the only locality in the United States to be so defined. On top of that, Nantucket Island as a whole is classed as both a State Historic District and a National Historic Landmark. But I choose it as a subject for consideration because of its astronomical connections.

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