History in the Heavens

14, August 2017

It’s a rare day I’d say this, but on the early afternoon of August 21, I really hope you’re NOT inside the Missouri History Museum. In fact, I hope you’re not even in Forest Park! If you are, you’ll miss the history happening outside.

Color photo of a total solar eclipseDuring a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between Earth and the sun. Image courtesy of NASA.

Around 1:18 that afternoon, a total solar eclipse will pass over southern St. Louis City and County, marking the first time a total eclipse has made an appearance here since 1442—a full 322 years before there even was a St. Louis! Although partial eclipses are common in this area, like the one that happened most recently in October 2014, a total eclipse is a spectacle we won’t have another chance to see until 2505 (though nearby Carbondale, Illinois, will see one in 2024—road trip, anyone?).

(Eclipse) Party Like It’s 1889

For an astronomical phenomenon that has touched nearly every place on Earth at some point, remarkably few people have observed a total solar eclipse. Only two have crossed over the United States within the past 40 years, one in the Pacific Northwest in 1979 and one in Hawaii in 1991.

Given that centuries have passed since the last total eclipse touched St. Louis, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to find much on the subject in the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center. As it turns out, St. Louisans in 1889 weren’t about to let geography rob them of one of the sky’s grandest sights.

A total eclipse was predicted over the western United States for January 1, 1889. A group of Washington University scientists was shocked to learn the U.S. government had no formal studies planned, so the men decided to head west and make their own scientific observations. Calling themselves the Washington University Eclipse Party, the scientists borrowed telescopes, cameras, and other viewing equipment from around St. Louis and then set out for Norman, California, about 130 miles north of San Francisco. Upon arriving there, they stayed with Senator John Boggs, who built a temporary observatory for them on his land.

Cover of report produced by the Washington University Eclipse PartyFront page of the Washington University scientists' report, published by the St. Louis Academy of Sciences. Missouri History Museum.

Thick clouds on the morning of New Year's Day 1889 threatened to make the entire trip a bust. Miraculously, though, the skies opened by 1:30pm, and the eclipse began 20 minutes later. The elated scientists recorded their observations and eventually published them in a report, a copy of which, complete with photographs, lives on in our very own Library and Research Center.

Back in St. Louis, the 1889 partial eclipse hit at 3:48pm. In the words of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louisans watched “old Sol [going] down with a strip of black over his usually bright countenance.” How could they tell? In the days before those special cardboard glasses for safely viewing eclipses, St. Louisans observed them through shards of glass that had been smoked with a candle.

The 2017 Edition

The Missouri History Museum sits near the absolute edge of the August 21 eclipse’s path of totality, which is where the Moon completely blocks out the Sun. To see this once-in-a-lifetime event, you’ll need to trek farther south. The total eclipse will cover part of West County and all of South County, but its center will hover near St. Clair, Missouri. The closer you are to the center, the longer you’ll see the eclipse. It’s a tight window of just a few minutes, though, so don’t be late!

This map put out by the St. Louis Astronomical Society shows the total eclipse’s path and duration. It will hit Columbia, Missouri, at 1:10pm; reach St. Louis at 1:18pm; and pass onward to Carbondale by 1:20pm.

Photo of the 1889 total solar eclipseA composite image of the 1889 total solar eclipse, compiled from five photos taken by the Washington University team. Plumes of hydrogen gas can be seen erupting from the Sun’s surface. Missouri History Museum.

If you’re outside of the total eclipse’s narrow 80-mile band (say, at the Missouri History Museum), you’ll see only a partial eclipse, although the Sun’s light will still be blindingly and dangerously bright.

But here’s where the news gets even better: You’ll be done witnessing one of the solar system’s most spectacular displays by early afternoon, which leaves plenty of time to head back to the (air-conditioned!) Missouri History Museum to see fantastic exhibits on civil rights and World War I, or take the kids through the History Clubhouse.  

History in the sky and history in the Museum—I’d call that a great afternoon.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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