ELKTON — A century and a half ago this month, many Americans were excitedly awaiting the arrival of a total solar eclipse, when the moon travels between the sun and Earth, on Aug. 7, 1869. In Illinois, the New York Tribune was reporting on an astronomical study being completed by scientists — and Cecil County was there that day in a way.
Alexander Evans, who was born in Elkton and later was elected to Congress, was also apparently an amateur astronomer. He made the trip out west to be better positioned in the eclipse’s path to watch the phenomena himself. The Tribune reported:
“The total eclipse of the sun, at Springfield, Ill., came off with a perfectly cloudless sky, and a beautiful transparent atmosphere. At the head of the working force stationed there for the past three weeks, making the necessary preparations for observing the eclipse, was Charles A. Scott, for a long time one of the principal assistants on the Coast Survey. Under him were Mr. L.N. Pauntalis, Major J. W. Black, and Mr. Fitzgerald, in charge of the department for photographing the sun as often as possible during the progress of the eclipse. To assist Mr. Scott in the determination of time, and recording as well as making certain observations on the corona and red protuberances, were assigned Mr. Robert A. McLeed, and two young gentlemen from Cambridge, whose names were not ascertained.
“During the scientific observations with the instruments, it was necessary to have perfect silence and fixed attention on the part of the observers, hence, instead of observing the eclipse at any point within the city, the Coast Survey party selected a point about two miles from the center of the town. This spot
is within the grounds surrounding the reservoir which supplies Springfield with the water of the Sangamon river, on the south-west side of the river.
“Just below the elevated sloping sides a temporary observatory was erected to shelter the principal instruments of observation. Within the building was mounted a fine transit instrument, for obtaining the local time of Springfield, and for determining its difference of longitude from Washington. Saturday morning (August 7) the superintendent of the coast survey arrived. His son, Professor James M. Pierce, of Harvard, had been there some days. New Haven was represented by Professor Twining; the New-York University by its Professor of Astronomy; the Kingston University, Canada, by Prof. Dupuis; and the State of Maryland by the Hon. Alexander Evans, formerly a member of Congress, and an enthusiastic amateur astronomer. There were probably others of whom we did not hear. Soon after 1 o’clock, the astronomers began to take their positions and prepare their numerous and varied instruments for observation. The predicted time for the meridian of the little observatory were: Beginning of eclipse, 4h. 35m. 5-10 s., Springfield, mean time, beginning of totality, 5h. 5m. 20 7-10s.; end of totality, 5h. 8m. 10 2-10s.; meantime of eclipse, 6h. 3m. 41 2-10s. Quite a number of people were collected outside the fence and cord which enclosed the astronomers. Somewhat later numerous carriages and wagons began to arrive, and the horses were tied to the fence. Crowds of people on foot and some on horseback began to stream from the town toward the reservoir.
“Finding they were not permitted within the astronomical lines, the people, men, ladies and children, stormed the heights of the reservoir and took possession, where they remained standing or seated on the grassy slope awaiting the eclipse. At 4 o’clock, the astronomers were looking in silence through their telescopes, for the first contact, and it came at last within a very few seconds of the predicted time. In a moment more the whole crowd recognized the black dent; in the sun’s north-western limit through their pieces of smoked glass. As the eclipse progressed, the photographic party took impressions rapidly, and recorded at the same time the instant of obtaining their pictures. Not less than 235 impressions of the sun were taken from the beginning to the close of the, eclipse. At 4h., 45min., the diminution of light was very perceptible, and at 5o’clock a singular leaden hue began to spread over the heavens, especially toward the north-west. At three minutes past 5, or a little more than two minutes before the total obscuration, the planet Venus was seen, and the boys began to cry out — “I see a star.” Within six seconds of the prediction, the last rays of the sun disappeared, and that instant the corona burst forth in all its splendor and beauty. Another moment and the red flash of a protuberance burst forth on the left hand limb of the sun, like a tongue of flame jetting out horizontally. Soon another jet flashed vertically downward from the lowest limb of the sun. Others, observing with the aid of the telescope, saw several more of these protuberances. Meanwhile the heavens had darkened sufficiently to permit a view of the following planets and stars, besides Venus: Mercury, Mars, Saturn, Regulus and Arcturus. One gentleman relates that his neighbor’s fowls went to their roost; but probably owing — to the extreme clearness of the atmosphere, and its absolute freedom from all clouds, everyone was impressed with the fact that the darkness was not nearly as great as they expected. A herd of cattle feeding at a little distance from the reservoir did not seem to pay any attention to the change. The horizon all around was lighted up by a sort of dim twilight, for four or five degrees in breadth, and above this rim of light hung a dark, leaden canopy, increasing in depth of shade toward the zenith.
“Suddenly the sun burst out again from behind the beautiful corona, and almost instantly the corona and red protuberances vanished. The people immediately threw away their smoked and shade glasses, which went crashing in all directions with a ringing sound, and the crowd dispersed at once, not waiting for the end, but took up their course for the town far more rapidly than they arrived. The astronomers almost alone continued to the close of the performance. The spectroscope was not employed in the observances at this place, nearly all the instruments, and those skilled in their use, having gone to Shelby, Ky., and Des Moines, Iowa.
“Most of the astronomical observers of this eclipse have come to the conclusion that by far the greater part of the phenomenon called the corona, if not the whole of it, belongs to our own atmosphere, rather than to any atmosphere either of the sun or moon. In fact, just as we see a small corona, or ring light around the moon, so the reflection and refraction of our atmosphere produces the greater part, if not all, of the corona around the sun. It is only seen best during the solar eclipse, because the brightness of its rays obscures it at other times, just as he puts out the planets and stars in the day. The red projections seem to belong peculiarly to the sun. At least the astronomers have not yet abandoned that idea.”
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