It’s A Cincinnati Tradition: Eclipses Always Happen Somewhere Else

When it comes to solar eclipses, Cincinnati has had the worst luck.

The eclipse next week is billed as a “National Eclipse” because it traverses the United States from coast to coast, but will pass by Cincinnati. Almost 100 years ago, a similar “National Eclipse” passed by Cincinnati. Over the years, many eclipses have done just that—passed by Cincinnati.

Daniel Drake, in his 1815 “Picture of Cincinnati” describes one of the first solar eclipses recorded in this region:

“On the afternoon of the September 17, 1811, there was nearly a total eclipse of the sun. At Cincinnati the day was fair, with a brisk arid south-west. As the obscuration increased, the wind died away; and abated entirely before the eclipse was at its maximum. After it was past, the wind gradually revived, and continued till sunset, when it ceased, as usual.”

The operative words are “nearly a total.” Of all the solar eclipses since 1811, not one has reached totality in Cincinnati, although residents of the Queen City enjoyed many partial eclipses.

In 1897, Cincinnatians smoked small panes of glass to create homemade eclipse viewers.

From Cincinnati Post 29 July 1897; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

An eclipse passed just north of the city on September 18, 1838. The path of totality ran so close that Lebanon and Blanchester got to see a total eclipse, while in Cincinnati there was still enough light for the Earthquakes—a local militia brigade—to parade through the city in their fancy uniforms.

Another near miss occurred on August 7, 1869, when a total eclipse passed just south of Cincinnati, close enough that Big Bone, Verona and Crittenden, Kentucky, enjoyed totality. In Cincinnati, the eclipse was only partial, but excitement ran high. According to the Cincinnati Gazette [9 August 1869]:

“Thousands flocked to the stores that supplied colored glasses, and provided themselves with the necessary protection to the eye. Thousands more were engaged in manufacturing their own instruments. Expectation filled the minds of the population.”

Of course, that expectation provided the inspiration for some tricksters to yank a few chains:

“On Vine street, below Third, some enterprising merchants managed to get possession of a huge pipe, and into the extremity of the monster they fitted a piece of tin, mounted it on some tripodal arrangement, and then covered the great fellow with a piece of cloth. All who passed were invited to ‘take a free look” through the telescope, and, of course, with the laudable desire which all had, of seeing everything that was to be seen, the invitation was generally accepted. But every one who looked through the deceitful instrument saw only a tallow candle shining, and flooding with its dim wick light the word ‘sold.’”

By 1869, Cincinnati had its own Observatory, but the director, Cleveland Abbe, was camped out in the Dakota Territory, hoping to combine astronomical and meteorological observations. As soon as he got back to town, Abbe launched his daily weather bulletins which eventually became the National Weather Service.

The eclipse of July 29, 1878 did not pass nearly so close to Cincinnati—Dallas may have been the most proximate point of totality—but Cincinnatians were in the thick of things. Ormond Stone, Abbe’s successor at the Cincinnati Observatory, had set up camp outside Denver and contributed a detailed report to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

The eclipse of June 8, 1918 followed a path somewhat similar to that predicted for the “National Eclipse” of August 21, 2017. Since the closest location offering full totality was Jackson, Mississippi, Cincinnati again had to settle for a semi-eclipse. In the waning months of World War I, the front pages of Cincinnati’s newspapers were given over to reports of military actions. The most engaged eclipse viewers were members of the American Walkers Association, who hiked from Cheviot out to Miami Heights as the moon gobbled up the sun and viewed the phenomenon through telescopes set up by the Cincinnati Astronomical Society.

A century ago, Cincinnati was more focused on the Great War in Europe than on another partial eclipse in the sky. Cincinnati Post Cartoonist Claude Shafer captured the city’s sentiment in this cartoon a couple of days after the solar show.

From Cincinnati Post 10 June 1918; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Interestingly, the most exciting astronomical event of 1918 took place the day after the eclipse when several astronomers, including Jermain Porter of the Cincinnati Observatory, noticed a brand new star in the constellation Aquila, the brightest nova or exploding star discovered in the era of telescopes. For several years, this “new star” (English for “nova stella”) was the third-brightest star in the sky.

There are, at minimum, two solar eclipses each and every year. All of them pass by Cincinnati, but occasionally they pass by close enough that Cincinnati gets to see a partial eclipse.

The eclipse of January 24, 1925, for example, reached 91 percent totality in Cincinnati, and allowed residents to experiment with the effects of the eclipse on their newest household appliance, the radio. The Cincinnati Enquirer [25 January 1925] informed readers:

“Radio broadcasters and receivers reported that the eclipse exerted an influence on the receipt of radio messages. The influence was that of night reception, which is always much clearer than reception during the day. “

At radio station WLW, music director William Stoess performed a violin piece titled “Hymn To The Sun” as the sun shrank to a mere sliver.

In 1970, the “Eclipse of the Century,” which scooted up the East Coast, had a definite effect in Cincinnati—if only among our bovine residents. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer [8 March 1970]:

“Mrs. Raymond Probst’s cows didn’t exactly jump over the Moon Saturday, but they did come home to feed a few hours early because of the lunar body. The noontime eclipse did it. ‘Right around 1:30, when it was the darkest, they started coming up to the barn, one by one,’ said Mrs. Probst, whose Butler County farm is at 4821 Layhigh Rd. ‘They thought it was evening and time to eat.’”

By July 11, 1991, Cincinnatians who wanted to see an eclipse flew by jet plane to Hawaii or Mexico, where they could listen to astronomers, or to New Age shamans, chatter about the meaning of it all.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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