The eclipse fever that has been sweeping the nation allows a glimpse of North Country life 85 years ago, when the path of totality clipped the region, allowing many upstate New York locations to experience 90 percent of the impact. It was a pretty exciting time, coming on the heels of the 1925 total solar eclipse in New York City. The Plattsburgh Sentinel reported on the viewing of that event at Saranac Lake.
“While not total, the eclipse was a magnificent spectacle, and during the greater portion, the sun was free of clouds. During the darkest period, snow fields and mountain ice caps were bathed in a violet light in which the shadows sharply were defined. The whole vast wilderness became a land of awesome beauty, with the snow and ice making a perfect background.”
In the Big Apple, the New York Stock Exchange and banks remained closed that day until after the eclipse. Many other cities did the same and launched special police patrols to prevent crimes that were normally committed under cover of darkness.
Cecil B. DeMille took the opportunity to promote his original production of The Ten Commandments. By arrangement with city officials, a movie projector was mounted on a police traffic tower. When the day turned dark, a snippet of the movie was projected onto a large screen placed outside the Criterion Theater, in full view of a packed Times Square crowd. The film went on to set many box-office records.
For the North Country, the best recent opportunity to view a total solar eclipse came in August 1932. From northern polar regions, the path of totality led southeast across Hudson Bay and part of Quebec (including Montreal), across northern Vermont, and reached the coast at southern Maine. Barely within the edge of that path was the village of Rouses Point in the state’s northeast corner, where the borders of New York, Quebec, and Vermont converge. Totality there would last about a minute and a half.
Attraction of the masses to the path of totality didn’t overshadow (sorry … couldn’t resist) the fact that even as far south as Albany, the eclipse was considered 97 percent total. The North Country was electric with excitement, and just about everyone had a plan. While tens of thousands of hopeful viewers flocked north and east to the Capital Region, residents there literally headed for the hills, seeking familiar high locations in the nearby Helderbergs, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks.
People in the northern border counties of St. Lawrence, Franklin, and Clinton, adjacent to ground zero, lined the roads and watch from their yards, while dedicated eclipse chasers crossed the border by 30 miles or so to observe from within the direct path of the shadow.
The Plattsburgh Daily Press described that city’s reaction to science and beauty from above: “… it was a magnificent spectacle to hundreds of residents of this city. Hundreds of people could be seen on sidewalks, roofs of buildings, and many went to Hotel Champlain, where they viewed the eclipse from the hotel verandas with smoked glasses and photographic film.” The hotel, overlooking Lake Champlain from atop Bluff Point, was a gorgeous setting where “totality” was at 98 or 99 percent.
At Rouses Point, said the North Countryman, “During the actual moment of totality, the phenomenon was obscured by heavy clouds, but local residents had a fine view of the thin solar crescent just before it was completely covered and within a few seconds of the time it emerged from the shadow of the moon. At 3:25, the street lights in the village were turned on as the afternoon light had turned to a deep twilight. Merchants and clerks lined the east side of the business section of Lake Street, most of them equipped with smoked pieces of glass, colored glass spectacles, or exposed Kodak film.” (Viewing eclipses through smoked glass or two layers of exposed film was the generally recommended method at the time, not so today.)
At Dannemora, since the eclipse occurred during the prisoners’ outdoor recreation period, all inmates at Clinton Prison were confined to their cells to prevent any escape attempts, which were more commonly made under cover of darkness.
While total solar eclipses are technically not rare in the sense that one occurs somewhere on earth an average of every 18 months, they are certainly rare in that they only occur at a previous eclipse totality site every 375 to 500 years on average. When Space.com put together a chart of 25 Western-Hemisphere “eclipse” cities, it found the average wait for another total solar eclipse was 534 years.
The good news for North Country folks? By far the lowest wait on that list was Montreal, which was within totality of the 1932 solar eclipse. Their wait is just 91.6 years, so the next one will happen in April 2024. But don’t waste your time booking Quebec hotels and planning other vacation activities around your Canadian stay seven years from now. Most of the Adirondacks are dead center in the path of totality.
Photos: Path of total solar eclipse, 1932; eclipse headlines, Albany Times Union, 1932.