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Afterglow of Eclipse of 1878

Written by Dick Perue

As with the eclipse of 2017, Wyoming played a prominent role in the total solar eclipse of 1878.

Hundreds of articles were written about the 1878 event, and we will pass along a few of the local accounts from various sources.

An article by Rebecca Hein for WyoHistory.org, a project of the Wyoming State Historical Society, entitled “Moon Shadows over Wyoming: The Solar Eclipses of 1878” notes:

In the summer of 1878, William O. “Billy” Owen was working with a surveying crew high in the Medicine Bow Mountains, about 36 miles west of Laramie, Wyoming Territory.

“Over that vast forest,” he later wrote, “the moon’s shadow was advancing with a speed and rush that almost took one’s breath.”

This was the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878.

Land surveyor Owen was still in his teens in 1878 when he saw the solar eclipse from the top of Medicine Bow Peak in southern Wyoming. Decades later, he recalled the onrushing moon shadow, saying, “It was terrifying, appalling and yet possessed a majestic grandeur and fascination that only one who has seen it can appreciate.

In its Aug. 24, 1878 edition the “Laramie Weekly Sentinel” reported, 

Awful Dark

We have heard several stories of the effects of the late eclipse, how hens went to roost, etc., but the most remarkable one is a story Slack writes up to us about how it got so dark in Cheyenne that a young married couple actually undressed and went to bed. If we did not know Slack’s veracity we should doubt the yarn.

Another story went:

One group of researchers, who had viewed an earlier eclipse from a height of around 5,000 feet, decided they wanted to witness the 1878 eclipse from somewhere even higher. They chose Colorado’s Pike’s Peak, an ultra-prominence with a summit at over 14,000 feet above sea level, which not only sat right in the middle of the eclipse’s path, but already had a meteorological station on top.

This group included Cleveland Abbe, who is today known as the father of the National Weather Service. One account states that he climbed Pike’s Peak in 1878 to witness the eclipse and nearly died from exposure to bad weather and altitude sickness.

Yet another article reported the following:

The 1878 eclipse

The path of totality of the July 29, 1878 eclipse crossed most of Wyoming Territory in a swath from northwest to southeast. It was 191 kilometers wide – about 118 miles. Darkness on the centerline of the path lasted three minutes, 11 seconds.

Wyoming residents watched the eclipse through smoked glass, as did Owen and his companions. They also viewed part of the eclipse using their Burt’s solar compass, a large brass surveyor’s device with a mirror and other attachments that allow the user to find true north using the angle of the sun, instead of magnetism.

Such a simple setup was not sufficient for the professional astronomers who spent 10 days or more in Wyoming Territory, however. They were there to gather data available only during totality and had to work fast and with the best possible tools.

University of Wyoming history professor Phil Roberts writes:

The inventor Thomas Edison traveled with a party that set up a temporary observatory near Rawlins, attracting substantial local publicity. Edison was eager to test his new tasimeter, a highly sensitive heat-measuring device. The July 30, 1878, Laramie Daily Sentinel reported that seven experts, some with their wives as assistants, were working at the observatory. Henry Draper of New York, director of the Rawlins observatory, was the most eminent astronomer in the party.

Edison’s experiment with the tasimeter was deemed a failure. However, Edison became better known in Wyoming for his hunting and fishing trip to Battle Lake in the Sierra Madres mountains of south central Carbon County, a trek we will take the next time we send you a “Postcard from the Past.”