In 1878 a widely publicized total solar eclipse passed over the state of Colorado. The so-called Great Eclipse of 1878 would garner national attention for the state, as it was the ideal place to view the event thanks to the higher elevation and ready access to tall mountain peaks—perfect places for observatories. As an event that highlighted the United States’ ever-growing scientific literacy during the late 1800s, the Great Eclipse was one of the first times that Colorado enjoyed the national spotlight for something other than mineral wealth or frontier violence. Eclipse viewing was also a part of Colorado’s early tourism industry.
Reporting the Great Eclipse
In 1876 a small news item in a Denver paper may have been the first indication that two years from then an awesome natural spectacle would take place in the skies above Colorado. On March 27, 1876, The Denver Post reported that in July 1878, a total solar eclipse would pass over the state. The paper even claimed with evident pride that “it does not appear that [the eclipse] will be total at any other city now existing in the United States.”
Most Coloradans were probably unaware that their state would host a major scientific event until the beginning of 1878, when other Colorado papers began reporting on the upcoming phenomenon. On January 26, the Silver World of Lake City briefly noted that the eclipse would occur over Colorado in July. By March, word was starting to spread. The Denver Tribune ran a short piece noting the advantage that the state would afford observers, claiming that “each one of the rival astronomers can have a peak to himself.” By April, newspapers across the state were publishing the exact time that the eclipse would begin. Colorado was ready, but would the astronomers come? Eclipse expeditions were not cheap, and the federal government had still not appropriated the funds necessary to bring astronomers out west.
The Pueblo Chieftain of July 11 noted: “Congress has appropriated $8,000” for eclipse observations. This amount was given to the United States Naval Observatory to administer and fund multiple eclipse expeditions to the Rocky Mountains. The Chieftain went on to describe the constitution of the various expeditions: their leaders, the astronomers who would be making observations, and the locations from which the eclipse would be observed: Creston, Wyoming; Denver and Central City; and the summit of Pikes Peak, among others.
Astronomers had calculated that the path of the eclipse would run down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, from southern Wyoming Territory through much of central Colorado and south into Texas. In Colorado, observers would be able to view the eclipse from established cities (Denver and Colorado Springs), known mining communities (such as Central City and Georgetown), and small plains towns along rail lines (such as Las Animas and La Junta). The Pennsylvania Railroad Company gave professional astronomers from Europe and the United States half-price fare from the East Coast to Denver, via Chicago or St. Louis. Other railroads offered similar discounts. And so, as the eclipse approached, astronomers arrived in Colorado by the dozens.
Although an important expedition consisting of Simon Newcomb (then director of the Navy’s Nautical Almanac Office) and Thomas Edison went to Creston, Wyoming, and other astronomers went to Texas, Colorado got the lion’s share of eclipse expeditions. One group made up of observers from the Naval Observatory, Johns Hopkins University, and West Point went to Central City and observed the eclipse from the roof of the Teller House hotel. Astronomers from New York and St. Louis went to Idaho Springs. Charles Young, a proponent of high-altitude astronomical observations, led the Princeton University expedition that would observe near Cherry Creek, while the budding astronomer William Henry Pickering also observed nearby. Samuel Pierpont Langley, then with the Allegheny Observatory, would scale Pikes Peak with his brother, Professor John Langley, and meteorologist Cleveland Abbe. Asaph Hall, the astronomer who had just discovered the moons of Mars in 1877, would take his expedition to La Junta. Of course, all of these astronomers brought a support crew to help transport their equipment, set up instruments, and aid in other technical aspects of the observations.
As beautiful as total solar eclipse is to watch, scientists coming to Colorado to observe it had a specific research agenda. During the eclipse, with no direct sunlight to blind them, the observers would be able to study the solar corona (the sun’s “atmosphere”) From Colorado’s higher elevations, where Earth’s own atmosphere is less dense, astronomers hoped to settle once and for all that there was an undiscovered planet (known by legend as “Vulcan”) that many believed would be found between Mercury and the sun, and which (if it even existed) could only be observed during a total eclipse.
Great Eclipse, Vulcan, and Tourism
Colorado also played host to a horde of eclipse tourists, and Colorado Springs was a particularly popular spot. In June the Chicago Times reported on a “mammoth excursion from the [Great] lakes to the mountains,” with all those Midwestern tourists heading for the Garden of the Gods. In the week before the eclipse, the weekly Colorado Chieftain reported that “Colorado Springs, Manitou, the Garden of the Gods, and Pike’s Peak are being thronged with visitors from Europe and the states.” Indeed, even US senators came to view the spectacle. The Chieftain continued, “Many United States senators, under the lead of Senator Henry Teller, are already at the Manitou House, and others are expected.” Tents were set up in the Garden of the Gods, where local spectators could watch the eclipse for a twenty-five cent fee.
Coloradans were excited to participate in the observations. Earlier in the year the US Naval Observatory had published and distributed a thirty-page booklet called Instructions for Observing the Total Solar Eclipse of July 29, 1878. The observatory prepared the booklet for those “persons who may witness the total solar eclipse of July 29, and who may desire to co-operate with the United States Naval Observatory.” The booklet included basic instructions for observing the eclipse, such as the importance of noting the exact time totality began and ended in an observer’s particular location, how to most accurately sketch the sun’s corona, and how to use a telescope to search for Vulcan.
The Great Eclipse Arrives
On the day of the eclipse, luck was on Colorado’s side: the morning dawned bright and clear, and the skies remained cloudless into the afternoon. The relief felt by many in Colorado might best be summed up by the report that came in from Walter Spencer, the Denver Times reporter stationed in Castle Rock: “Weather splendid for eclipse—clear as hell.” The Georgetown Courier later reported: “Monday morning the sun rose … in a cloudless sky, and every sign bespoke a genuine Colorado summer day for the great event astronomers had promised.” In Colorado Springs, according to the Colorado Chieftain, “Seats upon the balconies of our best houses are all engaged, and elevated platforms are being erected upon our public square. The windows in our church steeples have been leased—those facing the eclipse at fifty cents and those facing in the opposite direction at half price.” If press reports are even partially true, it seems that absolutely everyone who was able stopped whatever they were doing and went outside to see the eclipse. In Denver, banks shut down, stores closed, and the streets filled with awestruck observers. The day after the eclipse, the Denver Tribune was perhaps the most effusive:
In the presence of so many bright and shining lights of science … THE TRIBUNE cannot let the occasion pass by without complimenting Colorado on the beautiful weather she furnished for the occasion, and the general success which attended the exhibition. It was a notable event in our history.
In the days following the eclipse, towns and their newspapers vied for the title of best viewing place, best turnout, best scientific results, and which town generally “did” the eclipse the best.
Newspapers boasted about the results scientists obtained while working in their vicinity. A few reports announced that astronomers working around Colorado had discovered Vulcan, but their results were preliminary and had to be reviewed (and of course, we now know no such planet exists). Perhaps more interesting was the discovery of “streamers,” giant solar rays extending out from the sun’s corona. These streamers spread outward to a distance of more than ten million miles, up to twelve times the sun’s diameter. It was an extraordinary discovery. The streamers were most accurately captured by Samuel P. Langley from the summit of Pikes Peak, where the atmosphere was crystal clear.
The 1878 eclipse was Colorado’s scientific coming-out party, marking the state’s beginning as a favored location for scientific research. Twenty years later, Nikola Tesla would come to Colorado Springs to conduct electrical experiments in Colorado’s high, dry air. In the short term, Colorado became a leader in astronomy in the American west. As a direct result of the 1878 eclipse expeditions, Colorado College (founded in 1874) received one of its first scientific instruments: a four-foot telescope brought in from Brooklyn to observe the eclipse.
Most important for Colorado was what the “Great Eclipse” did for the young state’s pride. The eclipse put Colorado on the map scientifically and, to a significant degree, culturally as well. With so much uncertainty about the weather until the very last moment, the anxiety and potential for major disappointment were high. But Colorado’s weather held true, and observation of the eclipse went off without a hitch. For a few brief moments in its young history, even though the sky was dark overhead, Colorado was grandly illuminated in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Adapted from Steve Ruskin, “‘Among the Favored Mortals of Earth’: The Press, State Pride, and the Eclipse of 1878,” Colorado Heritage Magazine, 28 no. 3 (2008).