“Excursion to the Sun via Kentucky”: Kentucky Solar Eclipses Then and Now

This weekend, an estimated 100,00 to 200,000 visitors will pour into Kentucky from around the globe, their pilgrimage motivated by a once in a lifetime opportunity: witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. While the entire United States will experience some form of partial eclipse on Monday, August 21, 2017, the moon's complete obscuration of the sun will occur along a path of totality that begins in Oregon in the morning and ends in South Carolina in the afternoon. Passing through Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the path of totality will offer residents and traveling "eclipse chasers" the chance to observe a rare natural marvel and participate in a major social phenomenon as well. Some 12 million people live inside the path, and estimates of those who will travel to some point along the path have soared to 7 million!

Here at the Filson, we found ourselves wondering if all this excitement sounded a little familiar. In anticipation of the solar eclipse of 2017, we felt inspired to dip into the archives for a look at the last time Kentucky was the site of such hubbub: the solar eclipse of August 7, 1869. From the teams of scientific researchers, to the mad crush for travel accommodations, the demand for eye-protecting viewing devices, and the thrill of taking time off from work, school, and ordinary life to stand en masse and in wonder—we can definitely say, we've been here before!

Entry in David T. Stuart’s Diary, 1854. Manuscript Collection, Stuart, David Todd, Mss. CS.

As a predecessor to the 1869 solar spectacle, Louisville got a "warm up" eclipse in the spring of 1854. David Todd Stuart, head of Stuart’s Female College in Shelbyville, Kentucky, wrote primly in his diary on Friday May 26, 1854:

The principal matter of interest today was an eclipse of the Sun...I gave a short explanation of the eclipse to the school and all the girls with blackened glasses went out to witness the occurrence.

Study of the heavens was a big deal in Shelbyville; the town's St. James College (previously named Shelby College and long since defunct) boasted an observatory that was home, at mid-century, to one of the most sophisticated telescopes in all the country.[1] By 1854, a graduate of the school—an astronomer and mathematician named Joseph Winlock—had recently relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In 1863 he was a founding member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and in 1866 assumed directorship of the Harvard Observatory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Winlock knew exactly where to lead the most qualified scientific researchers of his time for the 1869 eclipse: back home to Kentucky!

Harper’s Weekly Front Page, “Solar Eclipse 1869”, August 28, 1869. Print Collection, PR690.0001.

The scores of visiting scientists, including Winlock's delegation of members from the elite research corps, the U.S. Coastal Survey, became national news. Later that month, a report on the eclipse covered the front page of Harper's Weekly, which featured woodblock prints of photographs taken of the observation site in Shelbyville and of the eclipse itself.

Harvard College Observatory Photograph of 1869 Corona taken at Shelbyville (reproduction). Subject Photograph Collection, EMI-9.

While this was likely not the first eclipse to ever be photographed, these were among the earliest—and to that date, most widely seen—eclipse pictures taken with a camera. Scientist-surveyors were hardly the only documenters on the scene—professional commercial photographers were also there to capture the phenomenon. For instance, the Shelbyville studio of John W. Williams produced collectible prints of the eclipse at various stages, designed for keepsakes in albums or personal collections. The reproduction and wide circulation of these photographs enabled people in remote locales to appreciate not only the spectacle of eclipse itself but the secondary excitement of cutting-edge documentary technology.

But of course, then, as now, the real thrill was being there in person. Scores of people traveled to Kentucky from nearby states to see the eclipse in its totality. Falling on a Saturday, the eclipse was a much-anticipated affair. Rival cities even then, Lexington and Louisville vied fiercely for out of state tourists, each promising optimal viewing conditions and railroad companies were eager to cash-in on this travel opportunity. The Kentucky Central and the Louisville-Cincinnati Shortline Railroads ran competing advertisements in the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer selling round-trip tickets for $3.25. Central Railroad promised an "Excursion to the Sun, via Kentucky.”[2]

Photographs of 1869 solar eclipse taken by John W. Williams Studio, Shelbyville. Subject Photograph Collection, EMI-5, EMI-8.

What awaited them here? Just like we will experience in 2017, the full 1869 eclipse lasted about two hours in the afternoon with a peak event—the complete coverage of the sun—of just a few minutes. A Mississippi tourist reported that upon his arrival in Louisville, the Galt House—considered the best viewing spot in the city—was already full of ladies who made special arrangements to view the spectacle from the comfort of the hotel rooftop. Finding Louisville too crowded, he traveled to Mammoth Cave and secured lodging at the Mammoth Cave Hotel along with 300 other eclipse travelers.[3]

It was reported that here in Louisville, people gathered on the streets throughout the day. Main Street “as far as the eye could reach, was filled with eager crowds provided with every variety of apparatus to view the sun.” [4] Enterprising vendors smoked pieces of glass and sold them as protective viewing aids. According to one report, ash-smudged faces from these 19th century "safety glasses" were prevalent![5]

Even though Cincinnati was just outside of the path of totality, the eclipse of 1869 still put on quite a show in what was clearly a regional affair. The Daily Enquirer described a similar frenzy across the Ohio river:

The greatest interest seemed to be manifested in the event by all of our citizens, and many were prepared with pieces of stained and smoked glass with which to view the greatest astronomical occurrence of the century...At four o'clock thousands of persons could have been seen seeking available spots from which a good view could be obtained. Roofs of buildings were crowded, and not a few were forced to take up positions on the sidewalks or street corners. Almost every citizen seemed to have a piece of glass prepared for the occasion, and the greatest interest was manifested by all. As the moment approached, thousands upon thousands of eyes were turned upward. [6]

Afterwards, the Courier-Journal heralded the eclipse as one of the best events of its time and lauded the City of Louisville for playing such an admirable host. Praising both the "beautiful conduct of the planets and the unbounded enthusiasm of the people..." the reporter did not hesitate to compare the eclipse to the finest man-made entertainments of the age, adding "If Barnum himself had conducted the enterprise it could not have been more fashionable and aristocratic.”[7]

Filson Curator of Photographs and Prints, Heather Potter, is making the trek to southwestern Kentucky to experience the eclipse firsthand. When she comes back, she will be donating her eclipse glasses to the Filson’s collection to commemorate the event.

In 2017, viewing transportation and technology are considerably different for what is now being called the “Great American Eclipse." Hopkinsville, Kentucky, the “point of greatest eclipse” has been planning the big event for more than five years, with an entire website dedicated to the eclipse.[8] The town is renting out 12 x 12 foot parcels of viewing land for $15.00-$60.00 and, of course, parking spaces for the massive influx of vehicles. Throughout the country, people along the path of the eclipse are making plans to view it with friends and families and the Smithsonian has created an Eclipse app that will calculate the exact time for your location. And those old smoked glasses? Turns out they're not so safe for the eyes. Make sure to check your eclipse glasses for an appropriate UV rating.

Kentuckians are again on the verge a natural marvel that only some will experience in a lifetime. Where will you be on August 21? How will the Eclipse of 2017 be remembered?

John Lawrence Smith, (Unknown artist, 1883) prepares for 2017 eclipse viewing at the Filson. Filson Museum Collection, 1950.5.

This post was written by Abigail Glogower and Maureen Lane. Abigail Glogower is Curator of Jewish Collections and the Jewish Community Archive at the Filson. In her spare time Abby can be found riding her bike, cooking vegan food, reading American realist fiction, and playing with her three dogs. Maureen Lane is the Museum Collections Registrar. She loves to quilt, is learning how to crochet and enjoys spending her weekends with her husband, Matt, exploring Louisville. 

[1] “Solar Eclipse, 1869,” Harpers Weekly, August 28, 1869.
[2] The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, August 4, 1869.
[3] Edward Forrest Frank, “1869 Cave tour led by Mat Bransford (and a solar eclipse),” Edward Forrest Frank (blog), January 21, 2014, https://edwardforrrestfrank.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/1869-cave-tour-led-by-mat-bransford-and-a-solar-eclipse/.
[4] “The Sensation: A Splendid Display of Natural Pyrotechnics,” Courier-Journal (Louisville), August 9, 1869.
[5] “The Eclipse: The Cincinnati Party at Camp Magnet—Interesting Observations on the Line of Totality,” The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, August 10, 1869.
[6] “Yesterday’s News: The Eclipse. Greatest Event in the Nineteenth Century,” The Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, August 9, 1869.
[7] “The Sensation: A Splendid Display of Natural Pyrotechnics,” Courier-Journal (Louisville), August 9, 1869.
[8] Jeffrey Lee Puckett, “Solar Eclipse Fever Will Transform This Quiet Ky. Town on Aug. 21,” USA Today, August 7, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/07/hopkinsville-kentucky-eclipseville-solar-eclipse-2017/545205001/.

Maureen Lane

2 comments on ““Excursion to the Sun via Kentucky”: Kentucky Solar Eclipses Then and Now

  1. Jennie Cole

    Excellent research and writing on this phenom!

  2. Paul Olliges

    Pretty neat stuff, gang. Great find in the archives.


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