April 17, 2024

Historic Highlights: Past eclipses were news stories – but not like now

16 eclipses have been recorded in the continental U.S. since 1867

The upcoming total solar eclipse on April 8 has created a frenzy, with parts of central and southern Illinois gearing up for a tourism boom and special “eclipse glasses” flying off the shelves.

Recent eclipses were also news stories – but nowhere near the level of today. During those events, many Illinois newspapers provided minimal, if any, coverage of the eclipses, choosing instead to report daily news as normal.

Sixteen eclipses have been recorded somewhere in the continental U.S. since 1867. None were as big of a deal as the upcoming event, as well as the total eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, that was shrouded by clouds in parts of central Illinois. Both the 2017 and 2024 events have been dominated by media hype and marketing blitz.

Prior to 2017, the last significant solar event, a partial eclipse, was on May 10, 1994, when much of southern and central Illinois and surrounding states were cast into partial darkness. That scenario was defined as an “annular solar eclipse,” when the moon blocked out much of the sun, leaving a brilliant light circle that some call the “ring of fire.”

The 1994 eclipse began at 10:24 a.m. in Chicago and blocked out 94% of the sun at 12:04 p.m. It was the most complete solar eclipse in the city since June 16, 1806. One precocious 5-year-old in Wauconda was quoted as saying “It looks like Cookie Monster took a bite of the sun.”

The temperature on the lakefront dropped 8 degrees in an hour. Many schools kept students inside, fearing vision damage. Reports of blurred shadows on the ground were noted across the area.

In Rock Island, a 3-year-old girl viewed the eclipse at the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College, and enjoyed her look at “the bright yellow thing.” She was one of several hundred Quad Cities residents who stood in line for a look of several seconds through the scope.

One Augustana senior described the eclipse, which lasted for three hours and 25 minutes in the Quad Cities, as “cool because it’s light out and dark out at the same time.”

The Alton Telegraph reported the fascination with the 1994 eclipse under the headline “Humans gape in awe at lunar dance.” Clear skies in central and southern Illinois aided the spectacle.

Another that was visible as a partial eclipse in this area was a rare winter event on Feb. 26, 1979. That eclipse merited only four local photographs in the Alton Telegraph, including a shot of the peak, at 10:45 a.m.

One photo in the Telegraph showed two students from Lewis and Clark School in Wood River, watching the eclipse through shoeboxes – which is not recommended today.

In southwestern Illinois, the Waterloo Republican only provided a single photo with a brief caption of coverage of the 1979 eclipse, calling it “an entertaining mid-morning show.”

Earlier that day, a pounding hailstorm was more of an issue in parts of central Illinois. In the south-central Illinois village of St. Elmo, the Banner noted that many in the area had lost power, while on nearby Interstate 70, drivers “turned into a weigh station for refuge.” Warming temperatures, “dimmed briefly by the mid-morning eclipse,” thawed much of the ice by afternoon.

Many feared damage to their eyes with eclipses. Following a total eclipse on March 7, 1970, the American Association of Ophthalmology reported that 145 cases of burned retinas were treated nationwide. But clearly, the lack of enthusiasm, especially when compared to today, was obvious.

An eclipse on July 20, 1963, created 77% total coverage of the sun in Decatur, though not everyone was impressed. The Daily Review reported that “all golf courses remained open” and the crowds remained normal.

One golf pro in Decatur joked that “they never quit playing golf out here, except possibly when lightning begins striking around them.” One golfer said the eclipse “just makes it nice and shady this afternoon.”

Some, though, were more interested in downtown Decatur, where a “sunscope” was set up in front of a local sporting goods store on North Main Street.

In Alton, reports of the total eclipse of June 9, 1918, were completely overlooked by the Telegraph, which elected to cover other pressing issues. Much of the front page was devoted to news of the American involvement in World War I.

Still, some past eclipse watchers were awestruck. At Illinois State University in Normal, the student newspaper, the Vidette, ran a striking photo of the eclipse of March 1970, with a credit to a higher power. The shot was attributed to photographer Rick Solomon, with the “eclipse by God.”

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo.com.