Eclipse Tourism Takes A Cue From 1878 America And The 'First Great Eclipse'

Aug 16, 2017

It’s hard to ignore the wave of "eclipse mania" that’s been building up over the last few months, leading up to the total solar eclipse Monday, Aug. 21. Cities and towns in the path of totality – where the sun will be completely hidden by the moon — are enticing potentially massive crowds with their own unique eclipse-focused events. Transportation officials are warning of heavy traffic. Protective viewing glasses are becoming harder to find.

With modern-day traffic jams and overbooked hotels, it’s hard to imagine any parallels between Monday’s event and another eclipse from well over a century ago. But Colorado Springs author and historian Steve Ruskin says they’re there -- if you look hard enough.

"They didn’t have the advantage of the Internet, and people to do their Airbnb bookings," Ruskin said. "As the [1878] eclipse got closer, trains started showing up, disgorging hundreds of people a day in Colorado Springs and Denver. Extra cars were added to these trains to accommodate people. And before long all the hotels were filled."

One Colorado Springs hotel owner started renting out local stables to tourists, Ruskin noted – though it’s not clear where the horses were lodged.

The great eclipse of 1878 was not only a rare celestial event -- it also changed the fabric and culture of the states and territories in the West. It was an opportunity for east-coast and European tourists to visit the "Wild West" for the very first time.

"Colorado had just become a state in 1876 - so it was only two years old when they knew this eclipse was going to go over the Rocky Mountains,” Ruskin said. “Tourists came west, not only to see the eclipse, but also to see the Rockies for the very first time."

The 1878 eclipse is also important because it ushered in a new era of high-altitude astronomy.

"Europeans since Isaac Newton had suspected that observing astronomy at higher altitudes would be better, but they never really had the chance to experience it," Ruskin said.

Because the 1878 eclipse occurred over the Rockies – with the highest observing point on Pike’s Peak at 14,000 feet – scientists were afforded a unique opportunity to test that hypothesis.

"It was a chance for all these astronomers to sort of compare notes about observing at high altitude," said Ruskin. "And the long and short of it is they realized that, yes – we can see much better, get much better views at these high altitudes."

Cover of Harper's Weekly, August 24, 1878, depicting tourists watching the July 29 eclipse from high above Georgetown on 'Snake River' -- aka 'Argentine' Pass
Credit Courtesy Steve Ruskin

Before the eclipse, astronomy had largely been in the service of national navies, to aid in the navigation and the creation of charts. In the mid-19th century, astronomers began shifting their focus from where the stars were to what stars were made of.

"It was called the 'New Astronomy,'" Ruskin said. "It was applying physics and chemistry to the study of the stars. It was a really new development, and Americans were taking the lead and putting observatories at these high altitudes was really aiding this new astronomy. It really put America at the forefront of astronomy – and I think we’ve maintained that lead ever since."

Interview highlights with Steve Ruskin, author of America’s First Great Eclipse: How Scientists, Tourists and the Rocky Mountain Eclipse of 1878 Changed Astronomy Forever

Why should people be so excited about a total solar eclipse?

Steve Ruskin, author: A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely blocks the sun. It’s quite rare – I mean, it happens about once every year-and-a-half to two years somewhere on Earth, but happening over, say, America – that can be quite rare. We haven’t had a total solar eclipse since 1979, and that was only over a small portion of America. We haven’t had a coast-to-coast total solar eclipse like the one occurring on August 21 since 1918.

How does the hype for this Monday’s eclipse compare to that of 1878?

Ruskin: We know today that people today are making plans to see this upcoming eclipse. Americans back in 1878 were very excited about the eclipse as well – but it was very different. They couldn’t just get in their car and drive to see it. The transcontinental railroad had just been completed less than 10 years prior. The Civil War was still a recent memory for many people, and the west was still the Wild West. It was the frontier, so many of the states that we now know were still territories, like Wyoming. Colorado had just become a state in 1876, so it was only two years old when they knew this eclipse was going to go over the Rocky Mountains. So tourists came west, not only to see the eclipse, but also to see the Rockies for the very first time, many of them.

People today have been making travel plans to get into the path of totality. What was it like back then?

Ruskin: Well, it was very similar. Colorado Springs, for example, had barely around 5,000 people. And they didn’t have the advantage of the Internet, and people to do their Airbnb bookings. So people just started showing up. I mean, they had a sense that eastern tourists and Europeans would come – but they never knew how many.

And as the eclipse got closer, trains started showing up, disgorging hundreds of people a day in Colorado Springs and Denver, and up in Wyoming; extra cars were added to these trains to accommodate people. And before long the hotels were filled. And in Colorado Springs, one hotel owner started renting out local livery stables – the barns – to house tourists; and he put the tourists there instead of horses.

Was the eclipse in 1878 also considered a social event?

Ruskin: Eclipses were very popular events throughout the 19th century, and the British also did it in style, being colonialists and having their empire, but in America it was something similar. Tourism was very popular, and after the Civil War America was at relative peace, and more money was flowing into things like tourism. So those with money would go out to these sorts of things, and they would sort of – you know, strut around in front of each other. One local hotel in Colorado Springs hired a band to play Beethoven and stuff, classical music for its posh guests.

How did the 1878 eclipse change the field of astronomy?

Ruskin: The biggest change was that American astronomers were already considered some of the best in the world; they had a lot of respect from their European counterparts. But what Europe didn’t have was the Rockies. Europeans since Isaac Newton had suspected that observing astronomy at higher altitudes would be better. But they never really had the chance to experience it. The 1878 eclipse occurred over the Rockies. The highest observing point was Pike’s Peak at 14,000 feet. But many other observers – and there were close to 200 of them – were observing on the high plains, or even places like Leadville or Georgetown, which [are] 10,000 feet, give or take.

It was a chance for all these astronomers to sort of compare notes about observing at high altitude. And the long and short of it is they realized that, yes – we can see much better, get much better views at these high altitudes. And from that point forward you start to see these really big observatories popping up in the West, and then in the 20th century, around the world. And now it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.