The Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017 was not the first to clip a corner of Kansas.
According to an 1878 issue of the Chicago Times the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878 also moved across a corner of our state. Instead of the northeast corner of Kansas, this one cut across the southwest corner; its path of totality just missing early Dodge City.
The difference between a total solar eclipse and a partial one is literally night and day, and just like our recent eclipse, Dodge City was in the "day" part. What people in these parts witnessed the other day, and in 1878, was phenomenal. The sun was almost covered by the moon, dimming the sunlight which created an eerie atmosphere all around. For those safely viewing the partial eclipse, the sight of a big chunk "missing" from the sun was fascinating.
However, the experience was truly awe-inspiring for those under the umbra, or full shadow, of the moon. As the last piece of sunlight disappeared, the landscape suddenly darkened and a cool breeze ensued. If one had the good fortunate to be where the sky was clear, stars and planets came into view. All 360 degrees around the horizon appeared the "twilight" at the edge of the moon’s shadow. And above it all, where the sun should have been, was a black hole surrounded by the sun’s silvery corona.
Back then, as today, times and places of astronomical events were predicted well in advance. So the Dodge citizens of 1878 knew they were close to the swath of totality which cut from Canada into Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, clipping Kansas and heading out of the U.S. through Oklahoma and Texas.
On that hot July afternoon scientists including, Thomas Edison, had flocked to the mountains of Colorado to study the sun’s atmosphere (corona) and test or verify various hypotheses. With the strong rays of the sun temporary blocked out, James Craig Watson attempted to find the planet Vulcan situated between Mercury and the sun. His attempt was in vain since Vulcan doesn’t exist, at least not in our solar system.
Maria Mitchell from Vassar University brought an all-female science team not only to carryout scientific endeavors, but to demonstrate women could conduct science in an age of male authority.
Though people had only a short distance to travel from Dodge City to witness the total solar eclipse, it seems cowboys and locals alike were not interested in science or didn’t appreciate the beauty of a total solar eclipse. But the eclipse didn’t go unnoticed in Dodge City.
The Dodge City Times printed predictions of the event and, on Aug. 3, 1878, gave a brief recap of observations from eastern Colorado. On the same, page the Times recounts "The reflection of a red nose on smoked glass and announcing as the first glimpse of the eclipse before the actual contact has taken place, is an indication that the bottom of a beer glass affords a premature observation of the sun’s spectrum…"
The next total solar eclipse to come through this region will be on April 8, 2024. The moon’s shadow will cross into Texas from Mexico, cut through the midwest and northeast, and head out to sea at New Brunswick. Kansas will only have a partial eclipse.
Kathie Bell is the curator of collections and education at Boot Hill Museum.