Monday, December 18, 2017

Eclipse Mania: Chemung County’s Moment in the Path of Totality

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

On August 21, 2017, I stood in the parking lot of the museum with my coworkers staring up into the sky. “The Great American Eclipse,” as it was dubbed, was not as impressive in Elmira as it was in other parts of the country, but nonetheless, we all watched with our special glasses and cardboard boxes. It was an event that most people you talked with were excited about and it felt like it brought about a brief moment of unity and positivity into our national conversation. This got me wondering about earlier eclipses and I found records of a far better one that we got to witness this year.   

Beginning at 8am on January 24, 1925, Chemung County was in what we now call the “Path of Totality” of a solar eclipse. In fact, it was almost smack in the middle of the 100-mile-wide path of the shadow that was moving at 2,000 miles per hour. Totality occurred around 9am, blanketing the area in darkness for a minute and 15 seconds.

There was significant excitement leading up to the eclipse. Professor Mary Clegg Suffa of Elmira College gave a lecture about the science behind the phenomena. Other community organizations held similar programs leading up to and following the event. Residents pestered Elmira officials to turn off the streetlamps during the eclipse, a request that was considered, but ultimately denied. Even still, the city’s electrical usage measurably decreased during the eclipse as many factories ceased work temporarily to let employees go outside. 

Articles by experts urged people not to look directly at the eclipse, but to instead view it through a smoked glass. And that glass was in high demand with people hoarding scraps weeks before the eclipse. When the eclipse occurred, people stood on the streets with smoked glass or old photo negatives. Articles also printed instructions for viewing the eclipse through a hole punched in cardboard.

Amateur photographers hoped to capture the eclipse, but professional local photographer Fred Loomis warned that many people would be disappointed when they had their film developed. Even Loomis, with his better equipment was unable to secure the kind of images he was hoping for. 

This photograph from an unidentified photographer is in our collection. So at least some people were able to beat the odds!
While some people were afraid the eclipse was an omen of something terrible, only one oddity was reported as a result. During the eclipse, thousands of seagulls took flight from the Chemung River and headed toward Watkins Glen where they roosted at night. When the eclipse was over, the confused birds turned around.  

The eclipse was heralded as a once in a lifetime event for most local residents, but there was one man who had the fortune of having experienced this once before. Edward Elford, an Elmira Heights man, had seen a total eclipse in 1870 when he was a young boy living in England.

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