The Great Eclipse of 1869, through the eyes of a Monmouth College professor
As anticipation grows over the upcoming solar eclipse, we thought it would be interesting to look back on a similar astronomical event, which occurred 148 years ago — the total solar eclipse of Aug. 8, 1869. In early August of that year, John Calvin Hutchison, a 37-year-old professor of natural sciences at Monmouth College, joined a team of observers from his alma mater of Miami University in a field trip to the mountains of central Kentucky to observe the much vaunted total solar eclipse of that year.
Hutchison, who served on the Monmouth faculty from 1858–1891, recorded his observations about the trip in a letter to the Monmouth College Courier. The epitome of a liberal arts scholar (Hutchison taught not only science, but also math, Latin and German…and was the college librarian), his detailed account of the eclipse goes beyond the cool observations of a scientist and occasionally borders on the poetic.
SELECTING OUR SITE.
Profs. McFarland and Stoddard of Miami University had selected a point in the line of totality lying as far east as could be conveniently reached between Shelbyville, Ky., and Raleigh, N.C.; since that whole line was not occupied by any corps of observers, and being among the mountains they thought that it would give them better opportunities for observation, in a clear atmosphere and commanding position, and the excellent view which we had fully justified them in their choice. Mt. Vernon, the county seat of Rock Castle county, Ky., and the present terminus of the Louisville and Nashville R.R., was the point selected.
Being kindly invited by Professors McFarland and Stoddard to join their party — we packed our carpet-sack and obtained the use of a good telescope for observations. The instrument which we fortunately obtained belongs to Albert Galloway, Esq., of Xenia, to whose kindness we are indebted for its use.
In company with W. F. Humphrey of the class of ’69, we left Xenia August 4, reaching Cincinnati in safety, we took passage on the Louisville Mail Packet, Ben Franklin, for Louisville. After a pleasant ride on the Ohio and a fine night’s rest we reached Louisville at early dawn. There we joined the party of observation who had come down on the noon boat from Cincinnati — Mr. H. and myself made our way to the depot on foot, seeing the sights and going to market, when we filled our pockets with some fine peaches — but we paid for them first — passing along Broadway we had a view of the fine Jewish Synagogue which lifts its stately form in that busy thoroughfare, and tells by its Hebrew inscription its Jewish origin.
THE TRAVELING PARTY.
Mr. H. left us for Memphis and we took the train for Mt. Vernon. Our party now consisted of Prof. McFarland and Lady and two daughters, Prof. Stoddard and Lady, and ourself, minus the Lady. We were soon riding over Kentucky soil past the burnt stockades of other days and the rude log cabins of present days — crossed Salt River but missing the boat failed to take passage on its briny waters — at Crab Orchard left most of our passengers who had come to enjoy the healthful waters of the mineral springs and soon after arrived at our destination in safety, and were escorted to our hotel by the whole village nearly who had come out en masse to meet us.
Securing comfortable quarters at the “Newcombe House,” we proceeded to select a place for observation. Mt. Vernon is situated among the outskirts of the Cumberland Mountains in a valley surrounded by high hills, and one of them lying east of the town was selected for our observatory. Expecting to get a view of the north star in order to determine our latitude, we mounted this hill after dark and carried our Transit Instrument with us, gaining the summit and turning our eyes northward we found the heavens covered with clouds, and Polaris hid from view. We planted our instrument, and Polaris still failing to make his appearance, notwithstanding our earnest entreaties that would give us a glimpse of his countenance, we returned to our rooms.
It being cloudy the next day, we took a ramble to a tunnel the R. R. Co. is cutting through a spur of the mountains, located a cave which was afterward visited by the party and some fine specimens of stalagmites and stalactites gathered and procured from the railroad, cut some beautiful specimens of Cyathophylloid corals. The rocks here are limestone filled with fossils of corals and give evidence by rounded peaks, like miniature icebergs, of the action of ancient seas.
Our party to-day was increased by the arrival of Prof. Christy and Messrs. Oldfather & Scott of Miami University.
GETTING OUR BEARINGS.
Prof. McFarland had previously calculated the Eclipse for Mt. Vernon, taking the latitude from a map of the state and wished to get the true latitude from an observation on the north star, and also get the true local time. By four accurate observations on the sun we obtained true time and noted it by our watches. But to obtain the latitude we had to camp out on the hill and watch for the appearance of the north star. And wishing to be as comfortable as possible we lay on the ground with a shawl for a mattress, a rail for a pillow, and sassafras brush for a covering, and left one man to sit up and watch the sky.
During the night Prof. Stoddard was rewarded by a clear sky and enabled to get the altitude of the north star, and thus found that we were 37 deg. 21 min. 6 sec., north of the Equator. We also obtained the true meridian of the place and with firmly set stones fixed it for the benefit of the county.
ENCOUNTER WITH A ‘GENIUS.’
On the morning of the Eclipse while adjusting our instruments we were accosted by a Genius who said he had a theory of his own in regard to the solar system. He said we were all wrong in our views, and that he had the right view, but there being no philosophers in the place who could understand his theory he had never explained it but now we had come he wished to unfold it to us. Sow with attentive ear we listened to his “view.”
He said that the earth was a grand “hull” with the sun in the centre at a distance of 95 million miles. That the earth or “hull” revolved around the sun in 24 hours; that day and night were produced by the sun shining but form one side. That the seasons were produced by a decay of vegetation which made one end of the hull lighter and thus “come up” under the action of the sun. When asked what was on the outside of the hull, he replied, “There was the great mystery, there might be millions of other hulls with their suns.”
Leaving your Kentucky friend to the enjoyment of his philosophical view, we proceeded to watch for the shadow of the moon on this swiftly revolving “hull.”
Our instruments of observation, were one Transit, arranged on a cast iron base for a horizontal motion and on a cast iron uprights for a vertical motion; 2 brass telescopes; 1 barometer, with thermometer attached; 1 hygrometer and 1 sextant, all from m. University, except one brass telescope belonging to Albert Galloway, of Xenia, and for the clear and distinct outline which it gave, it was scarcely excelled by the excellent Transit of the University.
And with these instruments properly mounted, adjusted and manned we were ready for the Eclipse. And with no greater anxiety did General Bragg, who planted a battery on the same hill during the war, wait for the shadow of Buell’s army, than did we wait for the shadow of the moon.
Our position was a grand one, and we challenge any corps of observers, on the line of totality from Alaska to Raleigh, to show a better. By observation on our barometer we were 268 feet above the town, which by Owen was 1,348 feet above the Gulf. With this elevation we had the advantage of a fine view of the sky and country.
Gathered in crowds at our right and left, and peeping through our instruments, as we gave them opportunity, at the sun and landscape, were the natives of the village and count. Reclining on the hillside at our feet were many that had come up from Crab Orchard. To the west, at the foot of the hill was Mt. Vernon; beyond some 2 miles was a knob of the same elevation as our own; to the right and left of the knob, stretching away as far as the hilltops covered with thick forest, whose foliage of living green glanced in the sunlight; while to the north and south was arrange after range of hills covered with forests, with here and there a field of corn, and house and barn or clusters of gathered grain. The whole forming a grand amphitheatre — ourselves on the stage, Mt. Vernon in the arena, the green mountain ranges in the galleries and the sun hung o’er head as a vast chandelier — soon to have its light turned out for the benefit of the audience.
Prof. Stoddard announced to the audience the names of the observers and states some general facts in regard to Eclipses, and the route of this one, and requested silence during the beginning and ending of the Eclipse.
THE EVENT BEGINS.
And with silence around, each man at his instrument, and the time-keeper with watch in hand we awaited the approach of the shadow. At 4 hrs. 33 min. 9 sec., local time, three observers called time as the dreaded shadow struck the sun’s disc. And the announcement was made that the Eclipse had begun; and many doubting ones were struck with astonishment at the accuracy with which the great astronomical prediction had been fulfilled.
While the shadow was creeping over the sun many were permitted to view the sun through the telescopes and see the solar spots.
As the time of total Eclipse began, silence was again restored, and at the same instant time was called. And lo! The dread shadow has overspread the sun, and awe — inexpressible awe fills our souls, no language could describe our feelings at that awful sight! — the sun blotted out from our view, while yet in the heavens, by a shadow.
The darkness was that of latye twilight, while the gloom that filled the air was unlike anything produced by night or clouds. Mer4cury, the planet that Copernicus died regretting never having seen, was seen by us to the west of the sun, while Venus appeared to the east, Arcturus, Saturn and Antares, to the southeast, overhead. Away to the north and south, low on the distant hills, was seen a yellow light, from the rays of the sun in space beyond the shadow and then fleecy golden clouds gathered on the mountain rays.
The corona was seen to splendid advantage and the rays of light that pierced the sky from behind the moon shed a dim, subdued light in the heavens. As the shadow rapidly crossed the sun the reappearing light was eagerly expected, and as the thin crescent of light appeared as silver beads upon the upper left hand limb of the sun a thrill of joy filled every heart, and the grand spectacle of a Total Eclipse of the sun was passed — yet to remain on the memory forever — never to be forgotten. As the light appeared a herd of cows appeared over the hills that had started homeward at the coming darkness.
We give the time of contact as recorded by Prof. McFarland, who had charge of the Transit:
Time 1st contact 4 hr. 33 m. 09s, local time
Time 2d contact 5 hr. 30 m. 33s, local time
Time 3d contact 5 hr. 33m. 09s, local time
Time 4th contact 6 hr. 26 min. 37–1/2s, local time
Making length of total eclipse 2 minutes 56 seconds, and length of whole eclipse 1 hour, 54 minutes and 28–1/2 seconds. The first occurred within 1–1/2 seconds of Prof. McFarland’s calculated time.
These, as seen by ourselves, were very fine owing to the fine defining powers of our excellent instruments. Six of them were seen standing out in clear outlines from the sharply defined disc of the moon as vessels in full sail sweeping around the surface of the moon — with the soft light of the sun beyond — and of rose colored hues tinged with purple as described by Prof. Stoddard. The one and on the lower limb of greater brightness and size — remained even after the light of the sun reappeared — which cut off its base as it seemed to us and left the peaks remaining.
This was in charge of Mr. E. S. Scott who took observations during the day, every hour — and during the Eclipse, every ten minutes.
The barometer fell from 28.774 to 28.748 during the Eclipse. The thermometer fell from 68.5 to 62.5, while the wet bulb fell from 58 to 55. The wind during the progress of the Eclipse was N. N. E.
Prof. Christy had charge of the instrument that was devoted to the good of the public, and many enjoyed a peep through the glass at the sun while in the shade.
Having accomplished the object of one visit, our thoughts turned homeward but we could not leave until Monday morning and in the meantime we instructed the people in astronomy and showed them the beauty of the planet, Saturn, by our telescopes.
On Sabbath morning in company with two of our party we went to the Sabbath school, conducted in the court house by a lad scarce out of his ‘teens, who had attended a college at Asbury University, and who certainly deserves great credit for keeping up, almost by his own exertions, the only Sabbath school in the county. Our party attended church in the court house, the only church building in the place, and heard a very excellent sermon from the minister, who also acts as Post Master. We also preached, by invitation, to a very attentive audience in the evening.
Our thanks are due our Host of the Newcombe House and to the citizens of the place for their kindness to our party and the assistance rendered us in our work. Also to the superintendent of the L. & N. R. R., who furnished us with return passes to Louisville — and to all the officials of our train for gentlemanly conduct to us and their kindness while under their care — In returning to Louisville we took observations of the barometer and noted our progress downward as we approached Louisville. There we left with Mr. Funk of the railroad Prof. McFarland, wife and daughters, intending to go on to the Gap; the Prof. had passed through the same region under Burnside during the war and was recognized by a citizen on the morning we left as a Col. Of an Ohio regiment who had taken breakfast at his house. But the past seems all forgotten and an enterprising Yankee who had purchased 7,000 acres among the hills was an intimate friend of a whole-souled Kentuckian and the two were ever constant companions and camped out with us on the hill while looking for the north star — and yet Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson were our guardian angels as we slept in our rooms.
Arriving in Louisville in company with Prof. Stoddard and Lady we enjoyed a fine ride up the Ohio on the Ben Franklin — which was a pleasing terminus to our exceedingly pleasant and interesting trip to the mountains of Kentucky in search of the Eclipse.