This summer’s largest gathering will make Woodstock look like a backyard barbecue and divide the nation into two parties: those who see it, and those who don’t.
On Mon., Aug. 21, at precisely 9:04 a.m. PST, the shadow of the moon will touch down in Lincoln City, Ore., beginning a total solar eclipse that will cross 14 states, all the way to the South Carolina shoreline. (The last time such an event happened coast to coast was in 1918.)
Some 12.2 million people live within the 70-mile-wide band where the eclipse will be total — and millions more are expected to travel to witness it firsthand. From Oregon to South Carolina, hotel bookings have skyrocketed. Charleston, SC (where totality will be visible for more than a minute), is almost at capacity, with some lodgings having sold out two months ago. In Oregon, cases of motels dropping reservations and then attempting to resell them for up to $1,000 a night have gotten so bad that the state’s attorney general has opened an investigation.
“If we have some good weather, it will absolutely be the most viewed total eclipse in human history,” said Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist who has witnessed 20 total solar eclipses.
From the ancients who feared eclipses as a sign of heavenly portent to the scientists who revel in the moon’s shadow, the celestial spectacle has always been universally astonishing and magnificent.
“If you’ve never seen one, there’s nothing you can use as a precedent,” said Joe Rao, meteorologist for Verizon FiOS1 in Westchester County, who has seen 11 eclipses. “It’s so different . . . from anything you’ve ever experienced.”
Another thing that will be unprecedented: the traffic. Two-thirds of America lives within a day’s drive of the path of totality, and highways could turn into the Great American Traffic Jam. For a New Yorker, the fastest route to totality is a 10-hour drive down I-95 to the vicinity of Santee, SC. The problem is that that’s also the “fastest” route to the eclipse zone for 74.4 million other people along the Eastern Corridor. As Espenak put it: “Surfaces are gonna be stressed.”
In New York City, the eclipse will be only partial, with the moon covering 75 percent of the sun at 2:44 p.m.
While you’ll technically be able to witness it from any spot where the sun is visible, prime viewing spots include city parks, where amateur astronomers are sure to be out in force with their telescopes. The Hayden Planetarium will also be hosting a live broadcast of the event.
The last time the heavens gave NYC a total solar eclipse was on Jan. 24, 1925 — an event dubbed the “96th Street Eclipse.”
“They called it that because the southern edge of the eclipse passed over 96th Street in Manhattan,” said Rao. “Anyone north of that street saw a total eclipse. Anyone south of it saw 99.9 percent.”
We know that because ConEdison conducted an experiment during the eclipse, posting workmen on rooftops in an attempt to determine exactly where the line between totality and partiality fell.
“The guy who was at 220 Riverside Drive said he saw a dot of light during the peak of the eclipse. The person at 230 Riverside Drive said that he saw all of the sun covered,” explained Rao.
The weeks leading up to that event were filled with excitement, speculation and anxiety. Worried that the sudden darkness would spark a rise in holdups, the city’s lighting officials decided to turn on the streetlights north of 72nd Street. Extra cops were ordered for uptown.
On the morning of the eclipse, the normal commute reversed: The million people who normally came down from uptown and The Bronx stayed put. A million from Brooklyn and lower Manhattan trekked north.
“The moon dropped over like an ominous curtain,” The Post reported of the 30-second totality. “It was as if the black-hand of fate had snuffed man’s solar candle. And suddenly the watching thousands realized the wonder of the universe and the weakness of little men.”
Observers south of 96th Street saw a brilliant burst of sunlight emanating from behind the moon’s light-ringed edge — giving birth to the term “the diamond ring effect.”
Even Mayor John F. Hylan, running for a third term, tried to capitalize on the event by staging a campaign speech that day. But he scheduled it to take place during the actual eclipse and at City Hall — more than six miles south of the prime viewing area uptown. He later lost the election.
Notes Rao: “Mayor Hylan was not known to be very intelligent.”