Texans in 1878 were awestruck by rare total eclipse of sun

Photograph of seven astronomers -- Leonard Waldo, R.W. Wilson, J.K. Rees, W.H. Pulsifer, F.E. Seagrave, Alfred Freeman, and A.M. Britton -- with various telescopes set up out-of-doors near a large wooden barn or other structure. According to accompanying information they are on the S.W. Lomax farm, waiting to observe the total solar eclipse that happened on July 29, 1878. (Photo courtesy of the Portal to Texas History)

Galveston, then Texas’ largest city, had come to a standstill. “All business was suspended and clerk and proprietor, minion and millionaire, politicians and pealer stood out in the streets staring steadily through their smoked glass,” a reporter for the Galveston News wrote in describing one of the island city’s biggest events to that point in its history not involving weather or war. Soon, people would be treated to a total solar eclipse.

The newspaper practice of putting major news on page one had not become standard by the late 1870s, so the News carried its coverage of the astronomical event of July 29, 1878 on page four.

“Yesterday forenoon the price of broken glass took a rapid rise,” the News’ story began, “as people were busy smoking small and large pieces through which to view the predicted eclipse.”

Obviously, scientists and the medical community knew it was dangerous to look directly at the sun, but the repeated warnings that went with coverage of Texas’ most recent eclipse were absent from the 19th century reporting. And the mass production and sale of special eclipse glasses would be a 20th and 21st century development. In 1878, the only way to safely view the eclipse was through smoked glass or to have specially coated optics.

The sky over the coastal city clouded up about 1 p.m. and it started raining. That worried the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officers planning to observe the eclipse and make measurements, but the shower moved on and the sky cleared.

At 3 p.m., a News reporter joined others on top of the M.W. Shaw and Brothers building on the Strand, presumably one of the city’s taller structures. There, the unnamed journalist continued, “a fine telescope and transit had been placed in hands that were familiar with their use.”

The celestial show began at 3:30:43 p.m. and continued until 5:34:32 p.m., or for 2 hours, 3 minutes and 47 seconds.

“When the eclipse reached its maximum, the general appearance of the city was that of a moonlight night,” the reporter wrote. “Chickens went to roost, ducks stood on one leg and looked sad, and the feline population crooked their hairy backs and sang their moonlight serenades with all the fabled sweetness and variations.”

Outside the Cotton Exchange, “a number of the Strand brotherhood assembled with their astronomical instruments, which were much the same as those used by the broken glass school,” the journalist went on. What the reporter wrote next is tragic if true:

“One gentleman lent his large magnifying glass to his neighbor, who, after a futile attempt to see the sun’s disc, went around the streets as blind as a bat.” Indeed, if that man had looked at the sun through an uncoated magnifying glass, his retina had probably been badly burned.

While the News offered local reporting on the eclipse, it had relied on reprinting a long story from the Chicago Times in advance of the event. That piece explained what would be happening and in describing the predicted route of totality, noted “a batch of unknown towns in south and east Texas” would see the full eclipse as the shadow passed through Colorado, Indian Territory and then into the Lone Star State.

While people in 1878 reacted to the eclipse with the same level of awe people most modern Texans experienced in seeing the most recent eclipse, some of the 19th century Galvestonians “saw” more in the phenomenon than the passing of the moon across the sun.

“Occasionally an oracle would appear and call the people’s attention to some feature of the eclipse, and deduce there from theories more extravagant than ingenious,” the News reporter wrote, “to show that [Oran] Roberts would be the next governor [he would be], that the cotton crop would be as free of worms as a six-year-old child [huh?], that quarantine [against yellow fever] was a farce [it was not], or that etc., etc. etc.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone capable of reading or mental comprehension did not know this week’s eclipse would be happening, but that was not the case in 1878.

“According to a letter received from Liberty, the recent eclipse of the sun was a scene of no little fun, independent of the satisfactory totality which lasted one minute and a half minutes at that place,” the News reported.

In Buchanan, a small community in Johnson County, a man who had not known of the coming astronomical show thought the end of the world had come when it started getting dark. He killed his child and himself. “He had always been regarded as a fanatic on the subject of religion,” the Austin Daily Statesman reported on August 8, “but was an industrious, sober [person].”

On August 3, the Galveston newspaper noted, “Some ascribe yesterday’s bad weather to the eclipse.”

On the same page, the News reported that a man named F.B. Bailey, a photographer from Palestine in East Texas had sent the newspaper a photograph he had taken of the eclipse during totality along with a post-totality image. “The first one gives a distinct view of the corona, or luminous nebula enveloping the sun,” the newspaper said. The second view, taken 10 minutes after the first, showed the crescent of the sun.

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