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
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."
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. "The letter recounts that some Negroes and a
few whites, who were not apprised of the eclipse, fell down upon
their knees in the fields and prayed aloud to God for their mercy."
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.
"Texas Tales" August
24, 2017 column