History of the 1869 Eclipse

History of the 1869 Eclipse

Last Solar Eclipse in Illinois
Joe McFarland

1869: The last total solar eclipse in Illinois

by Joe McFarland

Here’s a surprising Illinois eclipse fact: Nobody alive has seen a total solar eclipse anywhere in Illinois. Nobody.

If you think you remember seeing a total solar eclipse in Illinois, you are mistaken. The fact is, the state of Illinois has witnessed just one total solar eclipse in its entire history. Illinois became a state in 1818. Five decades later, on August 7, 1869, the only total solar eclipse ever to cast its shadow over the Prairie State passed directly along a 156.7-mile-wide portion of central Illinois, including Springfield, and perfectly clear skies made it a phenomenal moment in state history.

There has not been another total solar eclipse in Illinois since that day.

People casually describe seeing a total solar eclipse as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it’s actually much more rare, on average, for anyone to witness a total solar eclipse wherever they live. Once every few hundred years is the worldwide average. For example, when the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse passes directly over Makanda, Illinois, it will have been 575 years since a total solar eclipse passed over this spot on Earth. If you had been standing in what would eventually become Makanda, Illinois on July 7, 1442 (nine years before Christopher Columbus was born), you would have seen it. And you would have wanted to mark the occasion, just as officials in Springfield wanted to mark the rare occasion in 1869.

In 1869, everybody in Springfield knew the August 7 eclipse was coming. Government scientists from the United States Coast Survey and leading universities arrived months in advance to take astronomical measurements and plot out the exact coordinates. Construction of the new Statehouse Capitol had just started, and officials decided to install marble shafts on Capitol grounds to forever commemorate the eclipse and the positions on Earth where scientists observed that monumental moment.

Marble shafts seven-feet long were inscribed to mark the longitude and latitude coordinates the government scientists had recently established to calculate the positions of their official eclipse-observation stations around Springfield.

The day of the eclipse arrived and, for whatever reasons, the marble shafts had not yet been erected. This was Springfield. Construction of the new Capitol was under way. Workers had other things to do. The fact was, nobody installed the pillars. And so, as the sunny afternoon sky of August 7, 1869, changed to purple, then black, spilling forth starlight upon the Land of Lincoln, the beacon of efficiency that is the Illinois State Capitol building had been established.

The eclipse truly was a phenomenal sight under perfectly clear skies. Crowds cheered from rooftops, others gasped in awe while all business of the city surrendered under the surreal darkness. The scientists with their instruments tried their best to focus as the moment of totality arrived. Photographic plates were exposed at quickly timed intervals. Falling temperatures were noted and tracked. Sketches were made. Anything of scientific importance—the color of the sun’s corona, the settling wind, the flash of white light that heralded the return of the sun—was to be timed, measured and documented as memorable detail for further study. But even a pure scientist’s quest for astronomical understanding falters when the moon passes directly in front of the sun. The astronomers were so overwhelmed by the realization that nothing they were doing could properly describe the experience. All voluntarily added non-scientific confessions and terms to their official reports.

“The spectacle was of an indescribable beauty, and one for which the mind was by no means prepared,” Harvard scientist James M. Pierce included in his Congressional report. “In casually glancing at the bystanders, I was struck by the pallor of their faces, but I have not noted at which [times] I observed this phenomenon.”

“The general effects of the eclipse were extremely grand and impressive,” J.B. Warner of the U.S. Coast Survey reported cautiously to his boss. “The shadows had the cold, unreal appearance of moon-shadows, and the whole effect on the mind was chilling.”

And then it passed. The summer of 1869 continued in Springfield. Construction of the Statehouse resumed, but nobody bothered to keep track among all of the construction debris of the marble shafts that were supposed to be posted deep into solid ground as permanent records of the astronomical wonder that was the only total solar eclipse Illinois has ever seen.

A decade passed. The Illinois State Register in Springfield took note of the eclipse anniversary by pointing out nobody had actually put those marble eclipse markers into the ground. In fact, the taxpayer-funded monuments were nowhere to be seen.

A search was made among the construction debris of the new Capitol, and within two weeks the ten-year-old shafts were discovered. How the markers were eventually placed on Statehouse grounds is unclear today. The government scientists who had temporarily marked the meridian lines a decade earlier weren’t around. But into the Statehouse grounds the markers went, by someone’s decision.

One-hundred-forty-eight years later, the exact spot where somebody in Springfield decided something endures today. Visitors to Springfield should look on the lawn between the Monroe Street sidewalk and the north side of the Capitol. A weathered marble monument, fifteen-inches square, presumably the top of a seven-foot shaft, is all that remains of the “grand and impressive” spectacle of 1869.

The scientists who gathered here to make their meridian calculations all those years ago might dispute the location of this North Meridian Station monument. Doubtless, they would say even words chiseled in stone cannot describe what they actually saw that August afternoon in 1869, the only time the moon has completely covered the sun in Illinois history.