Druids, offering edible sacrifices, chanted incantations at clouds in a tiny farming town. Air controllers scrambled to direct swarms of planes filling the skies. On a chartered Boeing 727, people swapped seats, for the briefest of views.
“It was like a square dance at 35,000 feet and 400 miles an hour,” The Associated Press reported.
The total solar eclipse on Feb. 26, 1979 – the most recent in the Northwest – stoked a strange, intrinsic curiosity in Washingtonians, left them agape with wonder and contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos.
“It was an emotional experience,” one person told a Seattle Times reporter. “I wasn’t prepared for that at all. The thought that kept running through my mind was how people must have felt seeing it in the Middle Ages.”
“I think God’s up there having fun,” said another.
In rural Goldendale, Klickitat County, a town known for clear skies and its Stonehenge replica, eclipse viewing was a chance for a party.
“There was a carnival air as many visitors happily sampled astronomical lectures, prowled the streets for what-will-they-think-of-next souvenirs or dropped down to the nearby replica of Stonehenge to converse with the disciples of neo-pagan religions who were led there, they said, by a vision,” wrote Don Duncan, a Seattle Times staffer reporting from the Columbia Gorge town.
Wearing robes and gowns, they “danced, chanted and offered up sacrifices of fruits, deer meat and seeds on the Stonehenge altar to celebrate a ‘new cycle' in mankind’s relationship to Mother Earth” and attempted magic to dissuade clouds from foiling their view.
“You meet all kinds of people at an eclipse,” Duncan wrote.
Seattle Times reporters scattered throughout the state to mark the phenomenon.
Science reporter Hill Williams recounted passing encampments of people lined up alongside the roadway in old drifts of snow. He stopped at a school district building in Bickleton (also Klickitat County), where people were “huddled together to stay out of the biting wind.”
Clouds there drifted away just as the last glimpses of sunlight shined through canyons on the moon, an effect referred to as Bailey’s Beads. It became so dark Williams couldn’t see the settings on his camera.
“The landscape had a dark, sickly pallor. Off to the south, across the Columbia River, the horizon was bright yellowish orange, apparently due to the sun shining beyond the moon’s shadow. Venus and a few stars were visible during totality,” Williams reported.
“As the moon moved away from the sun, a few sparkles appeared on the dark side of the moon. ‘Bailey’s Beads’ again,” Williams wrote. “Then as the moon slid further, the sparkles increased in intensity and it looked as if the whole right side of the moon had caught fire. Finally the thin crescent of the sun emerged.”
Much of the rest of the Northwest suffered from typical, sorrowful February weather. Clouds cleared in Olympia long enough to see the sun’s corona, briefly, during the totality, but Portland, Yakima, Spokane and even Walla Walla reported rain.
In Seattle, the “only evidence of the eclipse was a deep darkening of the sky shortly after 8:15 a.m.,” The Times reported.
People took to the skies for a better view.
The FAA reported more than 600 aircraft in the path of the eclipse, pushing the agency’s computer system to capacity.
The Pacific Science Center chartered a Boeing 727 to fly above the crowds, and allow 94 passengers a view of the totality. Passengers were allowed 25 seconds of time at the window before vacating for others.
The pilot “did all he could to chase the fading sun through the sky,” The Associated Press reported. “At one point the trijet shook as Perry (the pilot) hit 480 miles an hour, almost breaking the sound barrier to make certain he was in the right place at the right time. He also banked steeply to give everyone the best view.”
Getting a view – by plane, car or lucky cloudbreak – was a badge of pride for many.
In Goldendale, motels were sold out within 50 miles. Roadways jammed. A day after the phenomenon, there was a run on eclipse souvenirs, Duncan reported.
“A van driving out of the town bore a hastily scribbled sign in the back window that spoke for everyone: ‘I saw it!’ ”