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Remembering the 1925 solar eclipse in New York City

Airships, film crews, and smoked glass helped New Yorkers gawk at an eclipse nearly a century ago

A bunch of youngsters and a man viewing the eclipse from a convenient spot near their homes in the Bronx.
Getty Images

The total solar eclipse of 2017 will blanket a wide swath of the United States, creating a tourism boom in small towns in the path of the celestial event, and encouraging visitors to stream into Nashville, one of the largest cities that will witness the brief but awe-inspiring occurrence.

But for curious New Yorkers, that means quite a long road trip to get anywhere near the path of totality, where the effects will be most pronounced. It’s a shame, since one of the last times a big eclipse hit New York City—on Saturday, January 24, 1925—it was truly a spectacle. Not only had it had been 450 years since New York had seen a total eclipse, but the city was actually right in the path of totality; the track of the eclipse sliced through Manhattan and Queens.

Occurring just after 9 a.m., according to Duncan Steel’s book Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed World History, with the temperature a frigid zero degrees Fahrenheit, the eclipse nonetheless drew crowds of eager onlookers. In 1991, Barbara Rider, then an elderly New Yorker, recalled her experience watching the event during her childhood. She remembered waking up at 4 a.m. with her family to ride the subway to Van Cortlandt Park to get a good vantage point, her feet “rooted to the ground” due to the frigid conditions.

“It was a marvelous display of an orderly universe, and a never-to-be-forgotten experience of eerie beauty and magnificence,” she said.

The 1925 eclipse that hit New York served as a curiosity and civic event at a time when the media landscape was radically different. Decades before the constant flow of information and updates fed to us via smartphones, New Yorkers made sure the darkened sky would be a massive event. Newspapers turned it into a spectacle, building excitement with banner headlines, while scientists in the pre-digital age spoke of the wonders of the miraculous event, testing new techniques to measure and track the astronomical anomaly.

The eclipse that year was a national phenomenon. In this image Postmaster Harry New is watching the partial eclipse from Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress

Predicting the path of the eclipse

Astronomers had forecast that the path of totality for the 1925 eclipse would start over Lake Superior, cross Wisconsin and Michigan, hit Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and then cross the northern edge of Manhattan, running through Queens and then Connecticut. According to Steel, Ernest Brown, an astronomer at Yale, knew that the track of the eclipse would cross through New York City, and actually run somewhat parallel to the city’s street grid, meaning that some observers one one side of a block would see the total eclipse, and others wouldn’t.

While the public buildup to the event created a media circus, astronomers were also plotting their plans for observation of this rare event. Years before, the American Astronomical Society convened a “Subcommittee on Measurements and Public Cooperation of the 1925 Eclipse.” If scientists could figure out the exact path of the eclipse, and the dividing line between the total and partial eclipse, astronomers hoped to calculate the exact diameter and course of the moon. Gathering these types of precise measurements in Manhattan, where the street grid stood like a blank sheet of graph paper, offered an unexpected opportunity. To help gather more information, researchers turned to public outreach, hoping to turn numerous civilians into observers (Scientific American magazine ran a huge campaign). A number of astronomers implored the public to measure the “shadow bands” where they happened to be watching the eclipse.

A few days before the eclipse, it was predicted that the line of totality would hit somewhere between 72nd and 110th streets. Anything north of 110th Street was guaranteed to see the entire display. (The actual path was right between 95th and 97th streets in Manhattan, and wasn’t perfectly aligned with Manhattan’s east-west streets). Anybody who stayed in this area of uncertainty wouldn’t get the full show, but they would, in the words of one writer, be able to engage in “the excitement of cosmic detective work.”

Witnessing the great event

Truly capturing the eclipse without modern equipment and media proved challenging. To satisfy the curiosity of New Yorkers and the scientific community, numerous efforts were put in motion to both ferry people to better vantage points and help those who couldn’t directly observe the eclipse feel like they were experiencing the great event.

Since the forecast that day called for cooler temperatures, and previous eclipse observations in the 20th century had been marred by bad weather, scientists didn’t take any chances.

A plan was hatched to send a fleet of 25 airplanes packed with equipment airborne—the largest fleet that had flown over the city since the end of the Great War—to both take measurements and broadcast observations over the radio. In addition, a U.S. Navy dirigible, the USS Los Angeles, was also moored 4,500 feet into the air over Rhode Island and functioned as an airborne observatory.

Special trains were arranged to transport New Yorkers into the path of totality outside the city—Connecticut hotel rooms were booked far in advance, at rates rivaling the weekend of the Yale Bowl—while observers were stationed on the ground within city limits. Lighting and utility companies placed teams of photographers on the roofs of the tallest apartment buildings on Riverside Drive between 72nd Street and 135th Street. They needed to work swiftly, according to the Times, since the shadow was expected to sweep across the city at 60 miles an hour.

The editor of Popular Science Monthly, Sumner Blossom, said laymen should enjoy “the most magnificent free show that nature presents to man” with minimum fuss: all they needed was a pair of tinted glasses, a piece of smoked glass, an old photographic plate, or even a fragment of a broken blue or brown bottle. And any camera would do.

For those who were busy and couldn’t step away from their jobs, a group of cameraman with the rudimentary film gear of the day set up at Yale Observatory to film the event, planning to send recordings of the eclipse via plane to Manhattan, so movie theaters could show footage of the darkened sky to the curious in time for afternoon matinees.

“Skyscrapers blink in empty streets”

When the morning arrived and darkness swept across the region in a wave, the ever-moving city took pause. As darkness began descending at 8 a.m. that day, leading to the peak moment of 9:11 a.m., crowds milled about as lights went on across the city, illuminating it as if it was midnight (it would stay dark until 10 a.m.). Cars ground to a halt in the city during the eclipse. Mayor John Francis Hylan witnessed the event from the steps of City Hall, viewing through a telescope and a piece of frosted glass, and briefly playing the radio, which broadcast the observations of Army pilot Major W. N. Hensley, who transmitted his observations from a plane soaring above Mount Vernon. “The sun may be eclipsed,” Hylan told the crowd, “but New York; Never!”.

A crowd of onlookers at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue saw a partial eclipse expertly framed by billowing smoke from the chimney of the New York Edison Company, just across the street. Battery Park was filled with several thousand observers, as well as a squad of cops who, with everyone else gazing skyward, did as well. The observation deck on the Woolworth Building was filled to capacity. Southbound trains ran empty that morning, and traders on Wall Street didn’t begin their day until 10:45 a.m. The sight of skyscrapers, “masked in the half-light of the eclipse,” were like “grey ghosts.”

Similar scenes repeated themselves in Brooklyn. Schoolchildren were herded onto the Coney Island boardwalk to get a magnificent lesson in astronomy. The same Times article noted that a group of workmen who strained to see the event at Empire Boulevard and Flatbush, who had forgotten to bring special glasses, simply broke a few soda bottles, frosted them over a fire, and returned their glances skyward.

The hills of Staten Island proved to be popular vantage points, with scores of cars parked near prime spots. In Queens, which was within the path of totality, traffic totally stopped. The telephone company noted that it received no calls in the entire borough for 10 minutes. The Times noted that in Astoria, a perfect perch to watch the celestial ballet, three stars were visible in the sky and shadow bands akin to heatwaves danced across the sky.

Many descriptions of the event veered even further into the poetic. A Times reporter spoke of the moon, “unpunctual and careless of its route,” eventually moving into position, creating a “jewel of light hanging from a luminous ring.”

The famed “diamond ring” photo of the 1925 eclipse
Library of Congress

“The diamond ring in the sun’s eclipse”

The eclipse became a sensation. A famous photo taken from Saugerties, New York, showing the ring of the sun blocked by the moon was widely published and publicized, called “the diamond ring in the sun’s eclipse.” The lyrical and poetics accounts of Harvard astronomer William Luyten were spread near and far. A partially blind 64-year-old man in Hackensack, New Jersey, claimed that after looking directly at the eclipse, his sight was miraculously restored.

Scientific observations also paid off, with one scientist proclaiming observations pushed science forward “1,000 years.” But perhaps the greatest value taken from the eclipse was the shared public spectacle—the sense that, despite differences and everyday concerns, so many millions of New Yorkers simply paused in wonder at the same time. Those clamoring for a similar public event will need to plan ahead, however. According to Steel, New York City won’t get another eclipse until 2079.