Friday, April 15, 2022

Before the memory fades: The Great Maine Eclipse of 1932 creates rare pocket of prosperity in Lakes Region during Depression era

The path of the solar eclipse on April 8, 2024 is shown.
Windham and the Lakes Region will experience only a 
partial eclipse. For best viewing, plan a trip to Mars Hill
in Maine.
By Walter Lunt

As summer waned and the Depression deepened things began looking up for Windham and the surrounding lakes region communities in 1932, if only for a brief period. On Aug. 26, the front-page banner headline of the Portland Evening Express proclaimed “Southwest Maine, Northern New Hampshire In Eclipse Path Over Which Totality Will Occur.” The Boston Post called it “Wonder Sight.” 

The rare event would help lift many, if only for a moment, out of the Depression era doldrums while at the same time promote science for the masses. Eager sky watchers could witness a rare celestial dance: the moon around the Earth, the Earth and moon together around the Sun, and Earth, all the while, turning on its axis. And on this rare occasion, a total eclipse of the sun.

For several days before the Aug. 31, 1932 event, newspapers all over New England heralded the upcoming spectacle with illustrations, charts, graphs and astronomical explanations of a solar eclipse – an event “… the greatest and most beautiful that has not been witnessed in many a generation.”

Tourist promotion seemed to overshadow the celestial event. The once-in-a-lifetime experience was not to be missed, according to various publications, no matter how far from the eclipse path you lived. Travel to Maine for the best viewing was highly encouraged. Maine Central Railroad advertised its Eclipse Train Trip Flyer which ran from southern Maine to Fryeburg.

The moon, perfectly aligned to block the sun, would turn the light of day into the dark of night. Chickens would roost, cows would return to the pasture gate and bird songs would fall silent. Stars would appear in all their brilliance. But not the moon because, in fact, “spectators would be standing beneath the (new) moon’s shadow.” And then there would be “diamond rings,” cast just moments before and after totality while the brilliance of the Sun’s arcing corona would dazzle even the most disdainful viewer.

There were the ubiquitous warnings for viewers to use smoked glass or a developed square of photographic film while looking at the eclipse. Drivers were urged to pull over, park and turn off their headlights during the event, and homes and businesses were discouraged from turning on any lights.

The advance publicity and undeniable momentousness of the occasion drew thousands of visitors to the area, particularly the Sebago Lake region. The 100-mile-wide swath of totality, moving northwest out of Canada to the southeast through Maine and out into the Atlantic Ocean spawned the title Great Maine Eclipse. The sweet spot for viewing was the “center of totality,” where the Sun is completely darkened for the longest period (about two minutes) which, in this area, was a line from Biddeford, through Windham, to Fryeburg. Scientific expeditions focused on this line.

The Perkins Observatory (Ohio Wesleyan University) established a viewing site in an open field near Douglas Hill in Sebago. Their equipment included large telescopes and photographic and spectroscopic instruments. They would study coronal activity during totality to “increase the world’s knowledge of the structure of the atom, energy and the atmosphere.”

When the day of the eclipse arrived, at precisely 4:30 p.m., viewers along the coast were treated to what the Portland Evening Express described as “…the greatest show of nature.” Inland, however, where most of the eclipse watchers had gathered, clouds took over the sky. A grand disappointment for thousands. The newspaper reported the event this way: “Portland people who stayed at home (and) viewed the eclipse through darkened glasses saw (the eclipse) in all its wonders. Those who journeyed afar and climbed high hills…didn’t do as well. It was all an illustration of the old adage that the grass grows greenest under the feet.”

A few weeks later Perkins Observatory published the results of their Douglas Hill expedition in Popular Astronomy magazine. Noting that all was not lost from the experience, they wrote “While cloudy skies prevented direct coronal photographs, a long series of photometric observations of light changes was made (and) may be of some value in determining the distribution of radiation from different parts of the eclipsed Sun.”

A viewer’s first comment after an eclipse is usually a question: When is the next one? The next significant event will take place two years from this month, on April 8, 2024. A total solar eclipse will sweep through the middle of Maine, leaving Windham and the lakes region with only a partial eclipse. Astronomy magazine (March 2022) reports that Mars Hill, Maine (population 1,500) will be “one of the last spots in the U.S. to see totality” as the Sun’s path moves from Mexico in the southwest through the northeast.

University of Maine professor and director of the Southworth Planetarium Edward Gleason says that it’s unlikely that distant scientific institutions will come to Maine for the 2024 event because weather statistics show a higher incidence of clouds here than in various southwest U.S. locations, however we might expect visits from a few New England observatories due to the close proximity. The Southworth Planetarium will offer periodic lectures on the 2024 eclipse starting next year.

Gleason says the next total eclipse in southern Maine, the best one since 1963 (and before that, 1932) will be in 2079. Be sure to alert the grandkids. <

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