84 Years Ago, the Sun Blinked Out!
by Joe Rao on
January 24, 2009 marks an auspicious anniversary in the history of New York astronomy. It is the 84th anniversary of the last total solar eclipse that was visible from New York City. On January 24, 1925, the southern portion of the Moon's umbral shadow passed across upper Manhattan, parts of Queens and all of the Bronx. Only in these locations would totality be visible; places like lower Manhattan, Staten Island and Brooklyn would unfortunately be outside the zone of the total eclipse.
(Here is a short film, showing preparations being made at Lakehurst, NJ to observe the 1925 eclipse from the Airship, Los Angeles . . . which was then the largest in the world. There are also views of the partial stages and totality which was observed near Montauk Point, Long Island at an altitude of 3,000 feet.)
So on a bitter cold morning (the air temperature hovered near 0 °F), but under a brilliantly clear, blue sky, millions of New Yorkers who properly positioned themselves, were able to briefly witness one of nature's greatest spectacles. What made me think about this today was not so much the anniversary date itself, but the fact that like today, in 1925, the great event occurred on a Saturday.
I can recall as a very young boy, my grandfather telling me stories of how he and throngs of others watched this eclipse from along the East River Drive in East Harlem.
In 1970, just before the solar eclipse that swept along the U.S. East Coast on March 7th of that year, I remember attending a meeting of the O.G. (Observing Group); a division of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York. The meeting was held in one of the basement classrooms of the old Hayden Planetarium and the topic that afternoon was: Can you remember the 1925 Eclipse? Many participants who were there that day provided spirited anecdotes, such as AAA old-timers like Patrick Rizzo and Gilbert Schmidling. Back then, the 1925 eclipse was still fresh in their minds . . . for it had occurred only 45-years ago.
Some years later, when I was the morning-drive meteorologist on WPAT Radio, I asked on the anniversary day if any listeners remembered that 1925 eclipse and was delighted to get about about a half-dozen responses from folks who indeed recalled that special day. One woman wrote that she lived in Gravesend, Brooklyn back then: I don't remember much about the eclipse, so much as I recall that Papa woke me and my two brothers up very early that morning, bundled us up, piled us into our car and took us on what was then (for us) was a great adventure: We were going to the Bronx. Another sent me an eclipse viewer—a piece of exposed film mounted on a piece of cardboard—dated January 24, 1925, with instructions on how to properly use it. I've held on to this for many years, wrote the listener, adding . . . maybe you can put it to some use.
It is a sobering thought as type these words that I realize that virtually all of those people who saw the 1925 eclipse have passed on to the great beyond. Indeed, to have any good memory of that event of so long ago, a person would have had to attain the age of five, meaning they would be 89 today; those few who are still with us are not likely to be around when the next total solar eclipse sweeps across the Continental US in 2017.
Certainly most of us are not likely to be around when the umbra touches NYC again . . . on the first of May in 2079.
I would suppose that in that in 2017, there might be some kind of a pre-eclipse gathering of those who will vividly recall the US East Coast Eclipse of 1970. After all, that event will have occurred only 47-years earlier. I can already see myself talking to a group of fresh-faced young people, most of whom probably will have never been exposed to the panoply of phenomena that accompany that magic word Totality! listening intently to me—an old-timer, describing a memorable event from a era which to them might seem almost like the stone age: the '70s.
Getting back to 1925, I'll finish this off on a somewhat ironic and eerie note.
On the morning of January 24, 1925, millions of New Yorkers were eagerly awaiting that magic moment when the Moon's umbra would descend upon their great city and briefly plunge them all into darkness. Newspapers had been publicizing the time for weeks, so that when the big day finally arrived virtually every man, woman and child knew when that eagerly awaited moment would come.
It was 9:11.