Northern New Englanders hope for clear skies and tourism ahead of 2024 total eclipse
Jane Torres missed her last chance to see an eclipse.
“I just remember I was inside, and I wasn't really paying much attention to it,” she recalled.
It was 2017. A partial eclipse was passing over New England, including her home in Houlton, Maine, a community of about 6,000 people that sits right on the border of New Brunswick, Canada. Torres’s daughter came home later that afternoon — she had been at a gas station when it happened.
“And she said people were sharing [solar eclipse] glasses with people who didn't have them because it was such an incredible experience,” Torres said. “You know, just to have that happen, and hear the birds stop singing, everything just kind of goes quiet. And she was just struck by that, and I remember her telling me and thinking, where was I? Why was I inside?”
Next year, on April 8, 2024, Torres will have another chance — and an even rarer opportunity — when a total solar eclipse passes over New England. This time, she’ll be ready.
Torres is executive director of the chamber of commerce in Houlton, where she also serves on the eclipse committee. Her town is planning a major celebration with vendors, performers, and a parade.
Across northern New England, communities like Houlton are hoping and preparing for an influx of visitors at a time when the region is normally quiet, as people look for the best way to experience this rare celestial event known as totality.
A wide section of the region will be in the path of totality on April 8, meaning the moon will completely cover the sun. The sky will darken for more than 3 minutes in some places. And if the weather is clear, people will be able to see the outer atmosphere of the sun, known as the corona.
Maureen Brown is general manager at the Hampton Inn by Hilton in St. Albans, Vermont, another community in the path of totality. She began getting booking inquiries for the 2024 eclipse more than a year out.
“People started calling and asking about it,” Brown said. “At that point we knew it was going to be pretty busy.”
The hotel has put a three-night minimum stay in place for that weekend, hoping it gives guests the chance to experience Greater St. Albans.
The community of about 14,000 is expecting double that number of visitors. They are planning a viewing party in a city park for April 8, and other gatherings in areas with fewer street lights near Lake Champlain. The eclipse will happen in the early afternoon on a Monday, so one unresolved question is how to handle school dismissal so students aren’t watching the eclipse from the bus.
‘So many moving parts’
In Maine, the Houlton area is expecting between 10,000 and 40,000 visitors, Torres said.
Members of the community have been signing up to offer spare rooms for visitors, and local churches have offered their parking lots.
Torres has secured a refrigerated truck to help the town restaurants add food storage space. Churches are also planning to offer community meals and bagged lunches. Torres is looking to rent 130 portable toilets, and her committee has already ordered 60,000 eclipse glasses. The local school district has made the decision to close schools on eclipse day. School buses will instead be used to transport people to a nearby planetarium.
“Well, I'm a little scared just because there are so many moving parts and so many things to do,” Torres said.
High on her list of worries is that people could arrive in Houlton unaware of what the weather in northern New England can be like in early April.
“So educating everybody about bringing the proper clothes,” Torres said. “You know, a lot of people haven't experienced winters and springs in Maine and, you know, we have to be ready for everything.”
Her committee is looking for places to set up warming tents, especially for that time during a total eclipse when the sky darkens and temperatures drop.
A total eclipse in mud season
As an astronomer, Shawn Laatsch knows how crucial the weather is to have a good experience viewing the sky.
Laatsch directs the Versant Power Astronomy Center at the University of Maine in Orono. He has traveled as far as Libya and the Black Sea for the chance to experience total eclipses.
“I always tell folks the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total is like the difference between seeing a lightning bug and getting hit by lightning. They really are that spectacular,” Laatsch said.
He says the good news is that people in northern New England will have a total eclipse happen right in their backyards. “The bad news is the timing is probably not the best,” he said. “In April, in Maine or in the Northeast in general, our weather prospects are kind of poor.”
The planetarium Laatsch directs showed a special eclipse film in September, and they’re planning additional special programming starting in February. Laatsch has been running teacher training workshops and he’s also working with NASA on a citizen science program. His center is helping supply the state of Maine with eclipse glasses.
If it wasn’t for all of that, Laatsch says, he would probably travel to a place along the path of totality where he would have a better chance of a clear viewing, somewhere like Texas or Mexico.
In New England, “we're about a 40% chance given our weather prospects. It’s a hard thing,” Laatsch said. “Sometimes it's perfectly clear in April, and other times it can be cloudy or even snowing here in Maine in April.”
Debby Dyckman owns Northwoods on Main Gifts in Lancaster, New Hampshire, a town of around 3,000 people that is also in the path of totality.
“Typically April is what's considered mud season in New Hampshire,” she said. “So it’s kind of a quiet time for us in the North Country.”
Still, for Dyckman and others, the timing of the total eclipse — happening in between the region’s snow, maple syrup and summer seasons - presents an opportunity.
“So for the eclipse to be happening in April will be great for our economy, for the hotels and motels, as well as restaurants and local stores, to bring in people to the economy to help us through our slow season,” Dyckman said.
Local officials say as many as 40,000 people could visit Lancaster for the eclipse.
Ruby Berryman owns the Lancaster Motel, a 1950s-era hotel just down the road from Dyckman’s shop, with her husband, Brian.
They will soon open bookings for eclipse-themed, all-inclusive packages, which will include lodging, locally-catered food, and activities.
“You know, we bought the motel right before COVID and so we've had some tough years,” Ruby Berryman said. “We managed to get through those and I think that this will be a nice economic boost.”
The motel has a cocktail bar and a cigar lounge, and Berryman says they will offer special cigars for the eclipse visitors.
Dyckman is also working on new products for her gift shop. She’s designing eclipse-themed merchandise, like mugs, t-shirts, stickers and even special eclipse glasses.
The town of Lancaster is planning events to celebrate totality and welcome visitors to its shops, hotels, restaurants and brewery.
“I’m just excited to showcase our community,” Dyckman said.
A once-in-a-lifetime chance
Back in Houlton, Maine, Torres hopes she isn’t too busy with all of the events she’s organizing to enjoy next year’s total eclipse, when it finally happens.
She would love to accept her daughter’s invitation to go out to a horse barn, where they could see it together.
“But then I started thinking, how am I going to do that and still monitor everything that's going on?” Torres said.
The last time Maine saw a total eclipse was in 1963. The next chance won’t come until 2079.
Bonnie Murphy grew up in the Houlton area and is a member of the Mi'kmaq Nation. She doesn’t remember the 1963 eclipse, but she does remember a partial eclipse in 1970, when she was a teenager.
“We were at the skating rink,” said Murphy, “and it was the wintertime. And they told us the eclipse was going to happen.”
But Murphy and the other children weren't able to see it.
“They said not to look into it because you could go blind, is what they told us. So, instead of having any mishaps, the skating rink manager made all the kids go inside the building and they shut all the windows so we couldn't look directly at it. But we saw it through the cracks in the boards that covered the windows,” Murphy recalled. “We were peeking through the cracks…and all we saw was that it went dark.”
Murphy is currently crafting beaded jewelry to display and sell during Houlton’s eclipse celebration in April. Some of it will be inspired by the eclipse.
She is not sure yet where she will be during totality, but she’s excited — and this time she will be prepared with a set of eclipse glasses from her town.
“I can't wait. I can't wait to see it.”
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