Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The eclipse on Nantucket, then and now

Mary Bergman

“Are you going to the eclipse?” a friend asked last Monday. I thought this was a strange way to put it, like the eclipse was a party happening in one location rather than a celestial event. Nantucket saw a partial eclipse, with only 87% totality.

Still, the eclipse was cause for much concern out here. Nantucketers take pride in our long history of stargazing and astronomy. Maria Mitchell, the first woman to work as a professional astronomer, was born here and discovered a comet in 1847 from the roof of the Pacific National Bank at the top of Main Street. Even today, the island is one of a few places in the Northeast where you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Increased light pollution threatens our dark skies, and at last year’s Annual Town Meeting, a bylaw was passed to restrict nighttime outdoor lighting.

More than a thousand people gathered at the old Nantucket High School baseball fields to observe what we could of the eclipse. The science center that bears Maria’s name provided eclipse viewing glasses and the chance to look through a solar telescope. It was, mercifully, a bright, clear day after a winter of unrelenting gray. With so many people milling around on the patchy field, it felt like we were waiting for a concert to begin.

Looking around at my fellow islanders, and I realized a few of the old hippies had most certainly been here for the 1970 eclipse. On March 7, 1970, Nantucket was one of a handful of places in the Northeastern United States in the path of totality. (So was Monomoy Island off Chatham.) The Boston Globe described the crowd that assembled here in 1970 as half looking like “members of an Artic expedition” and the rest resembling “refugees from the Woodstock Festival.” It was estimated between 3,500 and 4,000 people flocked to the island for the event. (That is almost as many eclipse visitors as year-rounders in 1970.)

Nantucket had passed a series of “anti-hippie” measures the year before. Sleeping on the beach, camping, and being barefoot on Main Street was now illegal. But, reports at the time say the police were willing to look the other way for eclipse travelers. In 1970, there were not enough hotels or inns to handle the influx of winter tourists. Most were young, college students equipped with telescopes, tripods, and viewing boxes slung over their shoulders.

I wondered if anybody had come over for the 1970 eclipse and never left. You could do that back then, find a cheap place to live and hang on until the summer season began. How futuristic 2024 must have seemed in 1970. Now, I was watching the eclipse with people who knew this would be the last opportunity they would have in their lifetime to see an eclipse from our shores.

We could feel the temperature drop noticeably as the moon began to eclipse the sun. Shadows shortened, and the sky took on a strange quality, as though I was looking at the scene through a filter. There was an undeniable energy, a buzz, that came from being around so many people, all tilting our faces towards the same celestial body. I can see why those in the path of totality get hooked on observing eclipses.

As the moon retreated, the sun once again taking its rightful place as ruler of the sky, a flock of gulls came from seemingly out of nowhere and began to fly in circles around the thinning crowd. The eerie light diminished, and long spring shadows studded the baseball field. The gulls may have been disoriented, but they got over it fast, making quick work of a bag of potato chips. Order was restored to the universe.