Total Eclipse of the Sun: August 7, 1869

As we prepare for the upcoming solar eclipse, we thought we would take a look back at the Solar Eclipse of 1869 as viewed by Davenporters.

The last solar eclipse of the 19th century occurred on Saturday, August 7th, 1869. It was a clear, lovely day here in Davenport. The central line of the eclipse bisected Iowa, entering 18 miles south of the NW corner of the state and leaving it 2 miles north of the east extension of its southern boundary in Lee County. The belt of the country totally eclipsed was 158 1/2 miles wide at the NW corner of the state and 156 miles wide at the SE corner. The central line was near halfway between the northern and southern limits of the eclipse. The area covered by the belt of the total eclipse was 44,000 miles. Des Moines & Burlington were chosen by astronomers for observation, being at the center of belt totality.

In Davenport, special glasses made with smoked glass were sold for 5 to 10 cents each, according to size and perfection of coloring. Telescopic views of the eclipse were held at Dr. Hazen’s office over Harrison and Stark’s drug store. Admission cost 50 cents and as many people as could get in were admitted. The reflection of the eclipse was captured through a telescope and projected on a screen, and its several stages were accurately represented to a room full of spectators. 

Observations in Davenport were sponsored by the Davenport Academy of Sciences, under the direction of Professor Thomas Lighton/Leighton of Rock Island.  An observatory was established on the roof of the Davenport National Bank building. P. B. Jones’ Photograph Gallery

One telescopic camera was used by Paul B. Jones (magnifying power of 30 diameters) for taking photographs; the was other was used by Prof. Lighton (magnifying power of 150 diameters) for observation. The lenses were arranged so images could vary from 4 to 16 inches; negatives could be made in any size in-between. 

The cameras were mounted on a stand that could incline in any direction. This allowed observers to follow the sun without causing any jarring or shaking. The strong wood frame was mounted on Equatorial plates firmly fixed and edged with 630 teeth and a steel screw, which caused the upper plate to move freely. On top of the plates were two sweeps supported on two columns in which the telescopes were placed so that the equator could be followed in a single motion.

Every three minutes, Jones took an image on a 4-inch glass plate negative and immediately developed it. This resulted in 24 impressive photographs:

The eclipse began at 3:57:53pm, as the moon approached the sun from the Northeast quadrant. Spectators noticed an instant change in the atmosphere. Swallows and doves flew back and forth as a result of the unexpected darkness. The strange light caused a change in hue of forest on the island and trees to a darker green, then vapory yellow, then “so deep that shades were lost across the tops and the woods were of the deepest shade of green.”

At 4:20pm, half the sun was obscured. The landscape looked as it does in dim twilight. Swallows and pigeons disappeared. You could not see the people standing on rooftops. As the sun was reduced to a crescent, the crowd “observed protuberances on its shining surface and a shimmer on the disc of the moon itself in 2 or 3 places”.

The Davenport Gazette attempted to describe the totality:

“Darkness” was not darkness. The strange light produced was about of the degree of darkness prevalent at the interval between setting of the sun and appearing of the moon when that orb is in full. Yet it was far different, too: softer in effect upon senses, pervading landscape, and filling the atmosphere with a wonderfully delicate influence of grayish rosiness. 

In the Heavens, it was the light of earliest day when stars are going out. On Earth is was a light denser than that of the full moon, but less dark than that of moonless starlight – a combination of the two, with a sublimity, awful in character, that is never observed in either. 

Stars burst suddenly into view the instant the sun was hidden. Mercury […] came prominently into view right near the sun. Venus shone as one may see her whenever she is the evening star and Regulus, too came like the great star he is, a shining light in the heavens. 

And also the corona: 

The moon looked as if it were hung in the Heavens in bold relief, detached from all governing power. At its round edges there was the faintest tint of something that looked like struggling light. But all around it there was light. Now the corona was shaped like a many-cornered star; then it was round with almost even edges- but so beautiful in contrast with the black disc it glorified. There was a pinkish hue visible in it for a second, then a rainbowish appearance just one instant, and then it glowed in changes of hue. There was a superior brightness on one side at one instant, and then its glory was uniformly shaded, in a brief second to be radially striated.

The corona lasted just 63 seconds, starting at 4:57:27pm.

“There were loud cheers from spectators, some who saw Bailey’s Beads distinctly and a shooting of red light from the moon. 

The wildlife took notice of the unexpected change in light. Birds disappeared. Bats and night hawks came out. Flies nested on ceilings. Farmers reported that the sheep sought repose.

Before totality, not a cloud was visible anywhere. During the corona, multi-colored clouds illuminated the western half of the Horizon. They lay in streaks and were pink, light purple, and gray at first but soon exhibited about all the colors of the rainbow, though of light shade. 

The thermometer in the shade varied by 5 degrees, falling from 70 degrees to 65 degrees. The barometer was stationary during the whole of the phenomena, remaining at 29.62-100 from 4pm on Saturday until 8am on Sunday. There was no variation of magnetic current.”

The immersion of the moon occurred at 4:58:31pm.

“Instantly, all the Earth changed. The stars disappeared, and the hues of day were shed upon every object. The change was more sublime than the darkening. Birds came out and sang a welcome to daylight, trees assumed a natural hue. The moon seemed glad to get away and hurried off the disc of the sun more rapidly than she ventured to travel across it.”

The eclipse was over at 5:57:27pm.

In the weeks after the eclipse a “wild boy” was spotted a number of times in East Davenport, in the back of Judge Grant’s farm near Bettendorf. A hunter who spotted it described it as having “light sandy hair covering its naked body,” a “revoltingly ugly” face and “brutal appearance.” Could he had been suffering from the effects of the eclipse?

(posted by Cristina)


“The Solar Eclipse: it’s Importance to Science.” Daily Gazette, 07 Aug 1869, p. 4.

“The Solar Eclipse: Observations of the Phenomenon in Davenport,” Daily Gazette, 09 Aug 1869, p. 4.

“A New Peter The Wild Boy,”Daily Davenport Democrat, 24 Aug 1869 p. 1.

Photographs of the Eclipse of the Sun, August 7, 1869 Taken by the Academy of Natural Sciences, Davenport, Iowa. Griggs, Watson & Day, Printers, 1869

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3 Responses to Total Eclipse of the Sun: August 7, 1869

  1. Deb williams says:

    How interesting!

  2. Jerald Rigdon says:

    150th anniversary coming up! This was a major event in Burlington, Mt. Pleasant, Ottumwa, and Des Moines.

  3. Jay R. Winter says:

    Did it actually reach totality in Davenport? This is wonderful History!

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