January 24: Total Eclipse Brings State to a Standstill


In the chilly winter of 1925, Connecticut found itself in the rare and remarkable position of being the nation’s prime viewing spot for a total eclipse of the sun. All along the path of totality, which in the United States swept from Niagara Falls to Montauk Point, millions suspended their regular activities to experience the once-in-a-lifetime celestial phenomenon. The eclipse threw Connecticut into total darkness just after nine in the morning on January 24, 1925, with the totality lasting about a minute and a half.

The Path of Totality of the 1925 Solar Eclipse.

Unsurprisingly, the eclipse – and how to view it safely – was big news in the days and weeks leading up to the 24th.

The amateur astronomer Lewis Ripley, a Glastonbury resident with a hefty telescope and the discovery of a sunspot to his name, wrote a half-page article in the Hartford Courant with advice for readers on getting a good view. His two biggest pieces of advice were to, first, find a high hill with a clear view towards the northwest; and
second, bring a piece of smoked glass at least four by six inches in size to use as a safe viewer (looking directly at an eclipse is dangerous to the naked eye and can cause damage to vision).

More than 5,000 people ignored bracing temperatures to ascend Willimantic’s Hosmer Mountain to view the eclipse. (Connecticut Historical Society)

In response to demand, the Gustave Fisher Company of Hartford developed an eclipse viewer it named “Filmeo,” consisting of a piece of developed photo film attached to a card. According to the Hartford Courant, the company produced more than 7,000 viewers but this was “not sufficient to accommodate the throngs at the Fischer store on Asylum Street and, at 3 o’clock Friday afternoon – the day before the eclipse – the supply was exhausted, although the store had limited sales to a maximum of three to a customer.”

It was clear that the eclipse would be a sensation: special trains had been scheduled to bring in would-be observers from surrounding states, and Connecticans took every opportunity to make a social occasion of the viewing. Some scheduled eclipse parties with their friends, repairing to the roof of their buildings after breakfast. Others, despite the brutally cold weather (temperatures hovered around zero), tromped out to the nearest local peak or tall building for a good view. Five thousand people gathered at Hosmer Mountain in WiIlimantic, and similar crowds amassed at Hubbard Park in Meriden, on East and West Rock in New Haven, and throughout the campus of Trinity College, which had been opened to spectators. Hundreds of cars parked on Town Woods Hill in Glastonbury for an eclipse drive-in party. The artist Howard Russell Butler wanted to observe and paint the event, and though he had been invited to view the eclipse from the observatory at Wesleyan University, he decided to station himself on the roof of the Arrigoni Hotel in Middletown so he could see in more than one direction.

Artist Howard Russell Butler, Jr. painted the eclipse from the rooftop of the Arrigoni Hotel in Middletown (Princeton University Library).

Newspapers enthusiastically reported the popularity of the event. The Bridgeport Telegram claimed “Business Halts as 20,000,000 People View Sun’s Eclipse.” The front page of the Meriden Daily Journal‘s noon edition was stuffed with eclipse headlines, giving a sense of just how many people of different ages and professions were fascinated by the eclipse. Yale scientists holed up in their observatory to collect once-in-a-lifetime data. Harvard researchers, cooperating with Trinity scientists and using the radio equipment of the Travelers Insurance Company, used the opportunity to determine that short-wave radio signals faded as the eclipse approached its totality. Army pilots hoping to see what things looked like from above the clouds reported no luck (a navy dirigible hovering over Nantucket, however, got better results)

In the end, millions of Connecticans stopped and seized the opportunity to watch the eclipse, even if it took a while to thaw out afterward. January 24, 1925 was a day people would remember, primarily for leaving them in the dark in the middle of the morning.

The next total eclipse viewable from Connecticut is not expected until May 1, 2079

Further Reading

Shirley Wajda, “A Total Eclipse of the Sun” connecticuthistory.org

Nancy Finlay “Total Eclipse Visible in Connecticut,” Connecticut Historical  Society

H. C. Wilson “The Eclipse of January 24, 1925,” Popular Astronomy