Last Monday, August 21, 2017, I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I saw a total solar eclipse! My sister and I traveled several hours from our home to the mountains in southwestern North Carolina in order to see the eclipse in the band of totality.
Anticipating heavy traffic later in the morning, we left Canton, North Carolina (just west of Asheville) at 6:45 a.m. It was a scenic and pleasant hour’s drive to Bryson City, North Carolina where we had reservations on a steam train to Dillsboro at noon.
After a hearty breakfast at The Iron Skillet and a tour of the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum in Bryson City, and armed with NASA-approved solar eclipse viewing glasses, we boarded a train for the 75-minute ride to Dillsboro, North Carolina. Pulled by a diesel locomotive for the trip to Dillsboro, the train was pulled by a steam locomotive on the return trip to Bryson City that afternoon.
2-8-0 Class Steam Locomotive No. 1702
The 2-8-0 steam locomotive No. 1702 was built by The Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania in August, 1942. Intended for military service in Europe during World War II, it was sent instead to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to perform domestic wartime service. According to the information on the back of my souvenir ticket, “The engine is one of two remaining in the U.S. 120 2-8-0 class oil burning engines built.”
After being owned by various railroad lines, in 1992 the locomotive was purchased by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. It gave passenger service in western North Carolina until 2004 when mechanical problems took it out of service. Restoration work began in 2014 and today the steam engine is a thing of beauty in great working order.
During the two-and-a-half-hour layover in Dillsboro, we were able to sit and watch the progression of the eclipse.
The people on the train and in Dillsboro were all in a jovial mood and excited about the experience. There were people there from many US states, India, and Japan. The ladies from Japan had traveled to China to see a total eclipse. They brought with them solar eclipse viewing fans. They reminded me of the cardboard fans on a wooden stick that we used in our church before the days of air-conditioning.
The fans from China had a strip across so one could hold the fan in front of the face and look at the eclipse through the strip. One of the women let me try it out. I thought it was more convenient and sturdy than the flimsy eclipse glasses we have in the US. Afraid my glasses would slip and expose my eyes, I found myself holding them in place.
Eclipse projected on the ground
An engineer from Conyers, Georgia set up a telescope rigged with binoculars just a few feet from where we sat. It was fascinating to watch the progression of the eclipse, which started at 1:06 pm and ended at 4:00 pm, as his setup projected the image of the sun onto a piece of paper on the ground.
He had a round disk containing a myriad of tiny holes. Everywhere the eclipsed sun shone through the holes, we could see tiny crescents of light on the paper underneath. He also showed the women from Japan how to hold they hands palms down, crossways of each other at a 90-degree angle and somehow the tiny crescents of light appeared on the ground beneath his hands. I never got the hang of that.
Total Solar Eclipse!
When the partial eclipse transitioned into total eclipse at 2:35 pm, we could take off our viewing glasses and look at the sun unprotected for the minute and 50 seconds of totality. Nothing was visible of the sun during that time except its spectacular corona. I could see one star to the left of the sun. Everyone cheered and applauded when totality began and again when it ended. The birds started singing again as totality transitioned into partial eclipse.
The street lights came on during the twilight of total eclipse. If I had it to do again – which I don’t expect to – I would go to a place far away from any source of artificial light, and I would go the a place in the center of the total eclipse band. Even so, I have no regrets and feel fortunate to have had this opportunity. The last eclipse that could be seen in the Dillsboro area was July 20, 1506. The next one will be October 17, 2053. Since I’ll be 100 years old then, I don’t expect to see it.
When the eclipse was at about 50%, we could see what we thought to be a sunspot on the sun as we looked at the half-moon image on the paper under the telescope/binoculars setup. Unfortunately, the sunspot was too tiny to show up in the photograph I took.
It had taken less than an hour that morning to drive from Canton, North Carolina to Bryson City. After the steam train returned us to Bryson City after the eclipse, we enjoyed pizza at Nick and Nate’s Pizza across the street from the train station and headed back to Canton.
It wasn’t long before we caught up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It took us three-and-a-half hours to drive back to Canton, so we were glad we’d taken time to eat supper in Bryson City.
A nice surprise
A nice surprise that morning in Bryson City was visiting O’Neil’s Shop on the Corner and finding a copy of my vintage postcard book, The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, prominently displayed near the bookstore’s entrance.
One of the shop’s owners, Tom O’Neill, asked me to autograph it and the other copy on another shelf. I was thrilled to find my book still available there! (I wrote about my first experience meeting Tom and Cynthia O’Neill in my December 30, 2014 blog post, O’Neill’s Shop on the Corner)
It was a really nice day. We’d had such a good experience all day, the long drive back to Canton wasn’t so bad. We regretted that we were missing the NOVA program about the eclipse on PBS that night, but it turned out that we got to see it later in the week after we returned home.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve almost finished reading Hatteras Light, by Philip Gerard, for tonight’s meeting of Rocky River Readers Book Club.
If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.
Photo credits: Marie Morrison