2017-08-17 / Front Page

An eclipse for the ages seen in Washington May 28, 1900


The scene at THE best place to view the 1900 eclipse, later called Grandview. The scene at THE best place to view the 1900 eclipse, later called Grandview. As we make our plans for the solar eclipse on Monday the 21st, we should look back over a century when another eclipse directly brought Washington, Georgia, to the forefront of the scientific community. In tracking that passage which cut a swath across the southeastern United States, our Washington was determined as one of the best – if not THE best – places from which to view this rare phenomenon. Smithsonian scientists chose Wadesboro, N.C., and the U.S. Weather Bureau selected Newberry, S.C., but the most serious academic institutions picked Washington since it was on the central line with the highest elevation and easiest approach.

In January 1900 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced their scientists would be visiting Wilkes County in May for the purpose of viewing the total eclipse. This was exciting news for the community and especially for the owners of Washington’s three brand new hotels (Edward Barrows’ Depot Street hotel, W.T. Johnson’s hotel on Main Street, and John Fitzpatrick’s hotel on West Square).

On May 28, 1900 astronomers and journalists from throughout the country had gathered here to study the rare occurrence. For this one day Wilkes County became the center of the scientific world. The local newspaper, the Chronicle, wrote

These people have brought with them a large lot of telescopes, cameras and other instruments to be used on the occasion. These have been mounted on a hilltop just in the rear of Mr. J.M. Wood’s residence in the southern part of town. This place was chosen because of the fact that it gives a fine view toward the eastern heavens.

On that Monday morning at 8:10 total darkness extended for one minute and twenty-five seconds over Washington as the eclipse reached its fullness.

However, prior to that event, much time and preparation had gone into making this a successful venture for the visiting scientists. Washington postmaster J.E. Poche had been the primary contact. Professor Alfred E. Burton noted, “It was from him we learned that the little city was supplied with good modern hotels, and was a center of culture and refinement.” The MIT contingent boarded a steamer from Boston to Savannah, then came on to Washington by train and mule car.

The Washington site proved superior to any other in the South and, after a visit from Professor J. Rayner Edwards of Harvard Observatory, that university’s plan was changed to Washington as well. Blue Hill and Flagstaff Observatories also chose Washington. Several boxcars of equipment arrived on the rail line with the scientists, including the giant camera from Harvard dubbed “Jumbo.” A consortium of Catholic universities – Saint Louis, Creighton, and Xavier – set up their observations on the hill at St. Joseph’s Orphanage and Seminary (now Parks and Recreation) where they were assisted by the Sisters and students.

Journalists from national newspapers such as the Boston Globe were also in town. A dedicated wire was built from the observation site behind Mr. Wood’s house to the downtown Western Union office. Small brick piers were erected throughout the south end of town to benefit surveyors and allow more accurate readings.

By May 22nd most guests had arrived and were honored at a tea sponsored by the ladies of the Frank Willis Literary Society. Harvard Professor W.H. Pickering lectured on the impending eclipse to local groups including the students at Washington High School.

As the astronomers set to work in earnest on the 26th, five young ladies of Washington were enlisted by Professor Burton to assist in sketching the form of the corona. Twenty other high school students and their teachers also served as volunteers and were drilled over the weekend for their duties on the morning of the eclipse. On Sunday, the Rev. Henry Martyn Savile of Cambridge, part of the research team, conducted morning services at the Episcopal Church.

The day before the eclipse, ropes were stretched around the cotton field observation point to deter too many curious onlookers. The sketchers were practicing, meteorological instrumentation was checked, the camera plate-holders filled. A night watchman was hired so the workers could adjourn to their hotels for brief rest.

Professor Burton described the excitement:

At seven hours, two minutes, twenty-two and seven-tenths seconds local mean time, G.L. Hosmer, looking through the large equatorial, silently recorded on the revolving chronography the first contact. The eclipse was on!

The sky was clear beyond the wildest hopes! Everyone was cheerful… At “five minutes before totality” those who were going to sketch took their places behind the sketching stand and closed their eyes, not to open them until they heard Prof. Arthur G. Robbins counting the first “one” of the seconds…Mr. Harrison W. Smith, with his cameras, had made six exposures of different lengths of time. He was assisted in this work by Mr. Irvin M. Callaway, a Washington young man.

A.E. Douglass of the Flagstaff Observatory cabled renowned astronomer Percival Lowell in Tripoli, North Africa, in the midst of totality. This trans-Atlantic cable brought almost as much fascination as the eclipse itself.

Naturally, when all was concluded Washington hosted its visitors at a sumptuous Wilkes County-style barbecue prepared by Sheriff John W. Callaway.

Though the Hotel Johnson was demolished some years ago for the present Regions Bank building, the Depot Hotel still stands near Burdette Harris on Depot Street and the Fitzpatrick continues to be the dominant structure on the west side of the Square.

The cotton field that provided such a perfect vantage point to view the eclipse is the area behind the homes of Martha Read and Ed and Susan Pope. South Jefferson Street now runs through this historic site. About a decade after the eclipse, this section was sold for residential development under the name Grandview because of its prominent role in the eclipse of 1900.

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What a great story! News to

What a great story! News to me! I've never about this wonderful event in Washington's history. Really loved the colorful description of the hotels and life in Washington back in 1900. Thank you, Skeet! - Reba Griffith