On November 18, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition explored Cape Disappointment off the Pacific coast in what is now Oregon. This concluded an 18 month journey to reach the Pacific Northwest. Today, the Cape is home to a state park which includes the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. On August 21, 2017, some 150 miles south, a solar eclipse will begin its race across the United States eastward until it exits into the Atlantic at Charleston, South Carolina. If you intend to travel to view the eclipse, several spots along the path of totality offer short day trips to some interesting historical spots. With proper planning, you can combine science and history in your trip.
Google and NASA has put together a neat interactive map for the eclipse that allows you to determine the time of totality for any given location. Below is how the eclipse enters the United States in Oregon starting at 10:15 A.M. PDT in the morning.
“men appear much Satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks & this emence ocian.” – Lewis and Clark Journal, November 18, 1805.
If you are not from the Northwest, you might think this was a poor spot to view the eclipse as the climate is notorious for rain. However, most of the rain falls from October to March and the eclipse occurs during the driest month of the year for this region. Salem averages less than half an inch of rain for the entire month of August compared to over six inches in December. Salem will experience 1:53 of totality compared to 2:00 in the center of the shadow. This site has the added benefit of a major airport in Portland 45 miles north. And north of Portland, you can trace the trail of Lewis and Clark as they reached the Pacific along the Columbia River in the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. From there, you can move on to Cape Disappointment to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to take in the Pacific at the North Head Lighthouse.
After Oregon, the path of totality enters Wyoming just south of Yellowstone National Park then eastward. The city of Casper is near the center of the path and will experience totality for 2:25. Casper is also very dry in August, averaging less than an inch a rain during the month. The airport in Casper is serviced by Delta and United Airlines with the major connections at Denver and Las Vegas. While in Casper, you can visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center which has exhibits on the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails. If you are feeling adventurous, there are several spots in Wyoming where the ruts of the wagon trains are still embedded in the ground. One such spot is the “Parting of the Ways”
“If any young man is about to commence the world, we say to him, publicly and privately, Go to the West” – Horace Greeley in the New Yorker, August 25, 1838.
There is a bit of a historical dispute on this spot. Some claim this is where the Oregon and California trails branched off. The more accepted version is the right fork was the Sublette Cutoff which was a shortcut, but presented 50 miles of waterless trails. The left fork led to Fort Bridger and was a longer, but less riskier passage. Either way, it is an awesome piece of natural preservation. This is pretty rugged territory and a four wheel drive is recommended along with stocking up on supplies as there won’t be a 7-11 around the corner. Directions and background on this site can be found here. The Parting of the Ways is a four hour drive from Casper.
History always has two sides, and the other side of the westward expansion can be found 200 miles north of Casper at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Here is where Cheyenne and Lakota forces defeated General Custer’s 7th Calvary Regiment. The site houses memorials to both sides of the conflict. Millions of Native Americans were eventually killed as a result of war, disease, and forced relocation over the course of several centuries as European descendants made their way westward into the Americas.
After Wyoming, the path of totality barrels through Nebraska including the town of North Platte, also part of the Oregon Trail. Then through Missouri, the eclipse travels over the northern part of the Metro Kansas City area including the Harry S.Truman Library and Museum in Independence ten miles east of the city. Totality lasts about a minute over the museum, to experience over two minutes of totality, you’ll want to head towards the center line in the map below. St. Joseph will enjoy 2:38 of total darkness. As you move east, the climate gets wetter, meaning cloud cover becomes more of a possibility. Kansas City averages almost four inches of rain in August.
“We must build a new world, a far better world — one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” – Harry S. Truman address to the United Nations Conference, April 25, 1945.
The Truman Library has exhibits on the end of World War II, including the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the start of the Cold War, and the upset win in the 1948 election as well as his formative years serving in World War I. To learn more about Truman’s early life, there is the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site which was his home. This site preserves over 50,000 objects related to Truman.
Independence was also the starting point for the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails. This is commemorated in the National Frontier Trails Museum. The museum contains pioneer narratives, a public research library, as well as a Lewis and Clark exhibit as the expedition stopped there early in their journey.
From Kansas City, the path of totality heads towards St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. If you like country music, Nashville will experience totality, then the eclipse moves directly towards the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The best way to reach this region is to fly into Knoxville which is less than an hour away. One caveat here, there’s a reason they are called the Great Smokey Mountains and that is because…they are smokey. The region receives 50-80 inches of rainfall per year. And this, of course, can reduce the visibility of the eclipse.
Still, if you decide to go this route, you will not be disappointed by the scenery. This is the most visited national park with over ten million taking in the vistas annually. There is also no charge to enter the park.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer on the first atomic explosion, quote televised in 1965.
Less than a half hour from Knoxville is the formally secret town of Oak Ridge. Secret in that this was where uranium was enriched during the Manhattan Project for the atomic bomb. The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant was a U-shaped building a half a mile long with some 2,000,000 square feet of floor space. Eventually, 12,000 people were employed at the plant and was so designed that they were not aware what they were producing due to the secretive nature of the project. The plant was demolished in 2014, but the American Museum of Science and Energy offers exhibits on the history of the Manhattan Project and nuclear energy. The museum offers bus tours of the historic Oak Ridge facilities which are now part of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Finally, the path of totality moves into South Carolina, over Charleston, and out into the Atlantic Ocean at 2:49 P.M. EDT, ninety-three minuets after touching down in Oregon. Charleston will experience a minute and half of totality, situating yourself towards the center of the path of totality will stretch out total darkness for two and a half minutes.
“The last ray of hope for preserving the Union peaceably expired at the assault upon Fort Sumter.” – Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message, December 3, 1861.
As anyone who has lived down South can tell you, Summer is the rainy season and Charleston is no exception averaging over six inches of rain in August. Still, if you make Charleston your destination, there is an excellent historical district downtown and in the harbor, Fort Sumter National Monument where the Civil War started on April 12, 1865 when Confederate forces attacked the fort.
As the eclipse moves from Oregon, across the Great Plains, and through the South, its path crosses over or near some of the history that helped define the United States as a nation from our westward expansion, the Civil War, to the emerging superpower at the end of World War II. Not all of the history has been pretty, the push west resulted in the deaths of millions of Native Americans. Over 700,000 died in the Civil War that abolished slavery, but did not give African-Americans total equality, the atomic bomb ended World War II, but gave humanity the ability to terminate its existence. Those events also gave us the great cities on the West Coast, our current African American president, and a peaceful relationship with a democratic Japan that has lasted since 1945. With history, you take the successes alongside the failures.
*Image atop of post is solar eclipse on March 20, 2015. Credit: Damien Deltenre/Wiki Commons.