At first, people didn’t think they’d come.
Eclipse chasers. Researchers. Spectators. Journalists. Curious people the world over flocking to Carbondale, about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis, where a total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 will last two minutes, 38 seconds.
Over the span of a few days, NASA scientists said, the college town’s population could grow to 100,000 or more, which is double the town’s population with students attending Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Hotels rooms for the third weekend of August around Carbondale started filling up many months in advance of the eclipse. By June, they were almost full.
That’s when it hit home, said Cinnamon Smith, executive director of the city’s tourism bureau.
This eclipse thing could be a big deal.
Not only is Carbondale smack-dab in the path of this eclipse, the town known for SIUC, coal and orchards will once again be in the totality zone of another eclipse in 2024. Those circumstances are unique, to say the least.
“An eclipse happens in about the same spot within about 375 years, but this, we get two in seven years. The odds of that are astronomical,” said Bob Baer, the go-to guy for eclipse knowledge at SIUC.
Normally known as the home of the Salukis, the Egyptian hunting dog and SIUC’s mascot, Carbondale now goes by a different name. At least for the next seven years, organizers are calling it the Eclipse Crossroads of America, thank you very much.
But Carbondale doesn’t exactly have a how-to guide to help prepare for the masses. After all, the last time a total lunar shadow passed over the area was in 1442, nine years before Christopher Columbus was born.
None of the event organizers say they know exactly what to expect, though they’re planning around NASA’s estimate of 50,000 visitors. That’s roughly twice what the city handles on graduation weekends. The city has set up remote parking lots that can host 63,000 cars. Police coordinated with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department, Illinois State Police, SIUC police, Illinois Department of Natural Resources police and the FBI to plan for the day of the eclipse.
“The way we’ve been approaching this is really like a disaster plan,” said Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams. “The difference being that the same resources you would use to respond to a disaster, which is very reactive, we’re doing the same type of planning in a proactive manner.”
Carbondale didn’t really have a choice in becoming the crossroads, besides the fact that you can’t exactly control an eclipse. NASA chose the university’s football stadium as their base for “game day.” The university started selling tickets to seat 14,000 in the stadium. Then word started to spread through the grapevine that Carbondale is the place to be.
From there, organizers took an “if you build it, they will come” approach to event planning. These thousands of visitors, in addition to the 16,000 students returning from summer break, will need something to do. The eclipse only lasts a few short moments, after all.
There will be NASA demonstrations at the stadium, concerts, a Comic-Con, an expo, a carnival, not to mention a quiet place, called a dark site, for scientists to collect data and images of the eclipse out in Carbondale’s countryside.
The university canceled the first day of fall semester classes and rented out 200 suites in one of its dormitories. The going rate: $849 for three nights and up to six people.
The city passed an ordinance to allow short-term vacation rentals through websites such as airbnb.com. Businesses soon started calling city officials, wondering how much they needed to overstock, the city manager said.
But on a sultry, sleepy July day one month before the eclipse, it’s hard to imagine the multitudes flooding the little college town. Carbondale will even open up its downtown, known as “the Strip,” for a block party where open alcohol will be allowed, a departure from the city’s approach to street parties following Halloween riots in the 1990s.
“We’re expecting good crowds who are there to enjoy the eclipse, enjoy the experience,” said Carbondale Deputy Police Chief Stan Reno.
While more than 100 officers from varying agencies will be on duty the day of the eclipse, Reno says police are there “to be available, be open,” not to be an overwhelming presence.
Amid all the to-do, it’s easy to forget the real reason behind all the planning — the awe-inspiring sight that is the eclipse itself.
“The eclipse is not a science thing. It’s a human thing,” said Baer, the go-to eclipse guy, invoking the words of Richard Gelderman, an astronomer at Western Kentucky University.
“It’s something everybody can relate to.”
When he’s not planning for eclipses, Baer runs SIUC’s public astronomy observation events. Last year, he traveled to Indonesia with a group of scientists, students and volunteers through the Citizen Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse experiment, or Citizen CATE experiment.
Scientists, students and volunteers banded together to track the eclipse, much as they will do across the country for this year’s eclipse.
Using 68 identical telescopes, software and instruments spaced along the eclipse’s 2,500-mile path of totality, Citizen CATE participants will track the sun and gather data and images.
Baer said the 2017 eclipse promises valuable data because so many trackers will be able to participate. When an eclipse passes over multiple countries, it’s harder to coordinate. This year’s eclipse will pass right over the United States, with the path starting in Oregon and ending in South Carolina.
The eclipse is expected to last the longest at 2 minutes, 40 seconds in the little village of Makanda, just south of Carbondale. The 70-mile-wide path is set to pass straight through the town.
That’s a fact represented by a bright-orange line painted through the shop belonging to Dave Dardis, a metal artist and jeweler. The line goes down the middle of the storefront, across the wooden boardwalk and down the street.
On a recent muggy Monday afternoon, Dardis was enjoying a cold beer and chatting with friends on Makanda’s boardwalk.
In the 1970s, Makanda took on a new identity when artists and hippy-types looking for cheap rent replaced the former produce traders and revitalized the downtown. The 1970s vibe stuck.
When asked if he had been planning for the eclipse, Dardis said, “How could we not?”
“Maybe a year ago, nobody knew about it, so it was fun, like a joke, telling people what’s going on,” Dardis said. “It’s a phenomenon. We’re all happy about that.”
Ironically, Makanda is not an ideal place to view an eclipse, said resident Joe McFarland. It’s tucked away in a valley of thick forest and bluffs. Eclipse viewing is best done in a high, open space. But that’s not going to stop people from coming to the “cool old town,” said McFarland, who started an eclipse shop and restaurant along with two other Makanda residents.
McFarland said the crowd on eclipse day in Makanda, which is nearest to the intersection of the 2017 and 2024 eclipses, could be “like Woodstock, but not in a good way.” It’s going to be hot and crowded in the small town of 600. Organizers plan to hand out free ice water. They’ve made sure there’s room for a helicopter to land. They’ll have medics on hand.
“I’m just trying to help Makanda survive this monster of an event,” McFarland said.
The 54-year-old says he’s also concerned about reports of price gouging in Southern Illinois, with some places going for thousands of dollars a night. McFarland urged people not to spend too much on the eclipse.
“It could be pouring rain that day,” McFarland said.
Some scientists have prepared for that very possibility, Baer said. They plan to be on standby for flights to other locations along the totality path in case of bad weather, but everyone is of course hoping for the best, Baer said.
About 10 minutes before the total eclipse, it will start to get dark. The last thing you’ll see before totality is a thin sliver of light around the disc in the sky that looks like a diamond ring. If it gets dark, that means totality is in effect. When the sun is fully blocked out by the moon, you can take off your eclipse glasses and look directly.
“People usually yell, scream, laugh, cry, everything,” Baer said. “I don’t think people know how to process it because most people have never seen one before. So, some people are hysterical with it. I was just in awe when I saw it.”
And in seven years, Carbondale and Makanda will do it all over again.
Can’t make it to Carbondale?
How to view the eclipse safely
- Never look directly at the sun without proper eye protection. You can seriously injure your eyes.
- Use certified eclipse glasses to look at the sun during the eclipse. Looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief phase of eclipse totality, when the moon fully covers the sun. Eclipse glasses are made with special-purpose solar filters.
- Four manufacturers have certified that their eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard for such products — Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, Thousand Oaks Optical and TSE 17.
- Always inspect your solar filter before use; if scratched or damaged, discard it. Read and follow any instructions printed on or packaged with the filter. Always supervise children using solar filters.
Here are some other tips for viewing the sun with eclipse glasses
- Stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or solar viewer before looking up at the bright sun. After glancing at the sun, turn away and remove your filter — do not remove it while looking at the sun.
- Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device. Similarly, do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewer — the concentrated solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye, causing serious injury. Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device.
- If you are within the path of totality, remove your solar filter only when the moon completely covers the sun’s bright face and it suddenly gets quite dark. Experience totality, then, as soon as the bright sun begins to reappear, replace your solar viewer to glance at the remaining partial phases.
- You can also use a sun funnel, a mirror in an envelope or a cardboard projector to view the eclipse. There's more information about how to make your own devices at www.eclipse2017.nasa.gov.