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The last total eclipse visible from Seattle was in 1860

Here’s what people observed the last time Seattle saw totality

A solar eclipse viewed from Palembang, Indonesia on March 9, 2016.
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

While a million-plus people are traveling to Oregon for the total solar eclipse on August 21, Seattle will see around 92 percent of one. And as it turns out, Seattle hasn’t seen totality in quite some time.

Seattle is often a near-miss for solar eclipses. While we got very close to totality in 1979—99.6 percent—we haven’t experienced totality in quite some time. The last total eclipse that could be witnessed from Seattle was more than a century prior, on July 18, 1860. Then a fledgling city, Seattle had just 188 residents to witness the phenomenon.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Superintendent of the Coast Survey contained many accounts of the eclipse, including one from near Steilacoom, 45 miles or so south of Seattle.

And if you thought the journey to Oregon was perilous, it has nothing on Navy scientist Lieutenant J. M. Gillies’s journey: He traveled by steamer to Gray’s Harbor, then packed all his equipment, including two telescopes and three chronometers, on pack mules to Fort Steilacoom.

Still, it’s not as difficult as he heard it would be: He was told by “experienced gentlemen” that he’d have to cross “dangerous torrents” and “cut a path through immense forest trees” to a mountaintop in the Cascades—on horseback. (Officers at Steilacoom later assured him that was “uncalled for.”)

His party camped on a knoll nearby more than a week in advance and set up their equipment to prepare for the eclipse.

On the day of, they watched the eclipse as the sun rose: “By [4:19 a.m.] a part of the vapor to the northeast had condensed beyond the Cascade mountains into little cumuli, each one more light and feathery with its distance from the diverging point, though none of them extended so far as Mount Rainier,” Gilles wrote. “Two minutes later and the edges of the little flocculi were bordered with hues of pink and gold, which increased in depth and brilliancy of color as the sun approached the horizon.”

Gilles kept watching the eclipse, at one point pausing to wipe dew from his telescope—the fog was so thick the prairie where they made camp appeared to be “a placid lake embowered among towering pines and hemlocks, and dotted with miniature isles.” And then, totality:

At the moment of totality beads of golden and ruby-colored light flashed almost entirely around the moon. They were not constant in dimensions or color at one point, even for a second, but fitfully flickering, as reflections from rippled water, and as mutable in the respective places of color... It was generally separated from the sharp lunar disc by a delicate line of white light, which disappeared as the changes of form or color took place. It broke up suddenly at [4:47 a.m.], and then for the first time protuberances were noted beyond the following limb of the moon... It was not regular in outline or uniform in color, but apparently an aggregation of smaller clouds, tinted a rosy pink at the denser portions, but with edges and occasional spots of yellowish-white, as though sunlight shone obliquely through them.

Meanwhile, at Fort Steilacoom, one H. A. Goldsborough flirted with danger in his viewing methods—and observed a very excited greyhound—during the total eclipse.

The corona (apparently in width about the semi-diameter of the moon) gave forth brilliant scintillations of almost every hue, with that peculiar etincelant which we see in the pyrotechnic Catherine's wheels; yellow, blue, scarlet, rosy, and an indescribable approach to green, appeared to Le intermingled, as if several sections of rainbows had been thrown promiscuously together...

A greyhound belonging to one of the ladies of our party attracted marked attention by the evident trepidation manifested, and particularly at tho time of the greatest obscurity.

During the whole of the observations I used my Jumelle elliptical opera-glass—a very fine one, as you know—and though looking through it at the eclipse with all possible earnestness, there was not the slightest inconvenience to my eyes.

(Editor’s note: Please do not view the eclipse through your opera-glass, no matter how fine of one.)

Then-Lieutenant Thomas Lincoln Casey (Fort Casey’s namesake) also observed the eclipse from Fort Steilacoom, with a description that was apparently “vulgar” for the time:

Just before the light of the sun had entirely disappeared I had put aside my glass, and was watching the fast-disappearing disc of that body, when I was startled by the sudden flashing out of the most beautiful fringe of light all around the disc of the moon.... To me this corona had a peculiar greenish-yellow hue, which approached more nearly white light near the disc of the moon. At several places in it I noticed bright yellow flame-like coruscations, as though streaming through indentations in the edge of the disc... In that time the whole disc of the moon was well-defined, that part of it opposite to the uncovered part of the sun having a narrow band of light mound it, giving it the appearance which is vulgarly described as "the old moon in the arms of the new."

Like Goldsborough, another Steilacoom observer, Major G.O. Haller, also observed a marked effect on animals:

Several stars appeared above the sun, and bright crimson light was observed immediately about the edge of the moon, in three or four places; but all my faculties l seemed to be too wrapped up in the undefinable and indescribable grandeur of the corona to give my attention to details.

The effect of this unusual appearance was very marked upon animals. The cattle in the barnyard at Fort Nisqually were very much disturbed and greatly frightened. At Fort Steilacoom the dogs were observed to be terribly alarmed.

Those holding out to see an eclipse in Seattle had better hope for some major medical breakthroughs to happen. We’ll get close in 2044, with 96 percent totality, but Seattle’s not seeing another total eclipse until June 24, 2169.

Special thanks to Bruce Balick of the University of Washington Astronomy Department for data on historic and future eclipses.