In 1970, CBS TV reporter Nelson Benton, hundreds of onlookers, a loud rock band and a rooster named Brownie came together at Valdosta State College in South Georgia, there to witness what the network was hyping as “the solar eclipse of the century.”
They were hoping for clear skies and wondering what Brownie would do as darkness descended — “whether he roosts, whether he crows or whether he flies the coop.”
The atmosphere was breathless as the total eclipse raced across the Gulf of Mexico and up toward Valdosta. Here, finally, after years of anticipation, was the chance to see the sun blotted out by the shadow of the moon.
After all, to see an eclipse so spectacular in the Southeast, the citizens of 1970 were told, they would have to wait all the way until the science-fiction year of 2017.
That year has come and epic traffic jams are expected Aug. 21 as millions travel to see a cross-country total eclipse that will zoom from Oregon to as close to Jacksonville as South Carolina. Jacksonville will see a substantial partial-eclipse, as 90 percent of the sun is blocked by the moon.
On March 7, 1970, a Saturday, Jacksonville was closer to the path of totality — very close — and was told it would see 98.7 percent of the sun blocked, peaking at 1:21 p.m.
The year before, the head of an amateur astronomers groups predicted Jacksonville would be an ideal staging point for more than a half-million eclipse-watchers he thought would come to the area. That perhaps didn’t pan out, but there was still considerable eclipse mania as locals fashioned elaborate eclipse viewers, attended seminars at the George Washington Hotel and boarded chartered buses for the nearby total eclipse.
Meanwhile in Gainesville, students at the University of Florida planned a mid-eclipse love-in and psychedelic rock show, according to organizer Andy Kramer, “known locally for the wildest hair on campus,” as the Times-Union noted.
People were ready.
The 1970 eclipse was an 89-mile wide swath of darkness that would start in the Pacific, cross Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico, then come ashore again in Perry, in Florida’s Big Bend.
It would go over White Springs before sweeping north over Valdosta, Ga., and up to Savannah, Ga. From there it would travel north along the coast to Norfolk, Va., before heading offshore to Nantucket Island and Nova Scotia.
In anticipation, then-Florida Gov. Claude Kirk declared Perry, a town of 10,000, the “Eclipse Capital of the World.” Fair enough: It would have three minutes and 13 seconds of total darkness, and it would be the first place in the U.S. to witness the eclipse.
But there was always a worry: Florida’s famously changeable weather.
Turns out, those worries were warranted, as a persistent low-pressure system blossomed in the Gulf of Mexico and spread thick clouds along the eclipse’s route through the state.
Sure, everything would still turn dark as the eclipse moved over. But the chance to view and record the eclipse — that awe-inspiring movement of the moon shadow over the sun, the sun’s corona flaring at the edge — all that would be lost.
In Jacksonville that morning, four chartered buses left from the Gator Bowl at 7 a.m., guided by ham-radio operators to wherever the best viewing conditions would be. They ended up in Waycross, in the path of totality, but still cloudy.
In the Eclipse Capital of the World, meanwhile, the weather meant crowds were far smaller than expected. Still, the town tripled in size as it drew an estimated 20,000 professional and amateur astronomers from around the world.
They overwhelmed Perry’s limited hospitality industry, but many seemed happy just to camp in the nearby woods.
As the eclipse loomed, a busload of schoolchildren from Brevard County sang words from a hit from the previous spring: “Let the sunshine in.” But no luck. Heavy clouds obscured even an outline of the sun and some frustrated astronomers didn’t bother to man the telescopes they’d brought.
Other diversions were found, as Erhard Herrmann, president of a large contingent of Swiss astronomers, decided it was a fine time to join one of his countrymen and play shuffleboard at their motel.
Meanwhile in Jacksonville, east of the path of totality, it got gloomy enough that neon signs downtown stood out in the cloudy twilight that afternoon.
To the north, a group of 25 from Riverside Baptist Church had traveled in motorboats into the heart of the Okefenokee Swamp, where they saw the eclipse through moss-hung cypress as the swamp fell silent, but for a bird that began singing at dusk.
A biologist in the Okefenokee — one of many scientists who’d come to the refuge to see how animals would react — told The New York Times that mosquitoes came out as totality loomed, “just like they do at dusk.” A flock of 47 buzzards circling overhead flew down to land on cypress branches for the duration. Tree frogs began serenading the darkness.
In nearby Waycross, Gladys Henley, writing for the Jacksonville Journal, noted that “the black thunder-like cloud advanced from the southwest as if it would envelop the entire world. The rest of the horizon all around looked like a mammoth sunset in a soft orange-pink.”
Birds hushed as darkness came. Then the sun reappeared quickly, “driving back the great black cloud.”
And up in Valdosta?
Benton, the CBS network correspondent, told anchor Charles Kuralt that, while the clouds were disappointing, it was still pretty spectacular as darkness fell. Only the windows in a nearby building were lit. The crowd was hushed. Even the rock band stopped playing.
“Charlie, you’ve got to be here to believe it,” he said as light began reasserting itself. “We’re hearing applause from the crowd in the background as we’re finding out that the world is not coming to an end.”
Then viewers heard a little clucking noise. It was Brownie!
That stirred the interest of Kuralt, back at headquarters.
“And what about the rooster?” he inquired.
Benton checked: Brownie’s young owner reported that the rooster stayed awake the whole time. Seems there had been too much excitement.
Adding insult to injury, the Times-Union reported that “a horse on campus did not react at all.”
The newspaper also told of a scientist in Valdosta who noted that the temperature there at noon was 77 degrees. It dropped steadily as totality approached, before bottoming out at 63. Interesting info, but so what? Those danged clouds had made it impossible to observe the eclipse of the century. All that waiting, all that planning …
“It was a bust,” he said.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082