Jefferson & Greene County had an amazing place in great solar eclipse of 1869


JEFFERSON, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2017 – Way back in 1869, when Greene County was mostly prairie and the new railroad stopped here, Jefferson hosted three astronomers from the University of Toronto.

The astronomers’ later report was surprisingly eye-opening and, well, funny.

It had been determined in 1869 that Jefferson would be an ideal point for viewing the “Great Solar Eclipse” that was to happen on August 7.

Mikki Schwarzkopf
Author Mikki Schwarzkopf

The town was in the center of the 140-mile wide path of the eclipse, which began in Alaska and ended in North Carolina. Some other groups of astronomers headed for other Midwest spots, hoping for the best view.

But a party of three astronomers from Toronto traveled six days by boat and train to get to Jefferson for the big event. Edward D. Ashe, of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, planned the trip. By 1869, scientists understood a lot about solar eclipses, but not the reason for the irregularities that appeared in the sun’s corona. So this study was the focus of the trip.

“The Six Day Travel” to Jefferson

In his later report to the society, Ashe spoke of his trials during the “Eclipse Expedition.”

The day before he left, he tore a tendon in his foot, “making me quite lame.”

His precious telescope and other equipment were packed in two cases. A Montreal baggage handler marked them “Eclipse Expidition”, with three I’s in Expedition. “This was pointed out to me at Montreal,” he wrote, “but the mistake is excusable, for evidently the more eyes we have in an astronomical expedition the better.”

When they arrived at Port Huron, the Custom-House officers would not pass their baggage, and the group had to spend the night. Ashe had to take a train to Huron to see the Customs chief, who was smoking a cigar with his feet up. The man spoke no words, but scribbled a pass and resumed his smoking.

But once they crossed the border, Ashe commented, “I never was more struck with the kindness of our American cousins than I was during this trip. On all occasions, they did all in their power to promote our convenience.”

In fact, the party was given free passage on all the different rail lines. They traveled on to Jefferson from Chicago, and Ashe was disappointed in the Mississippi River, calling it “shallow, sluggish, and muddy”.

They arrived on the prairie the next morning, and Ashe was surprised to see not a flat plain, but a “beautiful undulating country.”  At one station where they stopped to water the engine, he remarked, “It was pointed out to me that most of the telegraph posts were struck by lightning…”

Eventually the conductor yelled, “Boonsboro! [now Boone] Twenty minutes for dinner!” Ashe wrote that he expected they’d be offered food that was “something in keeping with the prairie – I suppose a deer roasted on a stake. Nothing of the sort. I went into a nice dining-room; saw a quantity of pretty young ladies. Soup, chicken, peas. After 20 minutes of capital feeding, we heard, ‘All aboard! All aboard!’

“The next station was Jefferson, 1398 miles from Quebec,” he continued. “The boxes were left at the station, and we drove up to the hotel, about half-a-mile from the station. As this was Saturday, July 31, we had exactly a week to select a site and to build an observatory, mount the telescope and take preliminary observations.”

Thriving Jefferson on a sometimes scary prairie

Ashe wrote, “Jefferson city is three years old, has about 800 inhabitants, and looks a thriving place. The next day, I rode across the prairie to a station situated about eight miles on the railways from Jefferson. As it was nearer to the central line of eclipse, [Grand Junction?] we wanted to see if it would do for the site of our observatory.”

Ashe started out across the prairie on horseback at about 2 pm, and reached the station in about 1½  hours. He crossed several streams and some marshy ground and startled several prairie chickens. Finding it would be difficult to get his equipment there, he decided it would be better to remain at Jefferson. He was suffering from his leg, and could not ride fast.

Astronomer Edward Ashe
Astronomer Edward Ashe

“I steered my horse across the boundless prairie by the setting sun,” he wrote. “Now, I took it for granted that my horse knew more about the prairie than I did… The sun had just touched the horizon. I was crossing some marshy ground with reeds up to my shoulders, when I saw my horse’s nostrils distend, and I brought him round. Down he sank; I found myself up to my ankles in mud, and up to my calves in water. The horse was fixed immovable, no struggling, but snorting and dreadfully frightened… I moved my feet horizontally so water got under my feet, when I could lift them up.

“After I got out, I tore down some reeds and made a platform round my horse, and by moving him back and forth by his tail, was eventually was able to free him. I didn’t want to be trampled, so rolled over and over amongst the reeds and the horse floundered past me. When I got on my feet, no horse was to be seen, but only the tops of the reeds moving…

“With my leg I could not walk a mile, and (I thought) the horse had shaped his course for the stable. However, when I emerged from the reeds, I saw the dear old fellow standing as still as if he were in his stable. But with my lame leg, I could not put a foot into the stirrup. Well, if the worst comes to the worst, I will lash myself to his tail and make him tow me home. But an idea struck me. I lengthened both stirrups to about a foot and a half off the ground, and brought both stirrups to one side, here I had a nice little ladder to walk up. I could not help shaking hands with myself and patting my steed on the neck, reaching home just before dark.”

Where to build, and MOSQUITOES

Several days ahead of time, the party made a minute topographical survey of the area, and selected an observation site on a rising part of the prairie about a half-mile from the station, “east of the old fairgrounds, on a hilltop beyond what is now the north end of Chestnut Street,” according to a story in the Iowa Palimpsest historical journal of 1925.

The group hired carpenters, and by sunset on Monday, the four walls of the observatory were up, and the equipment was installed. The three men felt that someone should sleep there to guard it, so Ashe slept there on a mattress on the ground.

A view of Jefferson in 1869, with the quickly-constructed observatory to the right.

The astronomer had quite a battle during the evening and night.

“A little after sunset, a mosquito looked over the wall, and then sounded the assembly,” Ashe wrote.  “On they came… Now an army was drawn up…on my cheeks, the skirmishers advancing through my eye-brows…  I really think that they work their stings like the needle of a sewing machine. Maddened, I struck myself a fearful blow with both hands in the face… I was getting weak; a storming party had now taken possession of my right ear; I clenched my fist, and with a swinging blow, cleared the ear, but knocked myself down.”

Ashe wrote about imagined discussions among the mosquitoes about the best places to feed on him as the hours dragged along. He even wrote a song from the mosquitoes’ point of view:

“The blood of the Indian is dark and flat,
And that of the buffalo hard to come at;
But the blood of the astronomer is clear and bright:
We will dance and we’ll drink the live-long night.
Chorus: How jolly we are with flights so airy;
Happy is the mosquito that dwells on the prairie.”

When sunrise came, Ashe reported that the mosquitoes “staggered off to their respective marshes.” He slept well from dawn until 6 a.m.

Work began again. The 42-inch telescope was mounted on a sturdy platform, a dark room was made, and doors with locks were installed.

On “Eclipse Day,” the crowd moaned

When the Saturday of the eclipse finally came, the morning was hazy and overcast. The clouds eventually broke, but the air was still hazy. At 3:38 p.m. local time, the eclipse began, and the scientists took photographs of the partial eclipse and two of the totality, but haze was still a problem.

Ashe wrote, “A crowd had followed up from the town, and took a position near the observatory…on the last glimpse of day-light vanishing, the crowd gives expression to their feelings with a noise that is unlike anything I have ever heard… There is an expression of terror in it. It is not a shout; it is a moan.”

It was noticed that livestock gathered to meander back to their stables, and chickens went to roost.

The Jefferson Era newspaper reported that “all through the totality, a halo shot forth from around the moon, perhaps caused by the mist, and prevented the darkness from being as complete as it might otherwise have been. O! What a somber, sickly darkness was over the earth for about three minutes… The larger stars shone forth brightly near the place of eclipse.”

Some in the crowd had small telescopes or field glasses, but many watched the eclipse with the aid of a piece of colored glass. Others used only a smoked glass made by coating a broken window pane with the soot from a lighted candle or kerosene lamp. These helped to shield the eye from the intense light of the sun.

The Era noted that a local carpenter asked, “What are those notches in the moon?” That, of course, was the big question, which wasn’t answered by astronomers until much later. Eventually, it was found that the moon has mountains and craters, which the carpenter had noticed.

Jefferson in the London Illustrated News

The London Illustrated News reported on several viewings by astronomers in various parts of America, including the one in Jefferson.

“We have engraved a view of the temporary observatory used by the party at Jefferson city, which is a thriving little town of 800 people and three years’ growth,” the Illustrated News reported.


Ashe’s eclipse photographs did not look like some taken in other locations. He had sent the negatives of the total eclipse to an observatory in Cranford, Middlesex, England, for a “Mr. De la Rue” to examine.

Later, Ashe had to endure an accusation by De la Rue that the images were defective, due to movement of the telescope during the photographing, or his rapid shooting was at fault. Ashe was outraged.  Immediately, he replied, giving lengthy evidence to “clear myself of these crimes.”

After several letters to De la Rue, including those from the other astronomers in his party, it was concluded that the local haze contributed to the photographic differences. His expedition was a proclaimed a success.

Area residents had their own ideas about the great eclipse.

A few days after the event, the Jefferson Era reported, “An old lady came to town the other day and in speaking of the eclipse said she hated awfully to see the sun in such a bad fix.”

The author Mikki Schwarzkopf is a member of the Greene County Historical who says, “Can you tell I love digging into research?” She first learned about the 1869 eclipse “while I was transcribing an early Jefferson Era newspaper.  There was only a paragraph or so about the eclipse, but it did mention E. D. Ashe from Toronto. I started digging from there, and found the text of his report on his trip, given to the Royal Society of Astronomy in Toronto. I was expecting very dry, technical stuff, but it was both interesting and funny! I was intrigued that Ashe presented that song as if the mosquitoes wrote it.  Ha!” The engravings of the Ashe observation structure and the view of Jefferson were originally published in the Illustrated London News of Oct. 9, 1869. “The Iowa State University library had a bound copy of the volume!” Schwarzkopf said. “I visited there and a librarian scanned them for me.”  You can write her by email to learn more about this project at

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