Mile-High Star Gazing

Maria Mitchell

Excerpt: Originally published in Astronomy Magazine

When the world’s astronomers poured into Colorado in the summer of 1878, hell was a poppin’. Boomtowns like Leadville and Central City exploded with overnight millionaires and the thousands more who could only dream of the big strike. Up in Denver the newly rich reeked of silver, with barrooms and brothels more than eager to snap up the spare change. How strangely exciting these muckers and miners must have seemed to the likes of comet discoverer Maria Mitchell, astronomer Samuel Langley, and solar physicist Sir Norman Lockyer – – all in Colorado to witness a total solar eclipse.

Drawn by mile-high skies – – and a promise of half-price fares from the railroad – – most of the major universities sent eclipse teams west. Some, like Langley, went straight to the top of Pike’s Peak, while others made their camp on Cherry Creek, just south of Denver. Although the morning’s weather looked threatening, by eclipse time the skies cleared and astronomy’s best were treated to 2 minutes and 40 seconds of totality. It was, as one of the group said, a “token of the inviolability of law”.