The Road to Wadesboro:
Site Selection for Expeditions to Observe the 1900 Solar Eclipse
Tom English (Guilford Tech. Comm. Coll.), Gayle Riggsbee (Charlotte Am. Ast. Soc.)
Presented at the 199th meeting of the AAS, 7 January 2002, Washington, DC.*
One of the first committees of the AAS, then known as the Astronomical and Astro-physical
Society of America, was set up to organize preparations for the solar eclipse visible across the
southeastern United States on 28 May 1900.
The committee was formed at the second Conference of Astronomers and Astrophysicists at
Harvard in 1898, at the initiation of George E. Hale and Edward. C. Pickering.
Simon Newcomb was
appointed chair and Hale, E. E. Barnard, and W. W. Campbell filled out the committee.
Newcomb chaired the committee, Hale worked diligently to push his own astrophysical agenda as its
secretary. Hale’s letters to Newcomb during 1898-1899 regarding the eclipse defer to Newcomb’s
authority, while at the same time taking the initiative on several issues.
The committee, through Hale’s hand, issued circulars calling for suggested programs of study
and soliciting participation from American astronomers. Two summary circulars, both published in the
Astrophysical Journal, outlined general problems worthy of study at the eclipse, and detailed the plans
of American eclipse parties.
A perusal of this last summary shows one location in particular was
chosen by several large parties, and closer inspection of local records and eclipse reports indicates many
other smaller parties on the scene. Of all the stations used to observe the three great late-nineteenth
century eclipses on American soil (1869, 1878, 1900), no site could rival the collection of astronomers
that converged on the small North Carolina town of Wadesboro in May 1900.
Hale led a Yerkes Observatory team to Wadesboro; Samuel P. Langley headed the Smithsonian
Institution expedition; Charles A. Young led a group from Princeton; and the Reverend John Bacon
brought a party representing the British Astronomical Association (BAA). Numerous others were on
hand for the event, including a small group from Vassar College, twenty-two students from the Citadel,
and a group from the Toronto Astronomical Society (later to become the Royal Astronomical Society of
Canada). An edition of a regional paper from the week of the eclipse lists dozens of astronomers in
town for the event.
Why did these astronomers choose Wadesboro?
Several factors were involved. Obviously, it was situated near the center of the calculated path
of totality. The roughly 50-mile wide track (see Figure 1) stretched from Louisiana across the southeast
before heading out to sea near Norfolk - where President McKinley traveled to view the event.
not a particularly long eclipse - the predicted duration of totality at Wadesboro was 1 minute, 32
seconds. The Lick Observatory group stationed farther west in Thomaston, Georgia expected to see
about 1 minute, 27 seconds of totality almost 15 minutes earlier in the day, and points west would
experience even shorter durations at even earlier times.
Because the shadow of totality swept west to
east across the southeast, eastward observers also saw the morning sun at a higher altitude at mid-
A major factor in all nineteenth century eclipse expeditions was the ability to get to a desirable
site without too much logistical hassle. Several tons of equipment were brought to Wadesboro by each
of the major expeditions. Transporting the heavy and delicate materials required rail access, thus a list
of potential stations was quickly pared down to those with rail connections. Both Langley and Young
considered North Carolina locations preferable to those farther south along the eclipse track, primarily
because they were less remote from their home bases.
Wadesboro was accessible by rail, and was not
far from major north-south lines passing through the nearby towns of Monroe and Hamlet. With the
railway came easy communications via telegraph, and the town also boasted two hotels and additional
Another important factor was the willingness of the political hierarchy in town to welcome, and
indeed to roll out the red carpet for, the northern astronomers. Wadesboro took full advantage of the
eclipse to pour on the southern hospitality. Being of a “naturally hospitable inclination,” Mayor Julius
Little set up a hospitality committee that coordinated housing for the visitors, planned picnics and
assorted social functions, and set up carriage services transport the distinguished visitors around town.
The presence of a few saloons in Wadesboro (there were 8 bartenders living in Wadesboro according to
the 1900 census) certainly gave it an advantage over more conservative southern towns.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Wadesboro was recommended by the U.S. Weather Bureau as
a place where the skies were likely to be clear during late May. A few other towns in the Carolinas,
notably Winnsboro, SC,
lobbied seriously with similar promises of hospitality for the visiting
scientists, but none could match the likelihood of favorable weather that Wadesboro could boast.
The Weather Bureau coordinated a three-year program of observers who monitored sky
conditions along the eclipse path during the projected time of totality. Observations ranged from New
Orleans to Norfolk, with 105 stations reporting. The observers were asked to determine the general state
of the sky and the state of the sky near the sun, repeating their observations at intervals during the hour
of the eclipse for the thirty-two day period 15 May-15 June. A simple numerical scheme was set up to
rank the cloud cover, and the scores were averaged over the duration of observations.
were tallied and plotted (See Figure 2) with a vertical axis on the plot indicating the score on the
cloudiness rankings (low values mean clear skies near the sun during the appointed hour) A general
trend is noticed in the figure – the morning clouds diminish inward from the shorelines of Virginia and
Louisiana. The minimum of the distribution is clearly in Alabama/Georgia (The demarcations are by
coordinate standards rather than state lines.), but a curious point stands out near the NC/SC transition.
Station 30 in the figure lies well below the fitting curve for the distribution. With a score of 35
(288 would be universally cloudy and 0 would be completely clear during the observation period.), it is
obviously a site worthy of consideration. It is not the best score, but it is easily the most favorable
location east of Georgia - in the region where a few precious seconds of totality and degrees of altitude
would be gained. Station 30 is Wadesboro, NC.
To Young and Langley, with their preference for an east-coast station not too far from their
home institutions, the Wadesboro data was undoubtedly the deciding factor, and both indicated in their
post-eclipse reports that they had fixed on the site over a year in advance of the event – after only two
years of weather data (though Langley’s correspondence with the Weather Bureau indicates that he still
was not certain of Wadesboro as his station as late as February 1900
). The Washington-based Naval
Observatory expedition no doubt used similar considerations in their choice of nearby Pinehurst, NC as
an observing station, though they also sent observers to stations in Georgia. The Weather Bureau report
certainly influenced the Harvard College and Allegheny Observatories to choose sites in Alabama for
their observations, and a number of observatories and institutions sent groups to observe in Georgia.
Hale, who was having trouble securing funds for the expedition, soldiered on in his preparations
to observe the eclipse, and he seems to have been swayed by the weather data to consider Alabama in
his early deliberations.
An offer by Langley to use a mirror on the Smithsonian coelostat, however,
was a convincing factor in favor of Wadesboro, and by March 1900 he was communicating to others
that Yerkes would be setting up adjacent to the Smithsonian station.
Funding was eventually secured
by Hale from several sources, including Dr. George Snow Isham of Williams Bay, who accompanied the
Yerkes party and assisted in the observations.
It is as yet unclear how the English party came to choose Wadesboro, but influence on the matter
must have come from C. A. Young. In May 1899 Hale advised Bacon of the favorable skies of Georgia
and Alabama, but Bacon’s reply indicates that Simon Newcomb had suggested to him that Newberry,
SC might be a worthwhile site.
By the time Hale’s “Plans of the Eclipse Parties” was published the
BAA had settled on Wadesboro. It is interesting to note that C. G. Abbot’s notes on an early March
telephone conversation with Young indicate that “Professor Young is going to Wadesboro to observe the
eclipse. He has not been there himself but has engaged his station, and so has the English party under
Bacon…. Thinks there is room left for us.”
The fact that Young called on Bacon and his associates
within a half hour of their arrival in town, and offered a segment of the Princeton site for their apparatus,
clearly indicates that they were in communication prior to their arrival in North Carolina.
There was indeed room left for the Smithsonian party. Langley dispatched Abbot to Wadesboro
to make arrangements for the site, but their station was not established on the same grounds as Young
had arranged. After some haggling with Mayor Little over the charge for use of a prime plot of land,
Langley secured from Mr. John Leak of Wadesboro free use of a large level lot in town for erection of
the Smithsonian instruments, as well as the adjacent Yerkes station.
It was a short walk from their
accommodations. The Princeton and BAA stations were just a few hundred feet away on the brow of an
east-facing ridge with a clear view of the morning sun.
Locals were hired to construct the necessary
buildings and piers, and by early May advance members of the parties were in Wadesboro to oversee the
work. On 8-9 May, just days before departing southward, Hale caught up on his correspondence with
other scientists planning to observe the eclipse in Wadesboro and elsewhere. “The freight car loaded
with our equipment started for Wadesboro yesterday.” he wrote Young on May 9th, and indicated that
“the opportunity of visiting with you [is] hardly less important than the eclipse, for although the weather
may turn out to be cloudy, this will not interfere with our discussions.”
It is somewhat ironic that Hale
expressed this sentiment to Young, because both would be disappointed at their failure to achieve their
scientific goals in Wadesboro, though through no fault of the weather.
Was Wadesboro the right choice?
By all accounts the weather in Wadesboro was ideal on eclipse day, just has the Weather Bureau had
predicted. Rev. Bacon found the weather conditions “wholly in our favor; a sky brilliantly clear, and a
steady atmosphere with almost entire absence of wind.”
A report from the New York Sun, reproduced
in the Scientific American Supplement, summed up the situation as follows:
As far as the weather conditions were concerned there was absolutely nothing left to be
desired. All the astronomers, to whom a clear or cloudy sky meant so much, are enthusiastic
over the way the elements favored them. They slept but little last night; some of them hardly
slept at all. There was uneasiness yesterday afternoon over certain signals the sky was
hanging out. There was a vapory aspect overhead and half way up from the horizon to the
zenith there hung all around the heavens dim outlines of watery looking clouds. Some of the
professors looked gloomy and shook their heads; but after sunset the aspect of things
changed. The watery look melted and the sky grew to a hard, firm blue and the stars above
shone with almost the brilliance of a frosty midwinter night. The spirits of the scientists
visibly rose. As midnight passed and the promise for a clear sunrise still held good and
strong, they exchanged cheerful greetings and congratulations with one another. Then some
of them went to bed and slept in cat naps until from 4 to 5 o’clock in the morning, when they
The weather predictions had held true – Wadesboro was indeed a good choice. But it was hard
to go wrong in the southeast on the morning of 28 May 1900. Nearly everyone who set out to observe
the eclipse did so under good conditions. The Lick Observatory group, at a more favorably regarded
Georgia station, awoke to clouds at sunrise and dodged clouds for what was ultimately a clear view of
the eclipse. They weathered more severe troubles in Georgia though, as they were unaccustomed to the
rural southern cooking.
Though Wadesboro was quite hospitable to its visitors, there is at least one
report of similar troubles at the North Carolina station. Young noted that “two or three of our party”
suffered an “unfortunate illness… probably due to unaccustomed peculiarities of diet or exposure to the
In general, all the parties seemed pleased with their choice of Wadesboro. The eclipse energized
the town, and the townspeople were more than accommodating.
Most groups in Wadesboro viewed the eclipse as a general success, especially photographically.
Over a thousand photographs were taken in Wadesboro, most by B. A. A. member Nevil Maskelyne,
who claimed to be descendent from Astronomer Royal of the same name, and who was at the time a
world-renowned magician. Maskelyne had fashioned a kinematograph, essentially a movie camera, that
took 299 images during totality and 887 during the partial phases.
There were disappointments,
though. Hale’s efforts to measure the heat of the corona met with an accident in the bolometer house at
the onset of totality, and all attempts to observe the green line in the coronal spectrum failed. Young,
long interested in this investigation, summed up his disappointment by telling a colleague “I feel like
getting into a well and staying there.”
Despite the convergence of so many prominent astronomers in Wadesboro, and the number of
astrophysical investigations of the eclipse throughout America, the May 1900 solar eclipse is not usually
remembered for any serious advances in our understanding of the sun, though C. G. Abbot’s
measurement of the heat of the corona is notable because it indicated a lack of infrared emission and
thus implied a low coronal temperature.
It would be decades before the mystery of coronium would be
solved, bringing with it the realization that processes beyond the turn-of-the-century understanding were
at play in heating the corona to million degree temperatures. Agnes Clerke, in her discussion of the
remarkable series of eclipses that underwent astrophysical scrutiny from 1869 until the turn of the
century, sums up the contemporary review of 1900 eclipse succinctly: there was “no striking gain in
Still this eclipse was remarkable in that a series of factors led such an impressive
collection of astronomers to assemble major complex observing operations in one place – in Wadesboro,
We are indebted to the following for their assistance in providing archival materials for our research:
Richard Dreiser and Judy Bausch at Yerkes Observatory helped us with images and correspondence
related to the Yerkes expedition; Sarah Hartwell provided relevant materials from the Charles A. Young
Papers at Dartmouth; William Cox and Michelle Delaney provided help with the Smithsonian archives;
Tad Bennicoff provided materials from the Princeton archives; and Katherine Hayes supplied
information from the Records of the AAS. Spiridion Azzopardi shared his Wadesboro scrapbook with
us, something that would not have been possible without the aid of Owen Gingerich. David DeVorkin
and Steve Turner also gave helpful assistance and resources, and special thanks are due Don Osterbrock
for his many helpful comments and discussions, and indeed for inspiring us to follow through with this
research. We are also indebted to Robert B. Ariail for the use of his extensive astronomical library for
research on this and related projects. Finally, the people of Wadesboro and especially the Anson County
Historical Society are recognized for their help and patience with our inquiries. This research was
supported in part by the Herbert C. Pollock Award of the Dudley Observatory.
* This paper has been modified and corrected from the version presented at the AAS meeting. New
material obtained during the trip to Washington for the meeting has been included, specifically material
gleaned from Record Unit 31 of the Smithsonian Institution Archives as noted in notes 10, 12, 18, and
Figure 1: Path of Totality, Solar Eclipse of 28 May 1900. From The Probable State of the Sly along
the Path of Total Eclipse of the Sun, May 28, 1900, Observations of 1899, U.S. Weather Bureau,
Figure 2: Relative Average Cloudiness Along the Eclipse Track. From The Probable State of the Sly
along the Path of Total Eclipse of the Sun, May 28, 1900, Observations of 1899, U.S. Weather Bureau,
Note: the following supporting figures were displayed at the AAS Presentation but not referenced in
British Astronomical Association station at Wadesboro. L-R: Rev. John M. Bacon, Gertrude Bacon,
Nevil Maskelyne IV, George Dixon, unidentified, Miss Dixon. Photo courtesy Spiridion Azzopardi.
Yerkes and Smithsonian stations as Wadesboro, as viewed from the south. Yerkes on left, Smithsonian
on right. Photo courtesy Yerkes Observatory.
The Yerkes party at Wadesboro. Barnard is on the far right, with Frost just left of him. Hale is standing
in the center at the back. Ritchey is third from the left, with Ellerman just right of him. The tall man
second from the left is William Brasington, a Wadesboro builder who erected the Yerkes and
Smithsonian stations. Photo courtesy Yerkes Observatory.
Princeton party at Wadesboro. Front row (L-R): Mrs. Magie, Charles A. Young, C. F. Brackett,
William Libbey, Dayton C. Miller; back row (L-R): Minot Morgan, J. Reilly, Henry Norris Russell,
Taylor Reed, William F. Magie, Fisher, unknown.
G. E. Hale to E. C. Pickering, 2 October 1897 (Yerkes Observatory Archives, Director’s Office, Letterbook 4, p. 79); Hale
to Pickering, 8 June 1898 (Letterbook 5, p. 550).
Publications of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, Vol I, p. 73.
G. E. Hale to Simon Newcomb, 13 September1898 (Letterbook 6, p.237-8); Hale to Newcomb, 19 April 1899 (Letterbook
6, p. 625); Hale to Newcomb, 4 May 1899 (Letterbook 6, p.693-4); Hale to Newcomb, 21 November, 1899 (Letterbook 7, p.
Ap. J. 11 (1900), p. 47; Ap. J. 11 (1900), p. 314.
Charlotte Observer, May 29, 1900, p.1; Young, C. A., “The Princeton Eclipse Expedition to Wadesboro’, NC, May 1900”,
in Princeton University Bulletin, V. XI (June 1900), p. 69-87; Hale, G. E., Ap. J. 12 (1900), p. 80; Langley, S. P., “Report of
the Work of the Astrophysical Observatory for the Year Ending June 30, 1900”, in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of
the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ending June 30 1900, GPO, Washington, 1901, p. 99-109; Bacon, J. M.,
“Wadesborough, North Carolina”, in The Total Eclipse 1900: Reports of the Expeditions Organized by the British
Astronomical Association to Observe the Total Solar Eclipse of 1900 May 28, E. W. Maunder, ed., Knowledge, London,
1901, p. 6-17.
Raleigh News and Observer, May 29 1900.
Bigelow, Frank, On the Probable State of the Sky along the Path of the Total Eclipse of the Sun, May 28 1900,
Observations of 1899, U.S. Weather Bureau, Washington, 1899.
Young, p. 69; Langley, p.101.
Medley, Mary Louise, History of Anson County, North Carolina, 1750-1976, Anson County Historical Society, 1976, p.
141-3; Bacon, “Wadesborough, North Carolina,” p. 13-14.
Rep. S. Wilson to S. P. Langley, March 27, 1900, J. M. Stewart, et. al. to C. G. Abbot, March 29, 1900. Smithsonian
Institution Archives, Record Unit 31, Office of the Secretary, 1891-1906, Incoming Correspondence, Box 24, Folder 3.
Bigelow, p. 8.
W. L. Moore to Langley, February 16, 1900; Moore to Langley, March 3, 1900, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record
Unit 31, Office of the Secretary, 1891-1906, Incoming Correspondence, Box 24, Folder 4.
See “Plans of American Eclipse Parties”, Ap. J. 11 (1900), p. 314. Many groups reported preliminary results in Ap. J. 12,
G. E. Hale to J. M. Bacon, May 9, 1899 (Letterbook 7, p. 713); A. S. Dunston to Hale, March 15, 1900, Yerkes
Observatory Archives, Director’s Office.
Hale to C. A. Young, March 23, 1900 (Letterbook 8, P. 234), Hale to W. W. Campbell, March 28, 1900 (Letterbook 8, p.
Hale to G. S. Isham, April 10, 1900 (Letterbook 8, p. 371), Hale, Ap. J. 12, p. 89.
G. E. Hale to J. M. Bacon, May 9, 1899 (Letterbook 7, p. 713); Bacon to Hale, May 24, 1899, Yerkes Observatory
Archives, Director’s Office.
“Memorandum of conversation over the long distance telephone between Mr. C. G. Abbot and Professor Young,
concerning the eclipse,” March 1900, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 31, Office of the Secretary, 1891-1906,
Incoming Correspondence, Box 24, Folder 3.
C. A. Young , 1900 Diaries (23-24 May), Charles A. Young Papers, 1853-1908, Special Collections, Manuscript ML-49,
Dartmouth College Archives; Bacon, p. 9.
Abbot to S. P. Langley, April 5, 1900, Langley to J. M. Little, April 9, 1900, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record
Unit 31, Office of the Secretary, 1891-1906, Incoming Correspondence, Box 24, Folder 1; Richard Rathbun to John Leak,
April 18, 1900; Langley to Leak, May 28, 1900: Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 34, Office of the Secretary
(S. P. Langley), 1887-1907, Outgoing Correspondence, Vol. 6.8, pages 320, 479. Leak Avenue in Wadesboro runs through
what once was the Smithsonian/Yerkes site, and is roughly in the same location as the dirt track that splits the two stations in
the photograph of the site posted with this display.
Young, p. 69-70. The site of the Princeton/BAA station can be found along Brent Street in Wadesboro today. The bank on
which they set up is considerably more grown up with trees today than it was in 1900, and a number of houses occupy the
lots where the stations were.
G. E. Hale to C. A. Young, May 9, 1900 (Letterbook 8, p. 448), Yerkes Observatory Archives, Director’s Office.
Bacon, p. 14.
“The Eclipse at Wadesboro, N.C.”, Scientific American Supplement No. 1275 (9 June 1900), p. 20444.
Osterbrock, D. Gustafson, J., and Unruh, W., Eye on the Sky: Lick Observatory’s First Century, p. 159-60
Young, “The Princeton Eclipse Expedition to Wadesboro’, NC, May 1900”, p. 79.
Maunder, ed The Total Solar Eclipse 1900, p. 128, 142.
See reports in Ap. J. 12, p. 58-102; Young quote from “The Eclipse at Wadesboro, N.C.”, p.20444.
Ap. J. 12 (1900), p. 69.
Clerke, Agnes, A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, A & C. Black, London, 1902, p. 189.