Skywatchers and armchair astronomers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond will flock to central Oregon in hopes that mother nature will offer a clear sky to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. Nearly all reservable lodging options within the path of totality, including campsites and home rentals, have been booked. Cities and towns have been planning for the influx of people, holding town meetings and brainstorming ideas to generate revenue from the visitors. Stores are planning to stock up on the necessities and farmers are considering turning fallow fields into fertile campgrounds that they hope to rent for hundreds, or possibly thousands of dollars per site.
This is not the first time that the Pacific Northwest has fallen in the path of totality. In 1979, a total solar eclipse swept across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota before proceeding into Canada. The event, billed as the country’s final total eclipse of the century, generated a “solar mania” comparable to today’s excitement. Taverns in the path created specialty drinks like the “Total Eclipse.” And the Seattle Science Center chartered a plane to fly above the Columbia Gorge for a champagne-enhanced view of the eclipse with no chance of pesky clouds getting in the way.
The Minutes and Meeting Records Collection at the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives is made up of official accounts of meetings conducted by over two hundred local government agencies from the 1850s to the present. They are a running record of the most important business conducted by an agency. The records are completely keyword searchable and they provide a different window into the challenges of the eclipse in 1979. Instead of city councils and boards of commissioners laboring over how to accommodate an influx of visitors, as might have been expected, a keyword search for just the word “eclipse,” and then a handy date sort, shows that it was school districts that were talking about the event.
Unlike this year’s eclipse, the one in 1979 occurred in February well before children got out of school for the summer, and in the middle of winter when camping trips and others vacations were not as appealing. Instead of concerns about inundated cities and public lands, the records show that at least five school districts in Washington State had educators and administrators that were worried about the possibility of students damaging their eyes while trying to watch the solar eclipse on their way to school. The concerns were raised in public meetings, and in Vancouver School District an ophthalmologist was consulted to guide an action plan. Most school districts instructed teachers to educate their students about the risks of looking at the sun and agreed upon different start times to ensure that students were not walking to school when the event occurred—a practical local-level response to the eclipse, but not the one that was expected.
--Using keyword searches of the Minutes and Meeting Records are an effective way to unpack local perspectives on national issues, and they certainly are not limited to the eclipse. For example, while trying to understand local impacts of forced relocation, searching the collection for the word “Japanese,” and then sorting it by date, revealed an organized effort to prevent displaced Japanese from resettling in their communities during World War II. The Grant County Commissioners were even in favor of establishing a concentration camp within the county to imprison those who were relocated.
As pajama-bound historians we often rely too heavily on keyword-searchable newspapers to understand local impacts of national events, even when keyword-searchable minutes and meeting records from local government agencies are readily available. As more states and local governments put their minutes online and make them keyword searchable, a deep chest of immensely valuable local history sources will become easily accessible to historians trying to understand local impacts of national events. Let the keyword searches begin.
Eclipse image courtesy of Temple University Libraries.