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Even astronomers viewing Seattle's 1860 eclipse complained about Northwest weather

James Gilliss (Photo via: U.S. Naval Observatory)

Navy Lieutenant James M. Gilliss had just received orders to head from New York to Seattle to officially survey an upcoming total solar eclipse. Only he didn't just pack up a laptop and camera and book a flight out of JFK.

No, it's the summer of 1860. His journey would take two weeks, heading into mis-charted territory, all while lugging boxes 100 pounds each of observatory equipment in the hopes of documenting a rare eclipse in the United States.

But there is one constant whether it's the 19th Century or the 21st Century: First time visitors to the Pacific Northwest can find themselves completely flummoxed by our zany weather.

A Congressional Publication called "Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey showing the Progress of the Survey During The Year 1860" (starting on document page 275) details Gilliss' journey as an adventurous astronomer who led a research expedition to the rugged and barely-explored part of the country despite dire warnings that the trip to spy the eclipse early on the morning of July 18th would likely be futile.

For one, the eclipse was set to happen as the sun rose around 5 a.m. and thus would be low on the horizon. And those on the East Coast thought the horizon was nearly non-existent out here.

"Experienced gentlemen, or those who were supposed to be so, and were consulted, pronounced that portion of Washington Territory which the total shadow path would traverse (as) rugged, crossed by dangerous torrents caused by the snow melting at that season, and covered by dense forests, which would be likely to obstruct vision in almost every direction," Gilliss wrote. Officials suggested that the only way to see the eclipse would be to make a five-to-six day trip on horses, cross the raging White River, summit some nearby mountaintop, and cut down trees in the forest .

To top it off, Washington Territory's cloudy, rainy reputation had made it back to New York and the office.

"They could offer few expectations of bright auroral skies to serve as encouragement during the certain, harassing forest struggle," he wrote -- the 1860's version of describing our region's "June Gloom" -- and that with the eclipse happening in the morning during frequent marine layers "we should be lucky if the mists and fog-banks from the Cascades and Puget sound (sic) permitted vision of the sun one morning in five." So basically: if you want to see the eclipse, you're going to have to travel several days on horse amid gloomy skies and cross a raging river (with said horses and equipment) and chop down a number of trees to see the horizon -- all for a 20 percent chance skies will be clear enough to actually see the eclipse.

Challenge accepted.

Gilliss, a prominent self-taught astronomer at the time who is credited with founding the U.S. Naval Observatory, made arrangements to to meet two assistants -- one of them apparently his son -- along the way for this daunting task. He packed telescopes, weather instruments, a small lantern, a Nautical Almanac and a table of logarithms in small boxes "provided with handles to be used in case it became necessary to abandon their carriage on mules." All told, each box weighed less than 100 pounds each.

1860: A very wet winter and spring

On May 21, he left New York on mail steamer, crossed Panama on May 29 and arrived in San Francisco on June 12 where he picked up one of his fellow observers -- another man by the name of James Gilliss. (The historical document doesn't specify any relation, but Gilliss's biography on the U.S. Naval Observatory site mentions he had a son named James Gilliss.)

But Gilliss's plan to head to the mountains hit a snag when he ran into passengers from the Northwest who had just boarded in San Francisco. Because just like today, any time you run into someone from the Northwest somewhere else, they'll be sure to tell you about the rainy weather up here.

Sure enough, they told tales of unusually heavy rainfall and mountain snows during what was a very cold winter and spring. ("We're now thinking during the winter months, we'll head that new spot America just acquired called Arizona," the water-logged Northwesterners might have thought later...)

Once they got to their stop in Portland, Gilliss could see the tales were true.

"We had seen the islands in the Columbia and Willamette rivers overflowed, and were told that those streams were, at least, ten feet higher than their usual level at that time of year," he wrote.

He suspected that meant the rivers around Seattle were proportionally higher, and to top things off, he was having difficulty obtaining enough mules for transport to the mountains. So he scrapped his plan to head straight to the mountains, and instead formulated a plan to head to Fort Steilacoom first for help.

Where's GPS when you need it?

Gilliss's ship docked off Seattle on June 22 where he stayed for a few days until he could meet his other partner traveling in from Grays Harbor. That night, there was a brilliant comet in the northwestern sky.

"This was the first clear evening experienced after passing Cape St. Lucas on 8th June," he wrote. Then, in another budding Northwest weather tradition, he could see the comet on the 23rd and 24th, but by the time he got on land and could unpack the telescope on the 26th, it was cloudy again, and he would never see a clear sky again while the comet was still visible.

But he was here for something even bigger. And as he made the journey to Fort Steilacoom (near modern-day Tacoma) to prepare for the harsh eclipse journey, another change in plans occurred that could only have happened in the days before satellites and Google Maps.

"Brief conversation with the officers at Fort Steilacoom showed how little reliable was the topographical information previously obtained," Gilliss wrote. The officers there said yes, the White River was probably running high but there was no reason to head into the mountains to see the eclipse.

"They knew of many small open prairies west of the range which would permit vision of the sun almost, if not actually, upon the horizon. They were right," he said.

'No confidence in the state of the weather' (or should that be 'weather of the state?')

Two days later, he found a good site about 10 miles south/southeast from the fort and set up camp with his two assistants.

"And we encamped upon it on the morning of July 9 following, thus avoiding a hazardous, fatiguing, and costly journey to an inhospitable region, where a cloudy sky would most probably have attended us," he (probably gleefully) wrote.

He ended up in a field near Muck Creek -- just west of what today is the town of Roy. As he described the surrounding mountain ranges, he took note of one in particular -- with an awe that modern day tourists coming to Washington for the first time from the East Coast may similarly feel:

"Mt. Rainier appears as a triply pointed cone, covered with snow as far down as the forest permits vision-perhaps more than 10, 000 feet! A most noble object it is to look upon."

Gilliss and his assistants would camp there for nine days getting prepared for the big event. But it's his observations from the night before the eclipse that EVERYONE who has ever lived in the Northwest can relate to. It is classic Northwest lore:

"For the first time after our arrival at the station selected the sun rose clear on the morning of July 17th, nor was there more than two-tenths of the sky obscured by clouds at any time during that day. But I had no confidence in the state of the weather. The experience of three weeks in Washington Territory had been of rapid change from fair to mist, or fog, or cloud, sometimes over one, sometimes over another part of the heavens, and the prognostics one has a right to make from ordinary meteorological intelligence were constantly at fault. Therefore, although the evening of the 17th was absolutely cloudless, and the stars were shining with remarkable lustre after midnight, yet when we closed the tent, three hours before the eclipse began, neither of us could venture to predict a favorable morning for observations."

Word.

Lucky for them, the weather that morning held, if a bit chilly. Their weather observations note it was 43 degrees the morning of July 18th, but it didn't matter -- they could see the sky!

And soon enough, the disappearing sun (click to enlarge graphic):

Gilliss noted his awe in what he was witnessing.

"For the first time in my life, the moon was visible in its true form -- a sphere, and not a disc."

As the eclipse went into totality, Gilliss was amazed and giddy about being able to see parts of the sun that had rarely been observed before. He thought they were "solar clouds" -- sun's solar prominences.

Then another change in the spectacular sight:

"A totally different picture had been substituted for the black disc which only a brief instant before was seen circled by a tremulous band of vermilion or red, and yellow lights, overlapped by the solar clouds. True, the disc was there, but it was thrown in bold relief upon a ground of virgin white, traceable in every direction for the distance of quite a scmidiameter (radius). The solar clouds were there also, but the gorgeous circlet was gone, and over the jetty surface, colors of the spectrum apparently flashed in circular bawls of equal diameter with the moon. A spectacle so remarkable thoroughly startled me from the equanimity with which the preceding phenomena had been observed, and I was irresistibly drawn to its contemplation, to the neglect of changes that might have been taking place in the borders of the solar clouds and corona.... Its colors were crimson or red, violet, yellow, and green, the last one being on the edge over the lunar centre, and of a tint not darker than that known as pea-green. The bands of red and green were wider than those of violet and yellow. They were not visible beyond the borders of the moon; and as each seemed to be in rapid revolution downward towards the lunar centre, their relative places appeared to be incessantly changed, like those of a kaleidoscope."

Their weather fortunes were a stroke of incredible luck, because soon after the sun disappeared, the sky began to disappear in a layer of mist and ground fog. Gilliss notes that the eclipse ended at 5:42 a.m., and at 6:04 a.m., the sky was obscured by fog.

Meanwhile, other observations were noted in the report from those at Fort Steilacoom - including the effect on nearby animals.

"The effect of this unusual appearance was very marked upon animals," wrote Major G.O. Haller. "The cattle in the barn-yard at Fort Nisqually were very much disturbed and greatly frightened. At Fort Steilacoom, the dogs were observed to be terribly alarmed."

Treasure Hunt?

Gilliss noted that as they broke camp a day later on the 19th, he left a message in a bottle, and buried it at the site of the observation. He said the land was not presently farmable but if it ever was, he buried it deep enough to be under plow. He said the crew at Fort Steilacoom knew of its whereabouts. It's unknown if the bottle is still buried there today.

The Gilliss's left Fort Steilacoom on July 23 for San Francisco and then the elder Gilliss left there on Aug. 1 and headed to Washington. But not before leaving some very kind words for his hosts.

"The occasion of our visit to Washington Territory was one of great interest to the highly accomplished officers of the army at Fort Steilacoom also, and their kind and intelligent counsel, their ever present readiness to facilitate every object of the expedition, and their most cordial hospitality to us, elicit our warmest and most grateful acknowledgments."

Unfortunately, the local media wasn't quite as pleased with the Fort Steilacoom crew -- as word travelled too slow to make the "Puget Sound Herald's" press deadline. If only there was Twitter...

Anyway, upon Gilliss's return to the East Coast, Gilliss would go on to serve as the superintendent of the Naval Observatory during the Civil War, playing a crucial role in supplying charts and instruments for 250 Union vessels, the observatory says. But during the war, his son was captured and was held prisoner by the Confederate Army. He was released in January of 1865 but tragically, his father died of a stroke shortly thereafter.

But his legacy lives on -- the James Melville Gilliss library, located on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory, is one of the preeminent scientific libraries in the United States.

And Northwesterners can take heart as we sweat out a potential marine layer Monday morning that last time a Northwest eclipse happened, the weather held out!

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