‘Blackout 2017’: on the ground in Tennessee for the eclipse

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Thousands filled McMinnville’s court square park and numerous side streets, which had to be closed to vehicles hours before the event. / W.C. Mann

McMINNVILLE, Tenn. – As an unknown but massive wave of tourism descended upon central and eastern Tennessee for the 2017 total solar eclipse Monday, The Tribune found a fun vantage point in McMinnville, where the community dismissed schools and turned out for Blackout 2017, a downtown street party.  Around the park in front of the town’s chamber of commerce sprang up a forest of tripods holding telescopes, as well as still and video cameras.

A sampling of license plates on our way in and around town testified to just how big this thing has gotten: vehicles from Florida, Mississippi, Virginia, Ohio, New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and other places filled parking lots around town.  We weren’t even the only north Alabama news agency on the scene; a news crew from WIAT 42 in Birmingham set up to broadcast from the square.  In downtown McMinnville, at least, Tennesseans appeared to be in the minority. 

In testimony to the international impact of this event, folks staying at Rock Island State Park a few miles north reported visitors from as far away as Ukraine and Japan.

McMinnville isn’t even a big tourist destination.  With Nashville, Gatlinburg and much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the zone of totality, the inundation of places like this indicate that the eclipse was truly an event of a lifetime for hotels, restaurants and other businesses along this stretch of the map.

In McMinnville, the festivities were supposed to begin at 11 a.m., but a block-long line for free glasses formed well ahead of time, so city agency Main Street McMinville began distributing to visitors early.  The local school system brought out STEM-related displays and children’s activities.

Main Street McMinnville Executive Director and event co-coordinator Katie Kemezis shared, “We’re really proud of our downtown, and we have this beautiful court square that we just wanted to open up to the community for a viewing party.  Eclipses are kind of more fun to view together.  They’re extraordinary events, so we wanted to be with our town, and with folks from out of town, to enjoy the eclipse.”

Kemezis and the planning committee originally planned for around 1,000 fairly local people to attend, then raised that to 1,500.  Then the guessing stopped.

Kemezis explained, “We started getting the heads up that things were different last week.  We started getting calls from Birmingham and Huntsville, and Atlanta and all over, about folks coming down.”

By 11 a.m., when distribution of glasses was set to begin, only 200 pairs remained of the 1,500 Main Street McMinnville brought to give away.

At noon, as the first bit of moon shadow appeared on the corner of the sun, a Pink Floyd tribute band launched into a live performance of the “Dark Side of the Moon” album.  Visitors noticed little visible change until around 1:10 p.m., when the sun was still bright but more than 75 percent covered, resulting in an odd sense of oncoming dusk at midday.  Sunlight filtering through tree leaves took on a distinctly crescent shape where it touched ground.  At 1:27 the sky truly began to darken.  A minute later, the tribute band finished its set just in time, as the last semicircle of sunlight began to vanish.  The applause of the crowd in the corner of the park for the band broke into cheers and spread across the court square and up and down the side streets, as everyone realized that the moment had come.

Then, just before 1:30 p.m., it was evening in McMinnville.  The sun appeared as a bluish-black dot surrounded by a white ring of fire.  In every direction, the horizon had the look of just-after-sundown; and several stars became visible in the sky.  The cheers became hushed, as all present took in what was happening.

In less than two minutes, it was over.  The first flare of direct sunlight reappeared to a combined chorus of “yays” and “awws.”  As the sky rapidly brightened, the crowd that had been gathering a little at a time since just after dawn began moving out, with only a few waiting around to watch more than an hour of partial eclipse still to go.  It was fast, but no one seemed disappointed.  As we walked through the crowd on our way out, the terms of the day were words like “incredible,” “awesome” and “cool!”

Gregg Gelmis, a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center staffer and part-time sports photographer, was photographing the event using a special camera lens and filter; he has given The Tribune access to his photographs when they are available.  Look for those on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cullmantribune.

See the eclipse here: www.facebook.com/CullmanTribune/videos/1481383571923333.

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