Hundreds gather locally for view of solar eclipse

Monday’s phenomenon was called the “Great American Eclipse.”

Partial eclipses were visible on parts of five continents, but the path of totality — where the sun was completely covered by the moon — only made landfall in the United States.

It was a big deal.

Eclipse aficionados traveled as far as necessary to get the best view — members at Martz-Kohl Observatory in Frewsburg, N.Y., were in Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Carolina on Monday.

Planners along the path were expecting heavy traffic.

Driving hundreds of miles carried good rewards, but also risks. A single cloud could obscure the sun through the peak of the eclipse — a span of less than three minutes.

Even in places where the eclipse was not total, there was high interest.

Locally, the weather cooperated and the sky was largely clear between 1 and 4 p.m.

While serious observers had left for better locations, a more casual crowd descended on the observatory.

Shortly before 2:30 p.m. the approaches to the observatory — 100 yards or more in two directions — were lined with cars.

In northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York, the moon covered about 75 percent of the sun.

The observatory had 500 “Eclipse Shades” from the University of California — Berkeley. They handed them out on a first-come-first-served basis until they ran out. As those who were leaving brought their glasses back, there were often people waiting to take them back out.

The glasses allowed viewers to look safely directly at the sun. At the peak, they saw a fairly thin, orange crescent. Without the glasses, it was hard to tell anything unusual was happening — the sky was not so dark that the stars came out — other than by looking at the sun — a very bad idea.

People with pinhole cameras and those standing under leafy trees could see tiny copies of the sun, but other than that the changes were gradual enough that eyes adjusted without the viewer even registering the diminishing light.

It was a good time for the astronomers at the observatory to pass along their enthusiasm.

“I know we have over 500 people,” Club President Gary Nelson said. “It’s fun to share this kind of event with a lot of people.”

The observatory wasn’t just a gathering point with glasses. There were experts willing to share information, several telescopes equipped for looking at the sun — which is a very bad idea without proper and expert precautions, and a lot of like-minded people. Most of those people spent an hour or more outside. Despite the eclipse, the weather was hot. The camera on the helioscope shared images with a much cooler room full of people.

There was no charge for the glasses, but a look at the large donation jar showed that the facility had a good day.

Most of the observatory’s funding comes from public sources. A big day of private donations is a boon.

“It means a lot,” Nelson said.

The crowd thinned dramatically not long after 2:40, but part of the moon was still in front of part of the sun until almost 4 p.m.

The eclipse was a highlight and an unusual daytime sky event for the observatory. Typically, more of its business is conducted at night. Nelson said the observatory, located at 176 Robbin Hill Road, east of Frewsburg, is open to the public on the first, second, and third Wednesdays of each month and that 40 to 50 people, not counting club members, have been showing up on clear nights.