The eclipse of the sun, which you have requested me to describe, occurred in the summer of 1806, on Monday, the 16th of June. Its greatest depth of shadow fell upon the American continent, somewhere about the latitude of 42 deg. I was then on a visit to my parents, at the home of my family, among the Highlands of Otsego, in that part of the country where the eclipse was most impressive. My recollections of the great event, and the incidents of the day, are as vivid as if they had occurred but yesterday.
Lake Otsego, the headwaters of the Susquehanna, lies as nearly as possible in latitude 42 deg. The village, which is the home of my family, is beautifully situated at the foot of the lake, in a valley lying between two nearly parallel ranges of heights, quite mountainous in character. The Susquehanna, a clear and rapid stream, flowing from the southeastern shore of the lake, is crossed by a high wooden bridge, which divides the main street of the little town from the lawns and meadows on the eastern bank of the river. Here were all the materials that could be desired, lake, river, mountain, wood, and the dwellings of man, to give full effect to the varied movement of light and shadow through that impressive day.
Throughout the belt of country to be darkened by the eclipse, the whole population were in a state of almost anxious expectation for weeks before the event. On the eve of the 16th of June, our family circle could think or talk of little else. I had then a father and four brothers living, and as we paced the broad hall of the house, or sat about the family board, our conversation turned almost entirely upon the movements of planets and comets, occultations and eclipses. We were all exulting in the feeling that a grand and extraordinary spectacle awaited us – a spectacle which millions then living could never behold. There may have been a tinge of selfishness in the feeling that we were thus favored beyond others, and yet, I think, the emotion
was too intellectual in its character to have been altogether unworthy.
Many were the prophecies regarding the weather, the hopes and fears expressed by different individuals, on this important point, as evening drew near. A passing cloud might veil the grand vision from our sight; rain or mist would sadly impair the sublimity of the hour. I was not myself among the desponding. The great barometer in the hall – one of the very few then found in the State, west of Albany – was carefully consulted. It was propitious. It gave promise of dry weather. Our last looks that night, before sleep fell on us, were turned toward the starlit heavens.
And the first movement in the morning was to the open window – again to examine the sky. When I rose from my bed, in the early morning, I found the heavens serene, and cloudless. Day had dawned, but the shadows of night were still lingering over the valley. For a moment, my eye rested on the familiar view – the limpid lake, with its setting of luxuriant woods and farms, its graceful bay and varied points, the hills where every cliff and cave and glen had been trodden a thousand times by my boyish feet – all this was dear to me as the face of a friend. And it appeared as if the landscape, then lovely in summer beauty, were about to assume something of dignity hitherto unknown – were not the shadows of a grand eclipse to fall upon every wave and branch within a few hours!