It’s rare that Southern Illinois is at the center of the nation’s attention. Throughout history perhaps only a very few happenings or events in the region have captured the interest of people around the country, but on Aug. 21 the focus of people across the continent and even around the globe will be on Southern Illinois.
Well, on the skies above Southern Illinois, that is.
As the point of longest totality — that is darkness — during the natural phenomenon, Southern Illinois is the “must-be” destination for scientists and observers who want to experience what many call a once-in-a-lifetime event.
During this Eclipse — the first crossing of the U.S. mainland in 99 years — the sky will darken as if it were night, wildlife will revert to their nocturnal behaviors, and thousands will look to the skies in awe. Scientists have coined it as “The Great American Eclipse,” as it will be viewable across much of the nation, in a swath from the northwest to the southeast. But nowhere will the eclipse be more significant than in Southern Illinois. That’s because it will be darker longer just south of Carbondale than anywhere else in the country – nearly 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
While talk of the eclipse has become increasingly common in the region, area scientists, tourism officials and event planners have had Aug. 21 in their sights for some time.
“It’s something that’s been on our radar for the last five years,” explained Cindy Cain of Southernmost Illinois Tourism. “We started getting calls from California a long time ago. We have the best position for it and as a result we’ll have an influx of visitors from all over the world to see something that is very unique.”
Ashley Bullock, assistant director of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce said she was surprised nearly four years ago when two visitors came to her office.
“They told us they were from Australia and were scouting out sites in preparation for the solar eclipse,” she recalled. “That was the first our staff had heard of the eclipse, but we instantly realized it was going to be a big deal.”
If the advanced planning of amateur astronomers wasn’t enough to convey the significance of the eclipse, the announcement by NASA that Southern Illinois University would be one of the agency’s eclipse headquarters was confirmation.
Lou Mayo, planetary scientist with NASA and program manager for the eclipse told The Southern Illinoisan that NASA selected SIU for a number of reasons.
“SIU has excellent infrastructure that can accommodate a large number of people,” he said. “It has an engaged community, is on the centerline and is the center of the eclipse (for longest duration).”
During the eclipse, NASA will be webcasting from SIU and the university is hosting a number of eclipse-related events ranging from exhibitions to live narration of the eclipse for viewers gathered at the football stadium. Tabbed “Eclipse Day at Saluki Stadium,” the event will feature on-field programming led by Chicago’s Adler Planetarium while Mat Kaplan of Planetary Radio will serve as master of ceremonies and describe the astronomical happenings. Officials at SIU expect as many as 4,000 high school students from several states to be among those in the stadium for the eclipse and programming.
The students will be joining thousands more visiting the region for the eclipse. Tourism officials expect many visitors to arrive days before the actual event, giving themselves a chance to take in much of Southern Illinois and for the area to gain economically from guests.
“I think the economic development impact of the eclipse runs on a couple of different levels,” explained Carbondale Economic Development Director Steven Mitchell. “The impact from the projected number of visitors we are going to see could be a big boon to a lot of our businesses. The projections on visitor numbers that I’ve seen for Carbondale of 50,000-plus are just a fraction of the projections I’ve seen for Southern Illinois, which could run as much as 250,000 or more. Depending on cloud cover and weather at other places along the path, some analysts say as many as one million people could descend on Southern Illinois.
“On another level, it’s an opportunity to showcase what Southern Illinois has to offer visitors — showing them who we are and what we are. Not only is it a good short-term boost to the economy, but I think it has the potential to impact the economy on a long-term basis.”
Dan Krankeola, president/CEO of Illinois South Tourism calls the event a great opportunity for the region.
“So many visitors are going to have a true exposure of what Southern Illinois is all about in regard to hospitality and the overall offerings of Southern Illinois. There’s great excitement,” he said.
Those visitors will have plenty to do. Other events around the region include musical performances and festivals hosted by wineries, restaurants and communities. Additionally, there will be vendor fairs, carnivals, lectures, art shows and more, all designed to welcome guests and visitors.
The timing of the actual eclipse depends upon where in Southern Illinois a viewer is located. On the SIU campus, the partial phase will begin at 11:52 a.m., that’s when the moon first begins to go in front of the sun. SIU Physicist Bob Baer stressed that is the time when observers need to be cautious, using special eclipse viewing glasses. He said that the moon will be completely in front of the sun beginning at about 1:20 p.m. This, he said, is the beginning of totality which will last more than 2 minutes.
“It’s going to be dark,” he said. “Think about what it is like 20 minutes after sunset. That is what we will get here."
It will be so dark, in fact, that street lights in residential neighborhoods will come on. That’s not a concern in places where observers are expected to congregate, though. Those lights will be set to not come on. Nowhere will the length or totality — total darkness — be as long anywhere along the eclipse’s nationwide path as it will be near Makanda.
The small Jackson County community is sure to be a popular viewing spot, as is nearby Bald Knob Cross near Alto Pass. Featuring the area’s highest elevation, Bald Knob offers a unique perspective.
“Bald Knob Cross is the highest point in Southern Illinois and it is one of the most unobstructed views, so eclipse experts tell me that we need to plan well for this event,” Gilbert said. The cross is offering two eclipse-viewing packages, one for what Gilbert calls “serious viewers” that will reserve space on the grounds for telescopes and other equipment and includes parking, and another for casual viewers which will be more of a general admission arrangement.
Gilbert said eclipse visitors will benefit from Bald Knob’s height of 1,034 feet above sea level.
“We expect to have a lot of people for the eclipse because we are up so high, the view is so unobstructed and they will be able to watch the entire eclipse,” she said.
Also popular will be open areas throughout the region — backyards, fields, parks and more as the shadow will be 70 miles wide, making for lots of great views in Southern Illinois.