He witnessed a total solar eclipse nearly 100 years ago — here's what he saw

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 4/4/24

At a time when rigid airships still flew over Block Island, one prominent Bristol family went to Westerly to experience an event you're lucky to see more than once in a lifetime. Now you can read their own handwritten account of that day in 1925.

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He witnessed a total solar eclipse nearly 100 years ago — here's what he saw


With the coming partial solar eclipse on Monday, April 8, many Rhode Islanders are going to be looking up into the sky during what looks to be a beautifully sunny day to catch a glimpse at one of the rarest, most exciting astronomical events we can experience.

Solar eclipses, caused by the moon’s orbit around the Earth crossing in front of the sun, have intrigued humans for millennia. At the worst they have conjured fear of the end of the world, at their most wondrous they have generating mythical legends, and at the very least they provide, to this day, a visual reminder that we are part of an awe-inspiring system of celestial bodies that all revolve around a central sphere of burning hydrogen.

It should be no surprise then, that nearly 100 years ago, a prominent local family found it worth their time and effort to take a trip to Westerly’s Watch Hill in order to view what would undoubtedly be one of the most memorable moments of their lives; witnessing a total solar eclipse on Jan. 24, 1925. And unlike the 90% partial eclipse we’ll get to witness in a few days, they got the full experiencing of seeing the sun’s glowing corona during a total eclipse.

DeWolf Fulton, grandson of Dr. Halsey DeWolf and the son of Mary Howe DeWolf Fulton, reached out to the Phoenix this week with a pitch for a story on his grandfather’s firsthand, written account of that trip, which had been logged into the family’s historical archives at Roger Williams University.

The account provides a fascinating picture into the scene that took place nearly a century ago, complete with descriptions of the bitter January weather, a sighting of a rigid airship over Block Island that was gifted by the Germans as a war reparation from World War 1, and, of course, the storybook moment when the glowing ring of the wholly obstructed sun became visible along the outer edges of the moon.

In order to preserve the authenticity and history of the original account, we have made only minor edits to the writing of Dr. DeWolf for better reading clarity.

Jan 23, 1925
Daddy (Dr DeW), Muddy (wife Edith) and Mary Howe (DeW Fulton)…went to Westerly this afternoon, to spend the night at the Hotel Rhode Island and see the eclipse (total solar) tomorrow, if only the weather is good. Very clear and cold (59 degrees) tonight.

Jan 24
The great day! Cold (2 degrees), still, sun rose clear, but light clouds (fleecy) all around the horizon and up 25 degrees. Breakfast. 7AM. Drive out to Watch Hill at 7:45AM. First contact expected at 8:03AM. We are warm in our Marmon Limosine with its heater, but are armed with plenty of rugs and clad in fur coats, galoshes and [illegible], for it looks bitter cold outside. As M(uddy) drives up to Watch Hill (the knoll itself) we see already (8AM) several people on top, silhouetted against the sky, and beyond, a mile in the air and perhaps five to the south and over the Sound, The Los Angeles, giant dirigible, built last year for the U.S. by the Germans. As we climb over the snow to the summit, the sun is partially obscured by the fleecy clouds. (Oh, that they may be only “morning mist.”) We find about a dozen people on top. The sea, two thirds surrounding us, is blue and beautiful. The air crisp and clear, the sky fast covering with light clouds.

Our first sight of “contact” (on time, as figured by the astronomers for years back.) Looking through our dark photo-films (overexposed) we see a tiny bite out of the rt. upper surface (or circumference of the sun).

Mary Howe shows much interest, climbs to the top of the rock, apparently thinking the nearer she gets to the sky, the better she will see. Asks intelligent questions and understands clearly it is the moon which is crossing the sun. Is a bit hazy as to the relative distances of the two, since her arithmetic is still a trifle weak.

The shadow is eating deeper into the sun and our feet growing rapidly colder.

Fleecy clouds have increased, so that much of the sky is covered. The Los Angeles sailed out further, beyond Block Island. Question in my mind if we see corona.

Almost 2/3 of the sun is covered. Sky clearing directly overhead. People have come in large numbers - over 100 here on top of this little hill. Not much talking. An amateur astronomer from Boston giving occasional valuable information.

Sky rapidly clearing, wonderfully blue and sun 7/8 covered by the moon.

A rather eerie look on faces, skyline a little dark: the scene a bit livid, yet with a certain iridescence.

Up the sound distinctly darker, a queer, gone feeling comes over me.

Only a faint rim of the sun left. The western sky, land and water in luminous shadows - a feeling like, “When a fellar needs a friend,” draws me closer to my family.

“The dark will come in one minute,” says the astronomer, looking at his watch. Mary Howe slips her hand into Muddy’s and leans against her. Suddenly we see a lovely star (Mercury or Venus) to the west near the sun. And…

“The corona in one minute,” says the astronomer

Done. Darkness. Like a full moon — three big stars (Mercury, Venus and Jupiter) — a great round, black ball; in the heavens ….. suddenly, a glamorous radiance around it: with color, reddish at the top, and ….., like a halo or little aurora (the Corona at last, what we had come to see, what men have traveled around the world and never seen, “Ohhhh,” and then almost silence; “and Nature showeth Thy handiwork,” is in my mind. The whole horizon is gold and loominous [sic] red!

Just 114 seconds and “snap,” a sharp brilliance at the upper right quadrant edge, the corona is gone: the greatest sight of all our lifetimes is over. Amen!

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