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Observers of the 1963 eclipse recall the experience of totality across Maine

Linda Spence, 8 years old, with her family watching the total solar eclipse in Sedgwick, Maine in 1963.
Linda Spence
Linda Spence, 8 years old, with her family watching the total solar eclipse in Sedgwick, Maine in 1963.

On April 8, the path of a total solar eclipse will cut across a swath of northern Maine. The moon will blot out the sun, enabling observers to see the solar corona, stars and the planet Venus.

"Totality" as it's known, will last for over three minutes, giving Mainers a lot more time to observe the effects than during the last total solar eclipse in Maine, in 1963. During that eclipse, totality lasted for barely a minute, but that minute left an indelible impression on those who witnessed the event.

Many observers were children or young adults in 1963. Nearly an entire lifetime has passed since they saw the spectacle, which took place on the late afternoon of Saturday, July 20. But those who saw it, like Jane Chandler, remember. Chandler was 13 and living in Rumford.

"It was pretty amazing to actually see the sun and the day get dark," she said.

Peter Ballou was atop Sugarloaf Mountain, where he could see the lunar shadow rushing toward him, and then those details that only emerge when the sun is fully eclipsed.

"It was pretty cloudy. We thought, 'Uh oh, we're not gonna get to see this,' and then, suddenly, the clouds parted and it certainly was a spectacular sight," Ballou said. "The most impressive thing about it, the eclipse itself, was the solar flares coming out from the sun, they just looked like big fires."

A postcard image of Main Street in Dexter with an inset showing a sign for a celebration of the total eclipse on July 20, 1963.
Collections of Maine Historical Society
MaineMemory.net, item 26116
A postcard image of Main Street in Dexter with an inset showing a sign for a celebration of the total eclipse on July 20, 1963.

While some young observers kept their eyes to the heavens, others say they noticed what was happening around them.

"The horses went nuts," said Priscilla Flannagan, who lived on a farm in Clinton. "They were racing around and they all ended up by the barn, because, normally, we would let them in as it got dark. So, during the deepest, darkest point, they were standing at the barn, very confused that we weren't letting them in."

Flannagan said other creatures were also confused by the fading sunlight.

"All the bats flew out once we got into the total darkness. You could see them leave. And then, again, as it started to lighten up again, they all came back," she said.

Maine and Alaska were the only two U.S. states within the path of totality in 1963. The center of the 53-mile-wide path entered northern Franklin County and crossed through Pleasant Pond. In nearby Bingham, 15-year-old Mike Curtis was on the land his family had bought to develop.

"We had a lot of open acreage and we tried to develop that as a campground, and in the process of doing that the intersection of the eclipse came along. So we started getting a lot of correspondence and inquiries from places, like down in Boston, Harvard and MIT, and things like that. They wanted to set up equipment."

The path continued to the southeast through Corinna and Carmel.

In Brewer, Charlie Hopkins recalls protecting his eyes from the sun by looking through the shield of a welder's helmet that was a bit too big for his 8-year-old head.

"You know the headband and the strap on the welding helmet would just kind of flip down over my whole head, block off my eyes, so I basically had to hold the thing up with two hands so I could look out through the lenses at the sun," he said.

But Hopkins said he was able to see the solar corona, for a moment anyway.

"The thing I remember most was poof, it was all over," he said.

The path continued from Bangor Down East toward Bar Harbor, where the Bangor Daily News reported more than 5,000 observers had made their way to the top of Cadillac Mountain, their cars lining the road nearly all the way to the bottom.

In nearby Sedgwick, 8-year-old Linda Spence, her 5-year-old sister and 2-year-old brother had been brought from Massachusetts to witness the eclipse by their father, a high school science teacher. Spence says she and her siblings watched their second total eclipse in Nova Scotia in 1972, and their third in Kentucky in 2017, and they plan to meet up again in Ohio on April 8.

"I don't want to take pictures. I don't want to videotape or anything, I just want to experience it and be present in the moment," she said.

Those eclipse moments happen somewhere on Earth with some regularity. The sun will rise nearly 80% eclipsed over Maine in March of next year and the state will catch part of a 2026 eclipse that will only cover about a quarter of the sun. But nearly another lifetime will pass before the next total solar eclipse in crosses this state in 2079.