In the late nineteenth century, a total solar eclipse passed over the western United States, stretching from Montana Territory to Texas. The spectacle, in the summer of 1878, drew people from across the country, including a competitive band of scientists and astronomers. One of those scientists, the famed Thomas Edison, sought to view the event from the Wyoming Territory.
Heading to the Territory
In the arid terrain of southern Wyoming, in a bleached landscape of sage and greasewood, the Continental Divide divides, forming a high basin from which water cannot escape except by evaporating. The region is alkali desert, home to horned toads and rattlesnakes and exceedingly few people. “The eye has no joy, the lips no comfort,” a visitor wrote in the 1860s. “[T]he sun burns by day, the cold chills at night; the fine, impalpable, poisonous dust chokes and chafes and chaps you everywhere.” Travelers in the nineteenth century generally traversed this wasteland as quickly as possible; it was a hell to be endured, not a destination. But for scientists heading west to view the eclipse of 1878, this was a garden spot, because here, in Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, lay the intersection of two long ribbons across the earth: the transcontinental railroad and the path of totality.
“I arrived here about 12.30 p.m. Laramie time,” an assistant astronomer from the U.S. Naval Observatory, A.N. Skinner, wrote to Washington from a remote rail stop on the Union Pacific. “Creston Station is in the midst of an immense elevated plain,” he reported.
“The only inhabitants here are Station Master who is a telegraph operator[,] his wife and a few Chinamen.” A water tank stood beside the station. Opposite, on a side track, sat the railroad postal car that had ferried telescopes and other scientific equipment from the East. Discarded tin cans and the skull of a cow or buffalo littered the sand. A small graveyard lay nearby. “It is as still as death here,” Skinner wrote. “If I had nothing to do I should find it unendurable.”
There was much to do, however. Just fifteen days remained before the eclipse, and the junior astronomer was part of an advance team, sent to various sites in Wyoming and Colorado, charged with setting up camp before the arrival of the other, more senior scientists. A local carpenter was already on his way to Creston with a load of lumber to erect a makeshift observatory; its plank sides would shelter the telescopes from the wind, while its canvas roof would allow quick access to the heavens. The U.S. military stood ready to help, too. The army’s commander, General William Tecumseh Sherman, renowned in the North but despised in the South for his Civil War rampage through Georgia, ordered logistical help to be provided by Fort Fred Steele, a frontier post that sat along the railroad east of Creston. The fort dispatched a four-mule wagon—it carried a mess tent, a cooking tent, and soldiers to help run the eclipse camp—and would later send fresh supplies of ice and hay.
By mid-July, an impressive assemblage of scientific brainpower never before seen in this remote western expanse was headed toward Creston and other points along the path of totality. Astronomers boarded trains at Boston, Providence, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, and farther inland at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago, for the long trek by rail. “The ride to Harrisburg was excessively disagreeable, being hot, dusty, and smoky,” a student from Johns Hopkins complained at the start of his journey to Colorado. Another young astronomer, an associate of Simon Newcomb’s, found Pittsburgh “simply dreadful—I’ve never seen any description of it that I can now pronounce overdrawn—dark, dusty, down in a gully, everything full of smoke & coal-black, & the air of the entire place scandalously vile with coal gas—which almost suffocated me.” But soon the landscape opened up—“fields & fields of corn, growing luxuriantly, comprising hundreds of acres, extending nearly as far as the eye can reach.”
The westbound scientists joined an eclectic mix of characters, a patchwork of tourists, immigrants, gold seekers, cowboys, politicians, and businessmen. The astronomy student from Johns Hopkins, crossing Kansas, eyed the passengers in his car warily. “There is a pretty rough crowd on board, one fellow opposite with a bag from which he periodically pulls a huge whisky bottle and takes a drink, and another evidently a drover with huge cowhide boots covered with mud, which he rests on the back of the seat before him.” Texas Jack—the irrepressible Eastern showman and handsome Western scout—was on another train, heading to Wyoming to guide a hunt for a pair of New Yorkers, one a banana importer; a witness on board noted that Jack “endeavored to get up a flirtation with a very pretty Swedish maiden” but enjoyed little luck, as the girl spoke no English. Simon Newcomb’s protégé headed south, toward Dallas, but first had to cross a broad swath of the plains into which the U.S. government had, through coercion and physical force, relocated dozens of Indian tribes. The region would later be overrun by homesteaders and remade into the state of Oklahoma, but in 1878 it was known as Indian Territory, a place both exotic and a bit frightening to the young astronomer from Washington. “[J]ust think where I am,” he wrote breathlessly to his sweetheart back home, “among the tribes of uncivilization.”
Edison goes west
Of all the scientists heading west, none traveled in more ostentatious comfort than did Thomas Edison. He departed New York in an elegant carriage manufactured and operated by the Pullman Palace Car Company, the firm that set the standard of luxury in nineteenth-century train travel. Pullman cars embodied Victorian opulence: rich upholstery, lavish carpeting, beveled glass, inlays and carvings in walnut, mahogany, and teak. Ventilators provided fresh air free of cinders and dust, while double doors and carefully manufactured windows shut out noise and enabled genteel conversation. Special wheels—made of compressed paper sandwiched between metal plates—smoothed vibrations as the train glided along. At night, hinged chairs folded into beds. Upper berths miraculously descended from the ceiling.
Edison and his companions enjoyed an added level of privacy and splendor. They traveled in an exclusive “hotel car,” which featured its own wine closet, kitchen, and chef. At mealtime, waiters transformed the car into an elegant dining room, with fresh linen and china and crystal. A recent passenger on such a posh train effused: “We sip our oyster-soup, discuss turkey and antelope-steaks and quail, and trifle with ice-cream and café noir, with our eyes on the sunset outside.”
Such luxurious fare combined with the most modern travel appurtenances continued during a stop in Chicago. Edison and his companions lodged at the Grand Pacific Hotel, a palazzo-style behemoth known to host dignitaries and celebrities, including the ubiquitous Texas Jack on his travels to the frontier. The cavernous, frescoed lobby featured Corinthian columns and a checkered marble floor. A heat wave had settled over the region—sunstroke was felling not only people but also the horses that transported victims to the cemetery—yet Edison, whose overworked nerves had by now attained some degree of repair, donned a straw hat and ventured into the city. Meanwhile, a scrum of reporters staked out the hotel, hoping to snag an audience with the eccentric inventor. When he returned that evening, they descended en masse.
“Have you ever been in Chicago before?” one newsman asked. “Yes,” Edison replied, “thirteen years ago. I had a linen duster, $2.50, and a railroad pass. I was not interviewed then.”
“How many patents have you now?” queried another.
“It was something like 140 some time ago. I guess there are 150 or so now.”
The journalists wanted to hear of Edison’s phonograph, his plans for the eclipse, and his latest scientific invention.
“The tasimeter is a heat-measurer of very delicate power,” Edison explained. “Now, it is very evident that the sun’s rays, those coming from the center, are hot—quite hot, as you have found them here lately.”
At this the reporter, as the scribe himself described it, “perspired assent.”
“It isn’t so evident that there is great heat in the rays near the sun’s edges,” Edison continued. “Now, when the moon crosses the sun, all but the edges of the [sun] will be covered for two minutes fifty- seven seconds. These edges, or the corona, are what we want, and the tasimeter, with its wonderful delicacy, will measure the heat.”
“You are hopeful that the instrument will do what you claim for it in the eclipse?” a reporter pressed.
“Yes; I don’t see why it shouldn’t,” Edison replied, turning on his folksy charm. “I’m no astronomer myself—don’t know anything more about it than a pig does about learning Latin. What I want to see is, whether my instrument will do the work, and I guess it will.”
As Edison journeyed westward, the torrent of flattery and attention continued. At Omaha, where he and his entourage transferred to the Union Pacific, he was confronted by another journalist with notebook and pencil. “Well, then, begin your fusillade of conundrums, and I’ll give you all the taffy you want,” Edison offered. “I am used to it. My place at Menlo Park is headquarters for the New York reporters.” He seemed content to talk all day, until Henry Draper broke in: “Come on, Tommy, let us go down to the train.” (Some of Edison’s friends called him by a variant of his first name. Others called him “Al,” for his middle name.) Before embarking, the inventor-turned-celebrity received a perk from the railroad—a special pass that permitted him and his party “to ride on the Locomotive or where else they may desire.”
Edison’s desire, often, was to perch on the engine’s prow. He lounged on the cowcatcher, on a cushion provided by the engineer, propelled forward by iron and coal and steam as he took in the scenery “without dust or anything else to obstruct the view,” as he put it. Nebraska displayed a vast, subtly shifting panorama: Cloud shadows on the broad plains. The lazy Platte River. Clumps of cottonwoods. Prairie dog towns. Cattle, where bison recently had roamed. The hypnotic passage of the telegraph posts that stretched to infinity. Edison found his bliss marred just once, when the locomotive struck an animal—a badger, as best he could tell. He grasped the angle brace and hung on tight as the train batted the creature into the air. Finally entering the territory of Wyoming, the train panted up a long grade, past enormous outcroppings of pink granite that emerged from the prairie in jumbled, bulbous piles. Soaring mountains rose on the horizon, their tops still adorned with snow in midsummer. “Saw Pikes Peak. 160 miles away,” recorded Henry Morton, who joined Edison on the cowcatcher. Soon the track passed over the Union Pacific’s highest span, a spindly trestle that traversed a gaping ravine in the bottom of which ran a minor stream. The crossing was, in the words of a railroad construction engineer, “a big bridge for a small brook that one would easily step over,” but the dizzying view down to Dale Creek, 130 feet below, invariably elicited gasps from those onboard. The train then veered north over flat terrain to skirt the northern end of the Medicine Bows, an imposing rampart of glacier-carved peaks to the west. As night fell, high plains turned to high desert. Buffalo grass gave way to sage.
Edison presumably reentered the passenger car by the time it reached Percy station, near the base of Elk Mountain, its broad, conical form looming like a volcano. Here, seven weeks earlier, the Gilded Age had encountered the Wild West in frightening style. On that day, when the same westbound train—the No. 3—left Percy at 10:00 P.m., four men in white masks clambered aboard the middle Pullman sleeping car and cried “Hands up!” Two of the criminals stood guard while the others walked the aisle and forced the male passengers, at gunpoint, to surrender watches and cash. The ladies were reportedly treated with more courtesy, taken at their word when they claimed to have no money. Although no one was seriously hurt, the thieves escaped into the hills with their loot, as well as a chunk of the railway’s reputation. (“Four Masked Men Clean Out a Palace Car on the Pacific Railroad,” The Philadelphia Inquirer announced in a front-page headline.) The Union Pacific sought quick justice. “The company will pay $1,000 for the capture of the robbers—dead or alive,” the railroad’s division superintendent, Ed Dickinson, immediately declared. A posse soon captured the men and placed them in jail, where they awaited trial.
The No. 3 encountered no such trouble on this day, however. It arrived safely at Edison’s final destination around midnight. Superintendent Dickinson met the scientific party at the depot.
On the frontier
Rawlins, Wyoming—population six hundred—sat among treeless hills just east of the Great Divide Basin. It was a railroad town, established a decade earlier for construction of the Union Pacific, and the company still dominated the place—controlled its economy, dictated its daily rhythms, filled its streets with the rumble and hiss and squeal of the trains. Edison, Barker, Morton, and the Drapers descended into darkness and walked along the platform to the Railroad Hotel. A few nights later, Edwin Marshall Fox of The New York Herald joined them, having telegraphed ahead—“I will be at Rawlins on Sunday night & suppose have you got a bunk for me[?]” Fox shared a room with Edison.
The hotel, a simple two-story frame building on the south side of the tracks, boasted “good fare and commodious rooms”—thirteen in all—plus a large dining area that hosted jamborees, charity balls, and concerts. Other forms of entertainment could be found outside the hotel, in the town’s saloons and brothels, where men more typically squandered their evenings on liquor, women, gambling, violent altercations, or a combination of the above—as occurred at a cathouse called the Myrtle Bower, where a prostitute, for reasons unstated but easily imagined, stabbed a young man in the side and shoulder.
This boisterousness occasionally infiltrated the Railroad Hotel. One night, Edison and Fox awoke to a thunderous knock. They opened their door to find a handsome, buckskin-clad fellow, drunk and armed. The intruder said he wanted to meet the illustrious inventor, whom he had read about in the newspapers. He then pulled out his Colt revolver. Boasting that he was “the boss pistol-shot of the West,” he pointed out the window at a weathervane on the freight depot, then aimed and fired, hitting his mark. “The shot awakened all the people, and they rushed in to see who was killed,” Edison later recalled. Edison was understandably unnerved, but the gunslinger proved to be no outlaw. It was none other than Texas Jack. History does not record his side of the story, but one gets the sense of waning stardom, a performer who felt compelled to prove his mettle and manhood to America’s newest Gilded Age icon. (Texas Jack was reportedly deep in debt at the time, and his marriage was suffering.) A flummoxed Edison tried to defuse the situation. He said he was tired and would see Texas Jack in the morning. The bloodshot visitor finally left. “Both Fox and I were so nervous we didn’t sleep any that night,” Edison reported.
In daylight, Rawlins revealed itself to be drab and rough-hewn, a town the color of rust. The homes, the fences, the depot, the train cars—most everything was coated with “Rawlins Red,” a paint pigmented with iron oxide mined from local sandstone. A recent visitor had noted the lack of greenery. “Rawlins presents to the curious eye the usual features of severely utilitarian frame houses, the absence of flowers, turf or shrub, and even of a chance or premeditated inclosure where such might be nourished.”
Edison roamed the dirt streets. The small downtown, which straddled the railway, included merchants of dry goods, liquor, clothing, and jewelry, as well as a lumberyard that moonlighted in coffins. Curious about life in the frontier West, Edison and Fox ambled up to the corner of Fifth and Cedar to visit the county jail, a one-story stone structure with three small cells. Incarcerated at the time were a horse thief and three of the four men accused of robbing the Pullman car near Percy station. (The fourth had turned state’s witness and was being held separately, in Laramie, for his own safety.) Edison entered, and through thick bars he observed one of the accused train robbers. “He looked like a ‘bad man,’” Edison said years later. “The rim of his ear all around came to a sharp edge and was serrated. His eyes were nearly white, and appeared as if made of glass and set in wrong, like the life-size figures of Indians in the Smithsonian Institution. His face was also extremely irregular.” Edison tried to initiate a conversation. The prisoner declined to speak.
Most everyone else in Rawlins, however, showed great hospitality. Ed Dickinson, the railroad superintendent, acted as tour guide, taking Edison, Fox, and Morton on an afternoon excursion to Brown’s Canyon, twelve miles outside of town, and helping the New Jersey inventor to purchase fishing and hunting gear, including a thirty-five-dollar Winchester rifle, from a merchant in Laramie. Another railroad man, Robert Galbraith, who oversaw the Union Pacific repair shops in Rawlins, offered his house and yard to the eclipse party as a base of operations. William Daley, a carpenter who owned the Rawlins lumberyard and had overseen construction of the Railroad Hotel and the county jail, consented to build for the scientists a pine shed with a removable roof to house their telescopes. (It was Daley who also constructed the crude observatory for the U.S. government astronomers up the tracks at Creston station.)
Meanwhile, Lillian Heath, an inquisitive twelve-year-old who would later become Wyoming’s first female doctor, befriended the scientists. They allowed her to look through one of their telescopes. Edison also met Nathan Meeker, a novelist, journalist, and founder of a Utopian agricultural community northeast of Denver. To pay off debts, Meeker had taken a new job as Indian agent on the Ute Reservation, which encompassed much of the western third of Colorado, south of Rawlins. It was Meeker’s task, on behalf of the federal government, to convert the Indians from equestrian hunters to sedentary farmers. Meeker was naïvely confident that he would succeed. He invited Edison to go with him to the reservation, “to see
the red man on his native heath.” Edison declined.
A ‘thirst for blood’
Edison accepted, however, another invitation to venture into the mountains south of town. After the eclipse, he went camping with a party of railroad men accompanied by Major Thomas Tip- ton Thornburgh, commanding officer of Fort Fred Steele, a skilled marksman whom the Sioux had taken to calling “The-chief-who-shoots-the-stars.” Edison, less able with a rifle, merely shot sage hen and deer, and he fished. “You could throw a crumb of bread into the water, and the river was in a froth right away with trout after that crumb,” he remarked. “If you held a hook without any bait a foot above the water the trout would leap at it.” The men ended up with more fish than they could handle. They ate the best parts and threw the rest away.
Edison relished the wildness and adventure of the American West, but beneath the romantic patina lay a foundation of ignorance, lawlessness, and brutality. Nathan Meeker—the idealistic Indian agent—would be dead a year later, slain in a massacre by the people he had pledged to protect yet whom he came to resent and antagonize when they refused to change their culture in the face of his moralizing and threats. (Meeker would be found with his skull crushed and a barrel stave driven through his mouth, to keep his tongue from telling lies in the afterlife.) The ghastly slaughter and a related battle between the Utes and the U.S. Army claimed the lives of dozens: civilians, Ute warriors, and white soldiers, including Edison’s own fishing companion, Major Thornburgh. Meeker’s wife and twenty-two-year-old daughter survived the ordeal but endured three weeks’ captivity during which, they claimed, they were “outraged” by their male captors. The marauding Indians also suffered an unspeakable fate. Although few Utes were involved in the massacre, the entire tribe lost its ancestral homeland when Colorado’s political leaders, portraying the Indians as bloodthirsty savages, convinced Washington to force the Utes off their reservation and give the state’s white population what it had long coveted—millions of additional acres to mine, to ranch, to settle.
During this era, the good people of Rawlins exhibited their own thirst for blood. One year after the Meeker Massacre, the county jail held a bandit (not among those visited by Edison) whose gang of outlaws, after failing to derail and rob a Union Pacific train, murdered a deputy sheriff and his partner who were in pursuit. The prisoner—he went by the alias “Big Nose George” Parrott—tried to escape, and in the process wounded the jailer. Masked townsmen took matters into their own hands, vigilante style. That night they stormed the jail, hauled Big Nose George down to the railroad tracks, and tossed a hemp rope over the cross arm of a telegraph pole in front of Fred Wolf’s saloon. A crowd assembled, comprising “some of the best people of the town[,] tax-payers and law-abiding citizens,” a witness reported. “[A]ll seemed to be fully satisfied with the lynching of the prisoner.”
The lynching did not go smoothly. Big Nose George stood on a barrel, the rope around his neck. Someone yelled, “Kick the barrel,” which was done, but the rope was too long, or slipped, and he fell, painfully alive, to the ground. “Hang him over and make a good job of it this time,” was the call from the crowd. Now a ladder was placed against the pole. “Give me time and I will climb the ladder myself, and when I get high enough I will jump off,” the doomed man pleaded. Instead, as he mounted the ladder, someone pulled it from beneath. His hands came untied, and he grabbed at the pole, clung to it, climbing several feet with the noose around his neck. “For God sake, someone shoot me,” he cried. He slipped down the pole, still hanging on. “Do not let me choke to death!” Eventually, though, he did.
William Daley—the coffin-selling carpenter who had built the Draper party’s rough observatory and also served as an undertaker—cut the body down and stored it overnight. The next day, railroad mechanic Robert Galbraith—who had allowed Edison and his compatriots to use his house and yard—served on the jury for the coroner’s inquest, which claimed it could not identify the vigilantes, calling them simply “a party of masked men to us unknown.” Lillian Heath—the scientifically minded girl who had befriended Edison’s band of visiting astronomers—now fifteen, precociously assisted with the autopsy. The doctors in charge eventually pickled the outlaw's corpse and stored it in a whiskey barrel for experimental dissection, but first they offered Heath a keepsake. She took the skullcap, still bloody and with hair attached, which in later years she used as a crude doorstop and flowerpot. One of the doctors, meanwhile, harvested a souvenir for himself. He flayed Big Nose George’s chest, and had the skin tanned and fashioned into a pair of Oxfords. The doctor later became governor of Wyoming. It is widely reported that he wore those shoes to his inauguration.
Excerpted from American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. Copyright © 2017 by David Baron. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.