A view of a pair of custom branded eclipse glasses purchased by the Columbus Area Visitors Center. Mike Wolanin | The Republic
A view of a pair of custom branded eclipse glasses purchased by the Columbus Area Visitors Center. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Brian Blair and Andy East, The Republic

Local officials say they are preparing for as many as 200,000 people to pass through or stop in Bartholomew County to watch the moon blot out the sun on April 8 during the first total solar eclipse to sweep through the community in 155 years.

While it is hard to say how many people will stop in Bartholomew County for the historic event, the prospect of tens of thousands of cars cramming Interstate 65 and other main thoroughfares in the county has prompted local officials to mobilize a committee of city and county leaders, who started mapping out strategies last year for safety, emergencies, traffic flow and other potential issues.

To put the projections in perspective, an estimated 6,000 people attended the most recent Hospice concert at Mill Race Park. In other words, the crowd that officials say may pack the interstate and state highways in the county following the eclipse could be the equivalent of around 33 Hospice concerts ending at the same time.

Columbus Police Department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said officials are working to learn from traffic gridlock that some smaller Kentucky communities experienced during the 2017 total solar eclipse, including one city that saw traffic increases of 60% to 220% after celestial event as many motorists tried to depart at the same time.

“Those problems really got a lot of people’s attention,” Harris said.

Lessons from ‘Eclipseville’

One place that has grabbed the attention of local officials is Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a city of around 32,000 people located about 70 miles northwest of Nashville, Tennessee.

In 2017, Hopkinsville officials reported that 116,500 people from 47 states, three U.S. territories and 25 different countries poured into the city — which had been rebranded as “Eclipseville” — to watch the eclipse that year.

However, Hopkinsville was no ordinary destination for the 2017 eclipse. NASA had designated the city as the “point of greatest eclipse,” meaning it was the location where axis of the moon’s shadow cone passes closest to Earth’s center.

Officials there said that designation likely made the city more appealing to astronomy enthusiasts than the thousands upon thousands of other locations where people could have watched the eclipse, which swept across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina.

The small Kentucky city also attracted the attention of the state’s governor, lieutenant governor, a trailer full of NASA scientists and foreign journalists, who all traveled to the small community because of the designation.

This time, the point of greatest eclipse will be near the city of Torreon, Mexico, some 1,380 miles southwest of Columbus, NASA spokeswoman Sarah Frazier told The Republic.

But local officials are preparing for worst-case scenarios anyway. City and county government office buildings will be closed on the day of the eclipse, as well as public schools. Curbside trash pickup will be delayed one day, and city buses will have limited service.

Local officials are even urging employers to “consider adjusting shifts or shutdowns” and encouraging local residents to stock up on groceries, medication and gasoline ahead of the entire weekend leading up to the eclipse, which is on a Monday.

Jody Coffman, communications and events coordinator for the city of Columbus, and now its special eclipse coordinator, said traffic flow could be a significant challenge.

“I think particularly because of the number of state highways that we have intersecting through Columbus, we feel like there’s potential for some (traffic) gridlock,” she said.

Columbus police plan to have its maximum of 88 uniformed officers on duty that day, spread over various parts of the city. They are prepared to use everything from their squad cars and ATVs to bicycles to navigate around crowds and traffic.

“If roads are backed up, then yes, there could be increased response times to calls,” Harris said.

Bartholomew County Sheriff Chris Lane said earlier this month it will be “all hands on deck” the entire weekend leading and the day of the eclipse.

“We don’t really know what we’re getting into, so we really have got to have all hands on deck out there ready to help,” Lane said.

A first since 1869

Locally, excitement has been building as the eclipse approaches.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, blocking out the sun and creating a brief period of total darkness as the moon’s shadow falls on the Earth’s surface.

Columbus is located within a narrow band called “the path of totality,” which is the geographic path along which the moon’s shadow passes during a solar eclipse, according to NASA.

Inside this path, which is generally 10,000 miles long but just about 100 miles wide, people can observe the moon completely covering the sun, resulting in a brief period of total darkness called “totality.”

Observers who are not in the path of totality can only see a partial solar eclipse, where the moon only covers part of the sun.

In Columbus, the first phases of the eclipse are expected to start April 8 at 1:50:09 p.m., while totality — the brief period of total darkness — is expected to start at 3:05:57 p.m. and last around 3 minutes, 44 seconds, according to Eclipse2024.org.

Total solar eclipses are rare events. The last time that Columbus experienced a total solar eclipse was in 1869, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, according to the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium at Butler University.

For some parts of Indiana, the last solar eclipse happened some 1,200 years ago, more than three centuries before Genghis Khan conquered large swaths of present-day China and Central Asia.

So far, there is already a growing list of local activities connected to the event. These range from two 5K events titled “Total Eclipse of the Parks” on April 7 and 8 to “Eclipsing the Renaissance,” a festival at Airpark Columbus on April 8. Plus, a live music, downtown street festival called “Total Solarbration” is planned for April 6 and 7.

“I know that the Bartholomew County Fairgrounds have even added primitive campsites specifically for the eclipse and Cera Sports Park and Campground is going all out,” said Erin Hawkins, the Columbus Area Visitors Center’s director of marketing.


But it is anyone’s guess how people will stop in Bartholomew County to witness the spectacle in the sky, though the answer to that question could have major implications for the local economy.

Hopkinsville, for instance, reported that tourism due to the 2017 eclipse generated a $28.5 million economic impact for the city of 32,000. Oregon’s capital city, Salem, reported that its population doubled on the day of the 2017 eclipse, resulting in a $9 million economic impact on the city, the state’s tourism officials told The Republic.

Though Hopkinsville saw a surge in visitors for the 2017 eclipse, not all projections for a large influx in eclipse-related travelers have panned out in the past.

For instance, Oregon officials had projected that 1 million people would visit the state to experience the 2017 solar eclipse. However, The Oregonian reported that the state largely avoided major problems following the event likely “because fewer than 1 million people actually showed up.”

Officials with the Oregon Tourism Commission told The Republic that they have “limited data” on the economic impact of the 2017 eclipse.

Oregon saw a 3% increase in hotel occupancy in August 2017 — the month of the eclipse — compared to the same month the year before, which “could be associated with the eclipse,” said Allie Gardner, spokeswoman with the Oregon Tourism Commission.

Overall, an estimated 1 million to 4 million people in the United States may travel to the path of totality this year, according to a geographical model by Great American Eclipse in what the organization’s co-founder Michael Zeiler predicts “will likely be the most viewed astronomical event in American history.”

While Texas is expected to experience the most eclipse-related travel in the U.S., Indiana is a distant second, with an estimated 131,000 to 500,000 visitors expected to pour into the state, according to Great American Eclipse.

The model predicts that a significant number of people from the Chicago area will make the trek down Interstate 65 to the path of totality, which starts between Lafayette and Indianapolis. The model also predicts heavy traffic coming into Indiana from Louisville and Cincinnati, which are located just outside the path of totality.

Projections on the city’s website estimate that 50,000 to 200,000 people may cross into Bartholomew County for the eclipse, though many of them “will likely be traveling through the county to get to their final viewing destination.”

Yet Columbus is hardly the only community in Indiana that will be within the path of totality during the upcoming eclipse.

Around 3.94 million Hoosiers — 58% of the state’s population — live within the path of totality, according to Great American Eclipse. Some 1,535 cities and towns in Indiana will experience totality during the eclipse, according to Eclipse2024.org.

And many of those communities are planning their own events to attract tourists, including Bloomington, Franklin and Indianapolis, where Purdue University is planning to host an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Despite social media posts to the contrary, vacancies remain among the area’s approximate 1,500 hotel rooms and camp sites, Hawkins said.

“From a tourism perspective, this could really be a boon for our local economy,” Hawkins said. “So, I guess I’m cautiously telling people (to) come.”

“Not only is this supporting our hotels, but just that number of people being in town for a weekend would be great for our local small businesses, for all of our businesses and our restaurants,” Hawkins added. “I’m excited about this infusion of visitor spending coming into the local economy.”

© 2024 The Republic