The 1979 solar eclipse remembered in Miles City

Amorette Allison
Star History Columnist

It has been more than 38 years since Miles City last had a good view of a solar eclipse. Although Miles City didn’t witness a total eclipse and won’t this time, either, most of the sun was covered by the moon and that is still pretty interesting. There were two stories written by long-time reporter Jean Freese about the eclipse. Jean was my mother and I was delighted to look up the old eclipse stories and find her byline on the stories. The major difference between the eclipse in 1979 and the one coming up Monday is that 1979’s eclipse was a winter eclipse and viewers were worried about blizzards interfering with their viewing.

I was in Bozeman, attending college at Montana State University in 1979. MSU devoted the better part of the quarter — this was before MSU switched to the semesster system — in special classes and programs leading up to the big day.

By the way, the first story is dated Feb. 23-24 because the Star still ran a Saturday paper in 1979 and it was dated for both Saturday and Sunday.


JEAN FREESE Feb. 23-24 

Most Montanans, hopefully using recommended precautions, will have a front row seat Monday for one of nature’s most spectacular shows — a total eclipse of a sun. The eclipse will begin in this area at 8:20 a.m. when the moon starts across the sky between the sun and the earth. It should be over by 10:40 a.m. Totality in areas that will see totality will be about 9:30 a.m. plus a few seconds.

If there is a blizzard when the eclipse takes place, and the sky is totally covered, there will still be a change. It will get very dark.

Not everyone is looking forward to the special event, however. The Montana Academy of Ophthalmology is warning the states residents that every preceding eclipse has been associated with instances of permanent eye damage and partial blindness.

That is because looking at the sun for even brief periods of time can permanently burn the interior of the eye leading to a painless loss of vision. Normally, of course, rather than staring at the sun, you turn your eyes away when it gets too bright.

But when there is an event like Monday’s eclipse, the natural inclination is too look. Actually, according to the National Weather Service Office in Great Falls, the whole problem may turn out to be no problem at all.

“Pretty grim” is what an official there said regarding the weather in the state Monday. If a storm developing in the Pacific now continues its present course, the western two-thirds of Montana will be cloudy with snow Monday.

The best chance for “viewing weather” will be northeast Montana, the farther east the better. Jordan, where Custer County High School students will be joining Garfield County High School students to conduct special eclipse tests, there is a 30 percent chance that the weather will be clear.

And even if the weather is cloudy, John Potts, CCDHS science teacher, says there will be something to see on the morning of the eclipse. Providing that there isn’t a blizzard.

In fact, the interesting phenomena like waves of light will be visible even on a cloudy day can be enjoyed with a good deal more safety than a full view of the eclipse on a clear day.

During the eclipse, children should not be left unsupervised, the ophthalmologists say, to make sure they don’t stand looking directly at the sun. 

Potts recommends the use of a technique known since ancient times, the camera obscura.

One of the simplest methods of observing the solar eclipse, Potts says, is to create a camera obscura by poking a small hole with a pin in a sheet of paper. If the sheet is then held up so the light of the sun comes through the pinhole, an image of the sun will appear on a second sheet of paper some distance away. The greater this distance is, the larger the image will be.



Knowledge can be a good thing and an event like Monday’s solar eclipse proves it. 

Primitive people were frightened and depressed when they saw their sun disappear, fearful of a demon eating it up. Montanans were depressed Monday only if clouds covered their view. But with clear skies, excitement and elation were the main emotions felt in this area.

“I’m not much for science. I don’t get impressed by things like that, but the eclipse really was something,” said Bob Aumaugher, superintendent and principal of the Garfield County High School in Jordan, where the eclipse was total.

Aumaugher, whose town saw a total eclipse for about 2 1/2 minutes, said he was just sorry for residents in the eclipse area in parts of western Montana where clouds obscured the celestial event.

The stars were very visible but it didn’t get as dark on the ground as he had expected, probably because of the snow reflecting light.

At one point, Aumaugher said, “It got rapidly dark, then got rapidly light.”

“You should have been up here,” he noted. “It was an exciting event and the kids really enjoyed it.”

The kids weren’t the only ones. Allene Galla of Fellman’s Motel and Charlene Nelson of the Garfield Motel, reported that they had eclipse viewers from Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Los Angeles, Indiana, Fargo, N.D., and Casper and Gillette, Wyo. 

“I wouldn’t have driven like they did to see it — 500 to a 1000 miles —but it was real good viewing from here,” Nelson said.

“It was a pretty good turnout for a little town,” according to Galla, who said she enjoyed all the visitors as well as the eclipse. 

The number of visitors was less than anticipated, a sheriff’s office spokesman said, probably because of reports on recent storms which closed roads. Most of those who did drive to the Garfield County seat for an eclipse left immediately after it ended “before they got stormed in,” said Nelson.

Not everyone who wanted to see a total eclipse had to drive all the way to Jordan. Fifteen miles north of Miles City, where the path of totality began, cars began parking and were joined by a school bus from Douglas, Wyo. 

One Miles City woman reported the darkening of the morning sky here confused her old cat. The animal is accustomed to retiring for the night on her owner’s bed as soon as gets dark. When it began to get dark about 9 a.m., the cat headed for bed and was upset because her sleeping spot was torn up for sheet changing.

The confused animal ran around howling.

The almost covering of the sun occurred here at 9:32 a.m. and lasted just about a minute. Viewers noticed that the darkness lightened even though the sun was still covered — the city’s automatic street lights, like the cat, thought it was night and came on.

Several businesses and offices had set up pinhole projection systems which gave them a good and a safe view of the event. School yards were full of youngsters with a variety of equipment to watch the sun disappear, most of it made in classrooms.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or


Old enough to remember the last one

I was at Montana State University in Bozeman in January of 1979 when a total solar eclipse occurred. It was the focus of the entire university, with special classes of all kinds. Michael Sexson, an English professor at MSU, was teaching a “Bible as Literature” class that quarter and I was in his class. His memories of the event appear in the article below.

I wasn’t at the dramatic moment he described. I was just standing in the parking lot at married student housing with the pinhole camera my new husband — Steve and I had only been married about six months at the time of the eclipse — had made for me and watched the eclipse using that method. Having had vision problems my whole life, I wasn’t willing to risk any further damage to my already iffy eyes. 

I probably glanced up once or twice. I surely looked up during totality. I don’t actually remember. I remember the class I took from Sexson and it was fascinating. 

I also remember it was cold. There are advantages to summer eclipses.

(Contact Amorette Allison at 406-234-0450 or