In 2007, Hopkinsville Tourism Director Cheryl Cook received an email that she thought might be a prank. It said that Hopkinsville, a Western Kentucky city with about 33,000 residents, would be the world’s best place to view the 2017 total solar eclipse, and asked if the city had started planning for it.
“I didn’t know anything about it, so I was very nice and polite and said we don’t usually work 10 years out, we work more like five years out,” Cook said. “I have a lot of friends in the tourism business … We play a little prank on each other now and then. But you can’t be totally sure, so that’s why I answered (the email) as politely as I could.”
Afterward, however, Cook went online to research the 2017 eclipse and discovered “what a big deal” it would be, she said.
On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, at 1:24:41 p.m., a total solar eclipse will be visible along a path from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, S.C. A large part of North America will be able to view the eclipse in its partial phases, but only the cities in its narrow path of totality will see the moon appear to completely cover the sun. It will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental United States in 38 years, and the first time in 99 years that a total eclipse will be viewable by people from coast to coast.
Hopkinsville is not only located along the path of totality, it is where the center axis of the moon’s shadow passes closest to the earth. That means spectators in Hopkinsville will have the best and longest view of a full 360-degree solar corona – the gaseous white spray of energy that is always pouring from the surface of the sun but visible on Earth only when the moon completely blocks out the star in the center of the solar system.
With a totality duration of 2 minutes and 40 seconds, NASA has designated Hopkinsville as “the point of greatest eclipse.”
Thousands of people, from the simply curious to professional sun scientists, will flock to Hopkinsville to catch the best glimpse of a rare celestial event. If the city didn’t prepare for the influx of visitors, it could be disastrous, Cook realized. Additionally, it presented a perfect opportunity to showcase all that the town had to offer.
What is a solar eclipse?
Solar eclipses occur when the moon’s orbit brings it between Earth and the sun, during the new moon phase, and its shadow is cast onto Earth. These are a happy mathematical accident of nature. The sun’s 864,000-mile diameter is fully 400 times greater than that of our puny moon, which measures just 2,160 miles across. But the moon also happens to be about 400 times closer to Earth than the sun (the ratio varies as both orbits are elliptical), and as a result, when the orbital planes intersect and the distances align favorably, the new moon can appear to completely blot out the disk of the sun. On average, a total eclipse occurs somewhere on Earth about every 18 months.— From eclipseville.com
Preparing for the unknown
Armed with details of the decade-in-the-future “Great American Eclipse,” Cook got to work. She started discussing it in meetings with community groups, she put an eclipse countdown counter on the city’s websites, started a Facebook page, attended eclipse conferences, and participated in interviews with newspapers and the Associated Press.
As the news spread, “we started getting more and more emails from people wanting to get a hotel room,” Cook said.
Tasked with educating the community, marketing the city as the best place to view the eclipse, and planning complementary events, Cook turned to “eclipse chasers” for information about what to expect. While it is difficult to know exactly how many people will come to Hopkinsville to see the eclipse, estimates range from 50,000 to 200,000 people.
Eclipse chaser Dan McGlaun, a project manager for a Fortune 500 company, has seen 12 total eclipses. He has visited Hopkinsville multiple times to share his knowledge of how other communities have handled these kinds of events.
“He talked about things we probably ought to have in stock, lots of water, sunscreen, and little white plastic chairs because a lot of people will be flying in and they’ll need something to sit on while they’re watching,” Cook said.
One of the most important items, she said, is dark glasses for viewing the eclipse.
“Everything we’ve heard is you never have enough glasses,” she said.
Cook has already ordered and sold about 100,000 pairs of eclipse glasses, mostly to local businesses and industries. She has about 100,000 more on hand to sell in August to attendees. (Glow-in-the-dark T-shirts and eclipse vanity plates are also available.)
Figuring out the logistics
Last fall, the City of Hopkinsville hired Brooke Jung as its full-time eclipse coordinator. Jung has worked in event planning for Churchill Downs, the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and several other organizations. She hit the ground running, and hasn’t stopped yet. After four weeks on the job, she had launched a website – eclipseville.com – and conducted a community forum.
“People had so many questions,” she said. “And as much as we want this to be an incredible event for our visitors, we also want it to be a great event for our residents.”
Jung’s next task was finding a way to accommodate thousands of visitors.
“There are a lot of logistical pieces that go into this when you’re talking about fitting 50,000 people into a city of about 30,000 people and county of about 70,000. We’re essentially tripling the city population,” Jung said. “It’s going to be incredible that we’re able to welcome all of these people to town, but we want to make sure we’re ready for them.”
Logistical committees are working with the city’s safety and transportation departments to make sure everyone is able to make it safely around town during the events. Local police, fire and EMS units will be on hand to assist, as will Kentucky State Police.
What about the streetlights?
One very important piece of the puzzle is the local utility companies, Jung said.
“We’re working with our utility companies to make sure the (street) lights don’t come on during the eclipse,” she said. “We need to make sure our light pollution doesn’t interfere with anyone’s viewing experience.”
The city anticipates that many eclipse viewers will come to town the weekend before the eclipse. There are five major hotels/motels in Hopkinsville, and most of them are booking three-night minimums. As of mid-February, there was about 50 percent availability at those establishments, Jung said.
Justin Whitehair, general manager of the Comfort Suites in Hopkinsville, said he has received inquiries from eclipse enthusiasts since at least 2012, but most local hotels didn’t start booking rooms until late 2015 and early 2016. Comfort Suites has received calls from potential guests as far away as Australia, China, Japan and the United Kingdom, Whitehair said.
Anticipating the need for additional lodging, the city created new primitive campsites in four prime eclipse-viewing locations.
“It’s a great space, 15- by 20-foot spaces with shower and restroom facilities onsite. And really, we’re creating small villages,” Jung said. “There will be food vendors and shuttle transportation to take folks to different events happening throughout the community.”
The idea of camping under the stars to view the eclipse will be appealing to eclipse enthusiasts and first-time viewers alike, she said.
Some Hopkinsville residents and businesses plan to rent their properties to visitors, Jung said, and recreational vehicle parking space is available at the city’s Trail of Tears Park. Reservations for most of these spaces can be made online, which is important when dealing with guests who may be coming from other countries, Jung said.
Special eclipse viewing areas have been set up in the DeBow Recreation Complex and Western Hills Golf Course.
Out of this world entertainment
Visitors arriving early will have plenty to see and do in Hopkinsville. More than 15 events – including a three-day music festival and EclipseCon, a comic-themed event with nods to sci-fi and pop culture icons – are scheduled the weekend before the eclipse. (To see the full list, visit eclipseville.com.) The city also expects its local attractions, including two bourbon distilleries, to get ample traffic in the days leading up to the eclipse.
Lovers of sci-fi won’t want to miss the Kelly Little Green Men Festival, Aug. 18-21. It celebrates the 62nd anniversary of the day that aliens are said to have landed in Kelly, Ky., a community just north of Hopkinsville – coincidentally the same day as the 2017 eclipse, Aug. 21. The well-documented event is a fun piece of local folklore.
On Aug. 21, 1955, a family in Kelly claimed a spaceship with aliens had landed near their home and “battled” with them. They were described as “little men with big heads and long arms with eyes and hands out of proportion to their small bodies.” It was documented in the local newspaper with photos and a lengthy story, which said investigating officers could not find anything to prove or disprove the family’s story.
“It’s on the national register of UFO events,” Jung said. “It is believed that ‘ET’ is loosely based on what happened there.”
The Kelly community has kept the story alive by each year hosting the Little Green Men Festival, a three-day family event featuring music, vendors, non-profit booths, and lots of food and souvenirs.
The fact that the 2017 total solar eclipse will occur on the anniversary of the little green men sighting has been fun for eclipse event planners.
“It really gave me cold chills when I saw the date,” Cook said.
“Now, we’re just waiting to see if the little green men come back,” she said with a laugh. “I like to joke and say they were here in 1955 looking for where they want to set up to see the eclipse.” ■
Lorie Hailey is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].