The hordes of desperate eclipse chasers never quite materialized, and neither did most of the problems we were warned about during the run-up to last summer’s total eclipse of the sun.
But when the long-awaited celestial event finally arrived on the morning of Aug. 21, it more than lived up to its star billing.
A dozen states were in the path of totality, a roughly 70-mile-wide band where the full effect of the eclipse could be seen. But the eclipse would make landfall in Oregon, in the vicinity of Depoe Bay, and the state’s clear summer skies were expected to provide some of the best viewing conditions in the country.
That made Oregon a mecca for eclipse watchers, and state emergency management officials were projecting that as many as a million visitors could arrive for the big event (including up to 400,000 in the mid-valley, which was squarely in the path of totality). That eye-popping number, in turn, led to predictions of epic traffic jams, food and gasoline shortages, and the potential for wildfires started by careless campers.
Nobody knows for sure how many people came from out of state or around the world to witness the eclipse in Oregon, but the consensus seems to be that the total was well below the 1 million mark.
“I don’t think we have any detailed numbers,” said Cory Grogan, a spokesman for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, adding that the 1 million figure was a deliberately top-of-the-range estimate to help plan for the worst.
In the end, of course, nothing too terrible happened.
For the most part, traffic flowed smoothly — with some notable exceptions.
Several days before the eclipse, cars backed up for 20 to 30 miles on Highway 26 as thousands of people made their way to the Prineville area for the Symbiosis Festival. The worst post-eclipse traffic jam was on U.S. 97, which was at a virtual standstill for hours as motorists clogged the two-lane road on their way home from another big outdoor viewing party in Madras.
The biggest concerns were for Interstate 5, the state’s north-south transportation lifeline, but traffic on I-5 kept moving throughout the day, even if it did slow considerably for a few hours after the event.
While a few spot shortages were reported, most gas stations had plenty of petrol and supermarket shelves remained well-stocked.
And in the middle of a bad fire season, wildfire activity actually slowed down somewhat around the time of the eclipse.
All in all, things went a lot more smoothly than they might have. And Grogan thinks the drumbeat of warnings from the Office of Emergency Management and other agencies — telling people to plan ahead, arrive at viewing sites early, avoid unnecessary driving and wait a few hours before hitting the road for home — had a lot to with that.
“There was a lot of public messaging that was done months in advance,” he pointed out.
“From a planning perspective, we wanted people to be able to enjoy it, we wanted people to be safe, and we know that happened — so that’s a win.”
We’ve got company
It may have been fewer than a million, but there’s no question that quite a few people came to Oregon to experience the big sky show on Aug. 21.
Virtually every hotel room anywhere near the path of totality was booked months if not years in advance, and there were reports of some unscrupulous innkeepers canceling reservations in order to jack up room prices (including at least one case in Albany).
The same was true for campgrounds, with all reservable tent and RV sites spoken for well before the big day.
To accommodate (and cash in on) the demand, numerous venues around the state were converted to impromptu campgrounds and viewing sites.
Here in the mid-valley, an estimated 5,000 people donned protective eyewear and watched the eclipse from the intramural sports fields on Oregon State University’s Corvallis campus. OSU also opened several dorms for people looking to rent rooms for the event.
More than 1,500 people camped out at the Crystal Lake Sports Fields in South Corvallis, while others pitched their tents or parked their Winnebagos at the Benton County Fairgrounds, the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo grounds or Adair County Park.
Camping was also available at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center in Albany, and an estimated 750 campers and day users turned out for the “Party in the Park” at Cheadle Lake in Lebanon.
Close to 1,000 people watched the show from the summit of 4,097-foot Marys Peak, the highest point in the Coast Range.
Kevin Higgins, the emergency manager for Benton County, estimates the county had about 50,000 visitors that day — not much more than he’d expect for a big home football game at OSU. And, as in most parts of the state with a clear view of totality, there were few problems to report.
“People behaved and stayed home, stayed off the roads for the most part, and we avoided the significant congestion we’d been led to expect,” Higgins said.
“Law enforcement and fire (agencies) were heavily staffed and ready for the worst, and they were pleasantly surprised not to be needed in that capacity.”
One place that did get more visitors than expected was the Corvallis Municipal Airport.
While officials thought they might see as many as 100 airplanes flying in to see the eclipse, that estimate fell far short of reality.
“I think we ended up landing over 200 aircraft starting overnight and into the day of the eclipse,” said Patrick Rollens, the city’s public information officer. “At the height of the eclipse, we were landing about one plane per minute.”
The airport has three runways, one of which is kept closed due to lack of use.
“We actually opened up that closed runway and used it as a parking lot,” Rollens said. “That was where we ended up parking some of the larger aircraft.”
In addition to small prop planes, Rollens said, some 10 to 12 corporate-style jets flew in for the day, including an 18-passenger Gulfstream G-6. There was even one that looked like a fighter jet, a Czech-made trainer called an Albatross.
It’s hard to gauge the full economic impact of the eclipse, but quite a few mid-valley businesses appear to have benefited from the extra tourist trade.
For one thing, all those full hotel rooms helped boost revenues for municipalities, according to tourism officials. In Albany, transient occupancy tax receipts for August were $131,655.85, up 23.19 percent from the same month in 2016. In Corvallis, August room tax revenue was $190,265.58, a 16.8 percent increase from the year before.
“There was not a hotel room anywhere available,” said Jimmie Lucht of the Albany Visitors Association. “I even had some people staying in my fifth wheel.”
Lucht said he made the travel trailer available to three women from Southern California who called his office in a desperate last-minute search for accommodations. They joined him and his family in watching the eclipse from their rural home in the Millersburg area.
“It was so amazing,” he said of the event itself. “It was just phenomenal to see.”
Mary Pat Parker of Visit Corvallis said she didn’t have precise dollar figures, but anecdotal reports suggest lots of local businesses turned the eclipse into extra cash, from restaurants and grocery stores to bars, breweries and distilleries.
“The wineries were all packed,” she said. “Many of them offered overnight camping.”
But what she’ll remember most is the eclipse itself and the impact it had on the people who watched it.
“To hear the noise in town when it actually happened was stunning,” said Parker, who took in the spectacle from the parking lot outside her downtown office. “You could hear people going crazy, lots of whooping and hollering.”