Columbia will be ‘the place to be’ for once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse

The path over South Carolina of next year’s total solar eclipse.
The path over South Carolina of next year’s total solar eclipse. greatamericaneclipse.com

An upcoming, once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse has inspired South Carolina’s “Famously Hot” city to adopt a new moniker: the “total eclipse capital of the East Coast.”

On Aug. 21, parts of the continental United States will darken through a total eclipse of the sun. It’ll be the first time in 99 years an eclipse crosses the United States from coast to coast. It will travel in a narrow, diagonal swath, entering through Oregon and exiting through South Carolina.

Columbia is the second largest city on the East Coast in the path of the eclipse and the largest city in the state with the longest blackout time, at about two minutes and 36 seconds. Charleston is expected to see about one minute and 30 seconds of darkness, while Greenville falls in the two minutes and 10 seconds range.

And those extra seconds have astronomers and enthusiasts worldwide already eying Columbia as a viewing site, said Merritt McNeely, marketing director for the South Carolina State Museum.

More than 1 million out-of-towners are expected to visit South Carolina – if the weather and the skies are clear – to see the moon pass between the sun and the earth, and the sky go dark in the middle of the afternoon.

People already are reaching out from as far away as Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, McNeely said.

McNeely said the museum, which has a new observatory and digital-dome planetarium, has known about the eclipse for years. But as the date approached, officials realized the event was much bigger than the museum and started reaching out to city and community leaders in the Midlands.

“This is something that is special to everyone because it’s so rare,” McNeely said. “Columbia, South Carolina, is an amazing spot for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

With the city’s help, the museum and Columbia’s entertainment districts are working to fill the weekend leading up to the Monday eclipse with events.

McNeely said she hopes Columbia can put on a show for the world, from the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden to the Columbia Museum of Art to businesses along Lake Murray.

Meredith Atkinson, executive director of the Congaree Vista Guild, said the Vista is hoping to also unveil on that weekend a piece of public art to permanently remember the historic event. And unlike other cities in the Palmetto State, Columbia is already planning for the influx of visitors, from working with the police department to preparing merchants for the foot traffic, she said.

“There’s going to be so many wonderful things to do,” Atkinson said. “Instead of a two-minute party, it will be all weekend long.”

Matt Kennell, president of downtown’s City-Center Partnership, said people have already started to book hotels rooms in Columbia for the weekend of the eclipse. Kennell said he knew the eclipse was coming, but didn’t realize how geographically important Columbia would be until McNeely reached out.

Like many of the city’s entertainment districts, Kennell said, Main Street hasn’t planned any specifics yet, because merchants have been focused on the holidays. But the district is excited about the opportunity to welcome so many people to Columbia, he said.

“We want to give people a number of places to celebrate and have the viewing in Columbia,” Kennell said. “I could see an event on Boyd Plaza or Hampton Street, sort of like we do for First Thursdays.”

Kennell also said that with the city going dark in the middle of the day, some streets along the district may be closed to make it safe for pedestrians who are enraptured with the eclipse.

Come Monday, McNeely said the city’s eclipse website will start accepting submissions for events. In the meantime, committees that have been formed to ensure the weekend is packed with adventure and fun also are working to find sponsors for eclipse sunglasses.

If enough money is raised, McNeely hopes visitors and Columbia residents can find eye-protecting eclipse glasses for free throughout the city in the days leading up to the eclipse. Ideally, the city could provide a grocery store or a gas station chain with free glasses for the public a month before the event. And visitors could find glasses at merchants they visit during their stay, she said.

McNeely believes providing the protective eyewear is a must to ensure everyone gets to enjoy the eclipse.

“This is absolutely something that they should experience in their lifetime,” McNeely said. “Our entire city and region, we’re all coming together to offer an amazing weekend of experiences. This is the place to be.”

Cynthia Roldán: 803-771-8311, @CynthiaRoldan