Thousands of solar eclipse tourists flood Spring City, Tenn. [photos]

Thousands of solar eclipse tourists flood Spring City, Tenn. [photos]

August 22nd, 2017 by Emmett Gienapp in Local Regional News

Three-year-old Josie Schaefer, from Austin, holds a pair of eclipse glasses to her face in Veteran's Park on Monday, Aug. 21, in Spring City, Tenn. People are flocking to Tennessee to watch the first total solar eclipse in the U.S. since 1979.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Gallery: Thousands of eclipse tourists flood Spring City

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POLL: Did you watch the eclipse?

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — At the moment the moon fully eclipsed the sun, turning day into night, the mob that had congregated in this tiny city erupted into cheers.

Thousands flocked to Veterans Park here at the center of the eclipse's path in order to prolong the magic and view the full eclipse for as long as possible — 2 minutes and 39 seconds.

They ranged from casual viewers to amateur astronomers, but few were as excited as Hunter Gnann. He said he prepared by setting up three different locations to watch the eclipse along its path in different states in case the weather was nicer in one than the other two.

"I've been waiting for this for five years," Gnann said. "There's only three, maybe four solar eclipses in the United States in our lifetimes."

He sat facing a tripod- mounted camera he had programmed to automatically follow the sun as it traced its path through the sky. It was one of almost a dozen cameras he had set up to capture every aspect of the event, including the faces of his group.

"I just love it. It's my high," Gnann said. "You just don't see it go dark in the middle of the day."

Veterans Park was the center of the eclipse festivities in Spring City with food trucks, face painting and eclipse-themed clothing for sale. Friends and families spread to fill every corner, staking out their spots with beach towels and tents. Others peered through telescopes and, as more tourists joined them by the hour, they overwhelmed the city's roads and public spaces.

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On any other day the horde's presence would have been bizarre, but because of the park's location, it was a final destination for travelers from around the globe. Emily Franks said she and her family came from Melbourne, Australia, to watch the eclipse and they wound up in Spring City because they wanted to avoid crowds.

"We thought we'd just find a small town or something along the path and steer clear of most people," she said. "Obviously that's not what happened."

City officials estimated beforehand that more than 9,000 visitors would converge on Spring City for the afternoon, snarling traffic before and after the event. It was unclear exactly how many came, but U.S. Highway 27 was log-jammed for miles in the aftermath.

Franks said she didn't expect there to be so many people, but she concluded it added to the overall experience.

"This was something we all got to witness together. It was unreal to look up and say 'whoa' when it finally happened, but the anticipation was special, too," she said. "Everyone was staring around as it got darker and darker, and then it was night."

Some entrepreneurial residents cashed in on the size of the crowd by charging $10-20 per car to park on their lawns, while others supported charity. The Spring City United Methodist Church opened its lot near the center of town to visitors for free with a recommended donation.

"All the proceeds are going to the foster children of Rhea County," said Tom Heimel, a church member who stood at the lot's entrance.

"I don't care if someone gives a dollar or fifty. If a quarter is all they have in their console and they'd like to donate it, they can and we'll accept them all the same."

The same attitude of goodwill was mirrored elsewhere in the city as groups mingled while they waited, sharing spare eclipse glasses or discussing what they could see when it happened. Larry Robinson, an amateur astronomer, consistently had a line of about a dozen fascinated people waiting to peer through his heavy-duty telescope at the sun.

"I've been doing this a long time. This happens everywhere I set up," he said, gesturing at the line of people.

At one point, a young father walked up and held his toddler in the air so the child could see.

"One of them may be a future astronomer," Robinson said. "That's how you get people started. You let them look through a telescope."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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