Thousands respond with awe to total solar eclipse passing through Maine

2 months ago

HOULTON, Maine — Flor Rivera didn’t initially share her family’s enthusiasm as they waited for the total solar eclipse on Monday afternoon.

“We traveled six hours north to see the moon for three minutes,” she said earlier in the day, as they joined a large crowd in the parking lot of the Houlton Walmart, all awaiting the rare celestial event. “It’s the same moon we see in Boston. “

By 2:23 p.m. the long anticipated eclipse had started, and Rivera was starting to waver, fascinated by the magic of seeing the sun with her solar viewing glasses. 

In the final hour, the parking lot slipped into midafternoon darkness as the moon came between the earth and sun. The winds picked up, and the temperature dropped. Momentarily, Rivera was worried about the strange change in energy. But by 3:33 p.m. she was awestruck, a tear slipping down her cheek.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” she said. “It’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful. Never in my life have I experienced anything like this. I’m so happy I listened to my son and came. It was worth the trip.”

Flor Rivera (center), from Boston, watches her first eclipse with her son Felix Rivera (right) from the parking lot of the Houlton Walmart where they camped Sunday night. Flor was not interested in driving six hours north “to see the moon”, but after witnessing the total eclipse she was thrilled that she saw it. “Never in my life have I experienced anything like this. I’m so happy I listened to my son and came. It was worth the trip,” Flor said. At left is family friend Aden Lopez, 16.
(BDN Staff photo | Linda Coan O’Kresik)

More than many other Maine communities, Houlton has been readying for this event for nearly three years, and while crowds did not reach the predicted 40,000, eclipse planners estimated that about 20,000 made their way to the last U.S. stop along the 115-mile wide path of totality. 

It wasn’t alone: several other rural Maine communities in that path also saw throngs of visitors on Monday — many of whom were also moved by the cosmic event. 

Over 1,500 people had gathered at the hangar of the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone to watch the eclipse. As the time of totality drew closer, the DJ played a mix of thematically related songs, including “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and, finally, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler. 

But when the big moment arrived, he turned the music off and the crowd stood in awe as the sky darkened for a few brief minutes.

Greg Moakley, who drove up from Peabody, Massachusetts to the former base, said he was completely shocked.

“On TV, you see the moon go in front of the sun and it’s like a red ring, but this was just unbelievable,” he said. “It was like a pearl in the sky. It was amazing.”

Back in Houlton, it was a monumental task to make plans for food, lodging, transportation, traffic patterns, law enforcement, waste removal, bathrooms, emergency routes and even the best viewing locations, but the town did not foot most of the bill. Local businesses and organizations sponsored events and star parks that helped defray most expenses.

Houlton, Maine — April 8, 2024 — Shannon Rice passes her Blue Moon in front of her husband Mike Rice’s Corona to create their own beer eclipse Monday in Houlton where the couple drove from Worcester, Massachusetts to watch the total eclipse.

The town budgeted $40,000 for public safety and law enforcement and the remainder came from grants and community support, according to Johanna Johnston, head of the town eclipse committee. 

While planners prepared for crowds at multiple designated star parks, some of the most action was in the Houlton Walmart parking lot and a large field next to Hannaford.

By Monday morning, a village of eclipse aficionados cropped up in the parking lot, many of them out-of-state visitors who had changed travel plans at the last minute to follow the good weather.

While the downtown festivities were good for families, Walmart was the place to be for serious eclipse travelers, said Felix Rivera, Flor Rivera’s son who came from Boston with friends, family and his two Bull Mastiffs, Vixen and Bailey. 

Downtown Houlton was also busy, and parking at the Houlton International Airport was full, said Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce.

In the hours leading up to the eclipse, the Walmart parking lot was buzzing as the new neighbors met each other, shared travel tales and eclipse viewing secrets. 

Houlton. Maine — April 8, 20-24 — Campers and day trippers gather in the parking lot of the Walmart in Houlton to watch the eclipse.

The crowds continued to grow as totality neared. Most viewers were in lawn chairs in spaces near vans and RVs. Some were grilling on the back of pick up trucks and others were playing cards and other games. 

The serious eclipse chasers shared past eclipse viewing experiences with neophytes, and the excitement heightened as the minutes to totality ticked by. 

“Oh, you’ve got sun spots,” one man said to another about what his telescope was picking up.

Matt Stultz, from Bath, was camped in the parking lot with his wife and three dogs. This is his second total solar eclipse, after he saw the first one in South Carolina in 2017. 

“Our original plan was to go to Niagara Falls, but then when we saw the Houlton weather, we came up at 4 a.m.,” he said.

Twin brothers Andrew and William Gallagher, 14, from Virginia were attempting to scale the nearby 14-foot snow banks, the only reminder of recent spring storms that dumped nearly two-feet on the area. 

The afternoon sun was hot, and it felt more like a beach party than a northern Maine spring day.

Hanna Bourke was celebrating her eight birthday with her dad and will soon earn her Cub Scout Total Solar Eclipse badge, she said.

“At the partial eclipse, we missed it because it was cloudy,” said her father, Jesse Bourke, who is from Connecticut. Hanna is from Rhode Island.. “So I booked an AirBnB right then.”

The Paredes family from Venezuela made the trip from Boston, and they had been traveling all night to get to Houlton.

For three minutes and 18 seconds, the crowd oohed and awed and marveled at the sun with its neon-like ring and all the night stars visible. 

When Totality had passed, Rivera was still stunned and grateful she had this experience with her family.

“I’m blown away,” she said. 

For Kelly Spangler of Blue Hill, the eclipse was much more than just a rare cosmic experience.

It was also a way for Spangler to finally see where her family came from.

Spangler was adopted as a child and grew up in Connecticut, but later traced her family’s roots to Houlton, Maine, after meeting her biological grandmother. Spangler’s great grandparents were Irish immigrants who first entered the United States from Canada and ended up in Houlton.

The next total solar eclipse will be visible August 12, 2026, over Greenland, Iceland and Spain.

BDN writers Paula Brewer, Melissa Lizotte, and Chris Bouchard contributed reporting.