HOULTON, Maine — In just under a year, the population of Houlton could swell far beyond conservative estimates of 10,000 to 20,000 for the total eclipse of the sun.
It’s an almost addictive experience and an indescribable cosmic thrill that leads some to yell, scream or even cry in its beauty, said John Gianforte, a University of New Hampshire astronomy professor and director of the university observatory.
“It’s one of the most awe-inspiring events. There are some of the most beautiful shades of pink, the pinkest pink I’ve ever seen, all unfolding in front of you,” he said. “When it’s over people say, ‘When’s the next one?’”
The population of Glendo, Wyoming, swelled from 229 to 100,000 during the 2017 total eclipse, according to Johanna Johnston, executive director of the Southern Aroostook Development Corp. and Houlton’s eclipse event planner. Interstates were gridlocked along the path of totality — where the moon completely shades the sun — from Oregon to South Carolina with more than 7.1 million eclipse chasers. And Houlton may have a similar experience next April 8.
Houlton will see more than three minutes of totality, and it is the last U.S. stop for the 2024 eclipse, according to eclipse2024.org, an educational website dedicated to eclipses. Some wonder if the number of visitors could rival the 1997, 1998 and 2003 Phish concerts in Limestone that drew nearly 70,000 each year.
The eclipse committee has considered the possibility, and it is studying and learning from towns like Sweetwater, Tennessee, and Glendo, Johnston said.
“[Glendo] only had one gas station, so they brought in a tanker truck,” Johnston said. “We have Daigle Oil here, and they are ready.”
Other 2017 eclipse boomtowns include Madras, Oregon, where the population soared from 6,760 to 100,000, and Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where the population swelled from 31,000 to 100,000 as well, according to Johnston.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation counted 526,000 more vehicles than normal during the eclipse.
Similar to the Limestone Phish concerts that brought nearly $25 million in revenue to Maine, the 1.6 million eclipse visitors in 2017 had a $269 million economic impact in South Carolina, according to the state’s Department of Tourism.
“This could have a huge economic impact in the state, and we are learning from what others have done,” Johnston said, pointing to Sweetwater, Tennessee. “They even held a ‘re-clipse’ event the next year.”
University of New Hampshire’s Gianforte has experienced the total eclipse of the sun around the globe, but in 2017, he took 18 members of his family to Sweetwater, a small town the size of Houlton in the path of totality.
Gianforte’s excursions taught him to plan early, making motel reservations a year in advance, and to arrive early.
The family comfortably settled in while he set up his three telescopes in a nearby field.
“I wanted my family to see an eclipse and understand why I would go to Peru for one,” he said.
But he made his big mistake heading back to New Hampshire right after the eclipse, he said.
“The interstate was backed up from Sweetwater to New Jersey,” he said, adding that all the rest areas were closed because there was no parking. “It took us 24 hours to get home.”
Houlton is planning events for the weekend after the eclipse to encourage people to stay and avoid the notorious eclipse traffic jams, Johnston said.
With the possibility of the town’s population swelling to more than 60,000, Johnston said officals are already talking to grocery stores, trash services and even trying to coordinate with Maine Department of Transportation regarding Interstate 95 construction on that weekend, she said.
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