“We all pray for a cloudless day:” The solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 in Québec, part 3

Approximate view of the area in which the solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 could be observed in its totality (main image), or not (right-side column). Anon. “Mighty Workings of Tomorrow’s Eclipse.” Sherbrooke Daily Record, 30 August 1932, 1.

Hello, my reading friend, and welcome to this third part of our article on the total solar eclipse of 31 August 1932 – a part you were very keen on last week. So, you can store the pitchforks and torches.

Yours truly would like to be able to tell you that everything went swimmingly on that day in August 1932, in the middle of the afternoon, but the reality was quite different. Clouds darkened the sky in a good part of the Québec zone of total darkness, from Parent in the North to Magog in the south. That cloudy sky ruined the day of the 60 or so Canadian and foreign researchers / scholars who were in Magog, for example. Tempers flared and approached the breaking point.

It was a safe bet that the young members of at least one troop of the Canadian General Council of the Boy Scouts Association who patrolled the surroundings of the space occupied by the researchers / scholars, in order to block access to intruders, were very disappointed. They were probably more so when they learned that amateur observers stationed at Ayer’s Cliff, not far from Magog, were entitled to a magnificent spectacle thanks to a break in the clouds.

The leader of the Solar Physics Observatory group at the University of Cambridge, in… Cambridge, England, the British astrophysicist Frederick John Marrian Stratton, professor at the University of Cambridge, was obviously very disappointed. However, he added that observing an eclipse anywhere remained at the mercy of climatic conditions. Indeed, various Canadian meteorologists had predicted a good chance (50%?) of overcast weather.

The famous Albert John Kelly of McGill University, in Montréal, Québec, indeed predicted overcast skies in the Montréal area at the time of the eclipse. Many people who saw clear skies in the early afternoon believed that, for once, Kelly was imperially mistaken. They quickly had to change their tune. Kelly was rarely wrong during his long meteorological career.

The group led by Clarence Augustus Chant, at the time the one and only astronomer at the University of Toronto, in…Toronto, Ontario, stationed in Saint-Alexis-des-Monts, Québec, in the Saint-Maurice River area, had no more luck. The same went for the group from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, in London, England, led by the Englishman Herbert Dingle, physicist and professor at the college, stationed at the McGill University site.

Now, do not grumble and do not complain either, my wrathful reading friend. It was you, yes, yes, you who wanted to know what happened on the day of the eclipse. I wanted to spare you that sad news. Come on, take this tissue paper. I will have good news for you at the end of this third part of our article. Blow, hard.

In Montréal, in parks, along streets and boulevards, on the roofs of moult buildings too, ordinary mortals and the scientific community had to face an additional obstacle. Indeed, the police service of the metropolis of Canada, the Sûreté de Montréal, saw fit to turn on the streetlights before the period of great darkness in order to reduce the risk of accidents. All of these people, as well as the hundreds of people at the top of Mount Royal, in the centre of the city, were very disappointed by the cloudy conditions. The horses of the carriages, on top of the mount, although a tad puzzled by the sudden darkness, did not seem more impressed, just like many animals of the zoological garden of Lafontaine Park by the way.

At the stadium on Delorimier Street, in Montréal of course, while many people who had come to watch the baseball game between the Montreal Royals and the Albany Senators of Albany, New York, jumped on the field, they did so mainly to see their idols up close – and get autographs. Incidentally, the Montreal Royals lost the game in question – a rarity in the 1932 season, the team winning 78 of the 90 games played that year.

A certain Montréal ice hockey club has not done that in ages. Sorry, sorry.

A well-known journalist from a major Montréal daily, The Montreal Daily Star, took to the air with Douglas Hains, an experienced pilot of the Montreal Light Aeroplane Club of Saint-Hubert, Québec – and a camera. (Hello, VW!) That flight, planned since March 1932, did not take place as Austin Cross had hoped, however. The sky above the metropolis was almost entirely cloudy. Cross and Hains were still in the air, south of Montréal, when the eclipse became total. They were both flabbergasted. Cross was so fascinated that he failed to take a decent photograph.

Three other Montreal Light Aeroplane Club pilots, including Roy Holmes Foss, born in Sherbrooke, Québec, yours truly’s homecity, also viewed the eclipse from the sky. They were thrilled. The four officers and non-commissioned officers of the Royal Canadian Air Force based in Saint-Hubert, who were then performing a routine flight, a mere coincidence of course, were so just as much.

Speaking (typing?) of coincidence, yours truly wonders if Foss was / is related to George Foote Foss, also of Sherbrooke. You see, back in 1896, that blacksmith, inventor, machinist and bicycle repairperson completed the Fossmobile, Canada’s first successful gasoline-powered automobile. Yep, I wonder, but back to our story.

Would you believe that a gentleman by the name of Donald “Don” Foss was at the controls of a Curtiss HS-2L flying boat known as La Vigilance in September 1922 when that historic machine, Canada’s first bushplane if you must know, suffered at accident in an unnamed lake located not too far from Kapuskasing, Ontario? Small world, is it not?

And yes, the remains of La Vigilance can be seen in the astonishing Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, as is a replica / reproduction of an HS-2L by the way, but I digress.

Another journalist from the aforementioned English-language Montréal daily, yes, The Gazette, accompanied a small group of English-speaking Montréal eclipse hunters who travelled by automobile through the region of Drummondville, Québec. After a frantic race up hills and down dales, these enthusiasts had the chance to see the eclipse in its totality, for a moment that seemed very short to them.

Researchers working in the Sorel and Lac Saint-Pierre region were also lucky. Indeed, they seemed to be among the few researchers who had kept their feet on the ground who clearly saw the eclipse in its totality. The members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada who were in Louiseville, Québec, for example, stated they were very satisfied with the results obtained. The French researchers stationed there were equally so.

The 1 000 passengers on the SS Richelieu, a Canada Steamship Lines Limited ship from Montréal on an excursion to Lake Saint-Pierre, were delighted. The professors (and students?) familiar with astronomy from McGill University who were on board to describe the total solar eclipse were just as delighted, to the chagrin of their colleagues and friends stationed elsewhere in Québec. You lucky guys, you.

In their heart of hearts, journalists from Montréal daily newspapers such as The Gazette and The Montreal Daily Star, Le Devoir also perhaps, present on board, might have thanked their lucky star.

The passengers of the SS Quebec, another Canada Steamship Lines ship, en route to Montréal after a short cruise on the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers, had the pleasure of witnessing an almost total eclipse as magnificent as it was unexpected when they had purchased their ticket.

Members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Hamilton Centre in…Hamilton, Ontario, were surprised to learn that they were among the few people to have actually seen the eclipse in its totality from the ground – and to have photographed it. That group of about 15 people, led by a well-known and respected amateur astronomer, reverend Daniel Brand Marsh, was then in Acton Vale, a village more or less halfway between Montréal and Sherbrooke. In fact, in Sherbrooke itself, a break in the clouds allowed many people to see the eclipse in its totality.

You will remember, my reading friend who read the second part of this article with delight, that the Montréal radio station CFCF planned to have a flying observation post during the eclipse, namely a Canadian Airways Limited aircraft. As expected, at the last minute you will remember, a certain F.H. Coates from Winnipeg, Manitoba, perhaps, unless it was a certain D.P.R. Coats of somewhere else, took to the air aboard it. The description of said eclipse by that person and, quite possibly, Herbert Hewetson, a CFCF announcer, reached the station loud and clear. For some reason or other, however, CFCF listeners heard absolutely nothing. Coates / Coats and his companions only learned the news after they returned to the ground. They were quite disappointed. Everything had gone so well...

Another Canadian Airways machine was in flight at the time of the eclipse. A photographer from the firm took about 75 photographs of the phenomenon during that stroll.

And yes, you are absolutely right, my reading friend, it was the voice of the dean of the Graduate Faculty of McGill University and director of the Department of Physics of that institution of higher learning, the Anglo-Canadian physicist Arthur Stewart Eve, based in Magog, that CFCF listeners heard on 31 August. Well, his voice and those of other researchers working in Magog, namely

- the English astrophysicist Frederick John Marrian Stratton, professor at the University of Cambridge, in Cambridge, England,

- the Canadian-American astronomer Samuel Alfred Mitchell, director of the Leander McCormick Observatory of the University of Virginia, near Charlottesville, Virginia,

- the English astronomer Harold Knox-Shaw, director of the Radcliffe Observatory of the University of Oxford, in… Oxford, England, and president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and

- the English chemist and physicist Francis William Aston, Nobel Prize-winning researcher (1922) at the Cavendish Laboratory, the physics laboratory of the University of Cambridge.

Mind you, the voice of Anglo-Canadian physicist Albert Norman Shaw of McGill University, based in Montréal, was also heard.

As for ordinary Québec mortals, the presence of openings in the cloud cover allowed a certain number of them to see what was happening, if only in part, which still was not too bad. One of these mortals had come from afar.

The young journalist Turan Aziz Beler, 20 (!) years old, worked for a major daily newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, Son Posta. Mind you, Beler had not come to North America to see the eclipse. Nay. He had come to the new world to visit the far more interesting Hollywood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California, the movie capital of the world.

Another of these mortals who had gone to Canada travelled under an assumed name. Clarence Skinner was indeed none other than Montagu Collet Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. His presence on Canadian soil shortly after the end of the British Empire Economic Conference, held in Ottawa in July and August 1932, surprised more than one person. Norman stated he only came to Canada to see the eclipse. One may wonder if this was indeed the case. Anyway, let us move on.

History told / tells us, however, that the Premier of Québec, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau had a fine view of the eclipse. His cabinet indeed met an hour earlier than usual, in Québec, Québec, in order to skedaddle as quickly as possible. Better yet, that same cabinet had finally given employees of the parliamentary buildings half a day off. This being said (typed?), Taschereau apparently did not see the point of offering leave to other state employees, or to office, store and factory employees who worked in the private sector.

Incidentally, the residents of Québec were treated to a magnificent spectacle: an almost total eclipse in a practically cloudless sky.

Taschereau, meanwhile, enjoyed a similar spectacle in the company of Québec Lieutenant Governor Henry George Carroll and other Québec politicians. These good folks were then in Batiscan, at the magnificent summer house of the engineer Albert-Roch Décary, president of the urban planning commission of the city of Québec. It must be nice to have moolah.

The experiments carried out from 3 sites, by 3 teams, for the main scientific research organisation in Canada, the National Research Council of Canada, on the impact of the eclipse on the reception and transmission of radiotelegraph signals, were hardly affected by the cloud cover. These 3 sites and teams were mentioned in the second part of this interminable but not miserable article.

The similar experiments of the team of professors and former students of the École polytechnique de Montréal, in… Montréal, were no more affected by the cloud cover.

Would you believe that the daily newspaper Le Soleil of Québec placed on the front page of its 1 September edition a series of 14 photographs of the partial solar eclipse observed in that city?

That same 1 September, hoping that the public’s interest in the eclipse had not been completely… eclipsed (Sorry), the Montréal radio station CKAC offered its listeners a talk delivered by brother Robert, born Maurice Robert, of the Congrégation des Frères des écoles chrétiennes, science teacher at the Collège Mont Saint-Louis of Montréal.

It should be noted that many astronomers who had come to Québec to observe the eclipse travelled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at top speed, to participate in the 4th general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, which was being held from 2 to 9 September 1932. Just think of Count Aymar Eugène de La Baume Pluvinel, a French researcher who joined on American soil luminaries such as his compatriot Ernest Esclangon, director of the Observatoire de Paris and of the Bureau international de l’heure, both of which were located in Paris, France.

I dare to hope not to surprise you too much by telling you that a humorous, even slightly sarcastic Québec song, As-tu vu l’éclipse?, was released no later than September 1932. You may have heard of the composer / singer / songwriter who created that work. This was Mrs. Édouard Bolduc, born Mary Rose Anne Travers, otherwise known as La Bolduc – the first Québec composer / singer / songwriter and a singer who enjoyed phenomenal success with the urban working class populations of Québec during the interwar period. It should be noted that, while it is true that La Bolduc sang As-tu vu l’éclipse? more than once in 1932 and later, it is equally true that she never recorded it.

And yes, that great lady was mentioned in a July 2019 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

Before I forget, here is the good news that I hinted at above. The next total, or almost total, depending on the location, solar eclipse visible in the greater Montréal area is scheduled for 8 April 2024, less than 92 years after the eclipse of 31 August 1932. What luck! Let us hope the weather will be nice. And do not forget to protect your eyes and those of your loved ones. The next total eclipse in that same region is due to occur on 17 July 2205. I do not plan to attend. How about you? If only the eclipse happened in 2038… (Hello, EP!)

Jeez, that was a looong article. Your fault.

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Rénald Fortier