Carbondale, Illinois — a college town of 26,000 — has spent the past three years gearing up for 2 minutes and 38 seconds on Monday, when the moon will slip completely in front of the sun, enveloping the region in the darkness of a total solar eclipse. The Great American Eclipse's totality phase will be longer in this rural Midwestern town than nearly anywhere else in the nation.
Southern Illinois University’s Saluki Stadium, the primary viewing location in town, will pack in 15,000 locals, visitors, scientists and students to watch the rare astronomical event unfold. Still more eclipse enthusiasts will spill out onto sidewalks, congregating in the downtown square, outside of city hall, and everywhere in between.
“This is the biggest event we’ve ever done,” SIU physics professor Bob Baer said. “It’s bigger than homecoming.”
Adding to the excitement is the fact that this won't be Carbondale's last eclipse. Seven years from now, on April 8, 2024, a second total solar eclipse will be visible again over the area — an extremely unusual happening that has inspired Carbondale residents to dub their town the “Solar Eclipse Crossroads of America.”
“Mother nature dropped this right in our lap,” Mayor John “Mike” Henry said. “There isn’t anything else we could possibly do to bring this many folks to Carbondale.”
The mayor’s office is closing schools on Monday to free up local parking. Churches are being converted into cooling stations. Locals are opening up their homes to outside visitors. "We’re thinking of it as [a Southern Illinois University] family weekend on steroids,” said longtime Carbondale resident Roxanne Conley, 58, who manages a screen-printing business in town and is vice president of Carbondale's tourism bureau.
More visitors also means additional revenue for local businesses. “As most of rural America is experiencing, our economy is struggling,” says the town’s economic development director, Steven Mitchell. He predicts that an influx of 50,000 outsiders could bring in $8 million for Carbondale’s private sector.
Despite the town's eclipse-day preparations, there are still a handful of factors that are out of anybody's control. “Internet and wireless service will probably stall,” said Henry, “but we’ll do the best that we can with that.”
The biggest uncertainty, perhaps, is the number of people coming to observe the eclipse. Initially, NASA estimated that 50,000 to 90,000 people would descend on Carbondale this weekend.
State police now predict that upwards of 120,000 people could flock to Carbondale.
In response, city leaders have encouraged locals to treat the eclipse as though it were an impending natural disaster, which means stocking up on groceries, filling prescriptions, and loading up cars with a full tank of gas in advance.
But in reality there’s only so much the town can prepare for, said Randy Johnson, 58, who owns Carbondale's 710 Book Store . “At some point you just have to get out of the way and let it happen.”
And no matter what, it will definitely happen. And then, in 2024, it will happen yet again.
“This is just our practice run,” Conley said. “Come back in seven years and we’ll have it figured out.”