GOSHEN COUNTY – Now a fond memory, the Great American Solar Eclipse is definitely one for the history books.
“It was kind of an exciting couple of days,” said Ashley Harpstreith, CEO of the Goshen County Economic Development Corp., one of the local agencies that took the lead on the months of planning for the event. With estimates in the neighborhood of 100,000 visitors coming to Goshen County to find a small patch of ground in the path of totality Monday, everyone agreed this week the event went off as well as, or better than, could be expected.
“Everything went very smoothly in Goshen County, because of advanced planning and preparation and cooperation from citizens,” said Wally Wolski, vice-chair of the Goshen County Commissioners. “We’ve heard nothing but complimentary things said from the people who visited – Goshen County is a friendly place.”
That advance planning occupied months. Community fire departments, county law enforcement and local businesses and residents banded together to prepare for an anticipated onslaught of visitors from around the world. And the preparations stretched far beyond the borders of Goshen County, involving state and federal agencies in and along the 70-mile-wide swath stretching from Oregon to North Carolina, right through the Cowboy State.
‘No surprises . . .’
“There really weren’t any surprises, other than the numbers (of people) that came in,” said Shelly Kirchhefer, emergency management coordinator for the county. “Our first estimates were between 10,000 and 20,000 people but, as traffic started to pick up (Monday), we knew those numbers were going to drastically increase.”
According to data collected by the Wyoming Department of Transportation, that juggernaut amounted to an estimated 550,000 more vehicles – some 1.5 million total – traveling Wyoming roads on Aug. 21 than have driven them at any time on that day in the past five years. And Goshen County alone saw 27,800 total vehicles on Eclipse Day Monday – 2,615 more than the previous five year average.
Doug McGee, WyDOT spokesperson, cautioned against equating cars to the number of people, noting some of those cars may have been counted multiple times.
But it’s still a mass of humanity.
Goshen County Under Sheriff Jeremy Wardell said he was home in bed early Monday when he started getting messages from other law enforcement officers stationed around the county around 4 a.m. that traffic was beginning to arrive.
“I woke up thinking, ‘Here we go,’” Wardell said. “Actually, it turned out to be kind of fun.
“Overall, I was very impressed,” Wardell said. “The people were very polite, very kind. I had fun talking to a lot of people from all over the world.”
‘Not long enough . . .’
And that’s a sentiment echoed by several residents. Responding to a request from the Telegram on Facebook, several residents shared their thoughts on the event.
“What an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for our community,” posted Denise Walker of Torrington. “So many different things to do...not only for all of our wonderful visitors, but also for the community. Thank you Torrington for all your hard work.”
Erin Carter, also of Torrington, agreed: “I loved seeing the rainbow of license plates come through the town. And although I watched the eclipse privately from my backyard, I got butterflies hearing how animated Torrington became during totality. It was a magical experience.”
And for Shanon Mahan Short of Torrington, it was all about the buildup.
“I loved the anticipation for the total eclipse and then the cheering when totality happened,” she said “It was the best thing I have experience since the birth of my kids and my wedding. Two minutes wasn’t long enough.”
Centers of activity
One of the major centers of activity was the Fort Laramie National Historic Site in western Goshen County. Eric Valencia, chief of interpretation and visitors services, said the site had planned for as many as 5,000 visitors to their version of an eclipse watch party, featuring programs on everything from the history of the region to the mechanics of an eclipse.
“We had tons of very positive comments” on social media about the event, he said.
Valencia estimated 2,500 people made it to the Fort Laramie site to actually view the eclipse. A second wave of visitors, numbering about 2,000 or so, came to the site in the afternoon, he said.
“The afternoon, after the eclipse itself and the visitation following totality, was a bit of a surprise,” Valencia said. “I’m glad to see visitors, while they were in the region, decided to come and see Fort Laramie.
“The numbers were not disappointing, we’re here for the public,” he said. “The programs were well received and the Fort shined during one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world and also shined for its own resources everybody comes to see every day.”
Even tiny Jay Em in northern Goshen County, located almost exactly on the centerline of the 70-mile wide path of totality, was a hub of activity for the eclipse. Pam Pugsley, who runs the Post Office in the town with a normal population of 16, said thousands descended on the prairie and hills around the community.
Pugsley was featured in the Aug. 4 Telegram, with a special commemorative postal cancellation stamp she designed. On eclipse day Monday, she used her stamp to cancel 1,148 envelopes for visitors wanting a memento of the day.
“Everything went really well,” Pugsley said. “Everyone cleaned up after themself. There’s not a stitch of trash around. It was amazing.”
She wasn’t working the entire time. While everyone else was otherwise occupied, she managed to sneak out of her office to view the big event herself.
“I liked it,” Pugsley said. “It was really neat.”
One of the things about the event that surprised just about everyone was an almost total lack of trouble associated with the eclipse. Despite all the extra vehicles traveling the roads state wide, calls for problems to the Wyoming Highway Patrol weren’t significantly greater, said Sgt. Kyle McKay, WHP spokesperson in Cheyenne.
There was one fatality – a motorcycle accident in the Medicine Bow area – which can be directly associated with the eclipse, McKay said.
“Last year, there were 25 accidents compared to this year, there were 100,” he said. “That is a huge increase, but with the amount of traffic on the roads, to only have 100 crashes on the highways during an event this big I think is amazing.
Any crashes we did have were just slow-speed, rear-end crashes,” McKay said. “For the most part, everyone paid attention to what was going on in front of them on the highway.”
Closer to home, there were a handful of problems in Goshen County as well. Wardell from the sheriff’s office reported two arrests in separate incidents of driving under the influence. An additional two arrest were made when people wouldn’t leave private property.
“Two people were trespassing on Tea Kettle Rock and they refused to come off the land,” Wardell said. “After the eclipse, we waited them to come down and they were arrested for criminal trespass.”
Inside Torrington, traffic was the major issue for the day, said Doug Weeks, interim chief of the Torrington Police Department.
“We’re just not set up for that kind of traffic,” Weeks said. “That made it tough.
“But those are the things you learn by doing something like this,” he said. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”
The biggest traffic problems came following the eclipse, as visitors – mostly from Colorado – tried to make their ways back home. Cars were backed up from Torrington all the way to the U.S. Hwy. 85 intersection with Interstate 25 in Cheyenne, with the normally 90-minute trip extended to six hours and more, McKay from the Highway Patrol said.
“I was surprised about the traffic congestion leaving” Goshen County,” Kirchhefer said. “But that’s to be expected with those kinds of numbers coming into the county.
“We just don’t have the infrastructure to support that kind of traffic,” she said. “But it worked out well, folks were patient enough and that’s the only way this kind of a situation can work itself out.”
It will be weeks before the financial impact of the event will be known. A variety of businesses and private residents took advantage of the flood of visitors, turning pastures into camping areas, selling everything from t-shirts to bottled water and generally making available anything and everything visitors would need.
The county should also be receiving windfall in the form of Lodging Tax revenue, which currently in Goshen County, is a 4 percent surcharge on all lodgings, as well as sales tax. People who offered rooms, camping sites or other, temporary housing are required to report and pay that tax to the state Department of Revenue within 30 days.
The full rules are included in the state’s Vendor Guide, available on the department website, revenue.wyo.gov.
Overall, city, county and state officials almost to a person were pleased with how the event turned out. This was without a doubt the largest, single-day event the state has ever seen, said Tia Troy, spokesperson for the Wyoming Office of Tourism.
“We’ll never host a World Series or a Super Bowl,” Harpstreith of the Goshen County EDC said. “This was our Super Bowl. If we ever do bring in another big, national event, we’ll know how to prepare.