The calm before darkness: NC mountain town awaits eclipse and its eager observers

Lance Holland, owner of Appalachian Mercantile in Bryson City, wears an eclipse T-shirt that merchants are wearing.
Lance Holland, owner of Appalachian Mercantile in Bryson City, wears an eclipse T-shirt that merchants are wearing. bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

Twenty-four hours before mid-afternoon darkness will swallow this small mountain town of 1,500, a steady stream of solar eclipse tourists bide their time with ice cream cones and strolls down its riverfront.

Charlotte will see a partial eclipse for nearly three hours, starting at 1:12 p.m. and peaking at 2:41 p.m. Most places in North Carolina will see a partial eclipse of 90 percent totality or more.

Bryson City, though, will experience a total eclipse. As a result, accommodations here, as in most towns in the path of totality, have been sold out for weeks. So have tickets to an eclipse excursion aboard the scenic railroad that is a popular draw in the town just south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

But if there is to be a deluge of visitors, it hadn’t hit with full force Sunday.

Traffic moved steadily down Everett Street, the town’s main drag that crosses the Tuckaseegee River. But parking spots and some restaurant tables were still available shortly after noon.

“They hit yesterday about 1 o’clock,” said Lance Holland, who’s owned Appalachian Mercantile for seven years. “My gut feeling is this may be the biggest day since we’ve had this store.”

Discovery Place is selling their last shipment of 1,000 pairs of eclipse glasses at noon on Thursday. Video by John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer

Holland expects most visitors to stick around through Monday night to avoid the traffic congestion that’s been predicted following the eclipse. Meanwhile, they’re buying the special items the store stocked for the eclipse, including black and yellow origami, 3-D postcards and handmade bars of soap molded in the shape of the sun and moon.

Rennie and Nancy Gibb drove their small motorhome 700 miles from Barefoot Bay, Fla.., pulling into a friend’s driveway Saturday night with plans to stay until Tuesday. Nancy Gibb’s parents owned a cabin in the area decades ago.

“We came for the eclipse,” she said. “We had our choice of two or three places but chose this one, mainly because of the activities.”

Bryson City has planned for the event for months and put together a weekend full of activities, from live music at Riverfront Park each night to free, full-dome planetarium programs at the fire department.

Monday’s solar eclipse will be the first to cross the U.S. coast to coast since 1918. With an estimated 200 million people within a day’s drive of the 70-mile-wide path of total eclipse, the Washington Post warned that it “could bring the worst traffic jam in U.S. history.”

The New York Times reported that roads in many states were jammed by eclipse mania. Wyoming officials cautioned that the state’s population of 600,000 could double with eclipse watchers.

Groceries suitable for eclipse picnics, including “items that make you think moon and sun, like Moon Pies,” were going fast, Melissa Eads, a marketing and public relations manager for Kroger’s Nashville Division in Tennessee, told the Times.

A National Weather Service forecast for the western Carolinas on Sunday placed the likelihood of clouds Monday at about 30 to 40 percent. State transportation officials, meanwhile, have predicted hundreds of thousands of eclipse travelers through North Carolina and 2.1 million in South Carolina, through which more of its path will pass.

Traffic west on Interstate 40 and U.S. 74 to Bryson City was heavy Sunday morning but only slightly more westward than moving to the east. There was no obvious presence of Highway Patrol troopers.

“This is an unprecedented event. It has never happened before, so everyone is really just guessing, making estimates,” N.C. transportation spokesman David Uchiyama told Asheville’s Citizen-Times. “If you consider everyone who lives in North Carolina wants to see totality, they will have to come through Western North Carolina.”

The New York Times contributed.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender