BEATRICE — President Abraham Lincoln’s signature scrawled across the Homestead Act of 1862 drew 38,000 people to the national park dedicated to the federal land giveaway when the document went on display in 2012.
Those record-breaking figures at Homestead National Monument could soon be eclipsed — so to speak — by the total solar eclipse that will black out the skies on Aug. 21, potentially drawing tens of thousands of people to the Beatrice area.
Near the path of totality's center line, the total solar eclipse near Beatrice will span more than 2½ minutes.
“There’s a lot of excitement here, and the staff has been working very hard and very diligently to get the park ready,” said Superintendent Mark Engler.
What to see
Events on Eclipse Weekend begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, with storyteller Ryan Paul, who will trace "Native American Starlore," or the stories tribes told to explain the constellations.
Since Homestead has been designated an official NASA viewing site, NASA scientists will be on hand to discuss the Solar Probe Plus spacecraft set to be launched in 2018, science laboratories in space, exoplanet studies and the GLOBE Observer, a citizen-scientist initiative to track climate change.
On Eclipse Day, activities begin at 8 a.m. with music by Chris Sayre and the String Beans before “First Contact” is announced at 11:30 a.m., prompting visitors to find their preferred viewing areas.
Bill Nye “The Science Guy," the CEO of the Planetary Society, and Amy Mainzer of the PBS Kids’ show "Ready Jet Go!" will explain the phases of the eclipse before they announce “glasses on” at 1 p.m., just in time for the 1:02 p.m. beginning of totality.
NASA TV will be broadcasting live from a point near the Heritage Center throughout the day.
Hands-on activities will be available throughout the weekend at multiple sites throughout the park.
A complete list of events is available on the Homestead National Monument’s website: nps.gov/home.
Watching the eclipse
Homestead National Monument intends to open up spaces “to their maximum potential,” Engler said.
Rangers will mark areas targeted for a controlled burn this fall where astronomers can set up telescopes and visitors can stake out a spot to watch the cosmic event.
Farming demonstration areas at the Education Center on the banks of Cub Creek on the park’s west side and the Heritage Center overlooking the park’s eastern border will also be cleared and made available for visitors.
Further west along Nebraska 4, at the one-room Freeman School, Engler said astronomers bringing larger telescopes can set up.
Engler said one amateur astronomer requested enough room for his telescope that requires the viewer to scale a 12-foot ladder.
Other space closer to Nebraska 4, which cuts through the park from the southeast to the northwest, may also serve as viewing grounds, Engler said. Homestead is working with the Nebraska Department of Transportation to open those areas.
When the moon moves in front of the sun, however, and the shadow approaches at 1,500 miles per hour, Engler said Homestead plans to let the spectacle speak for itself.
"Basically, we're going to go silent with our programming during totality," he said.
Getting to the park
A free shuttle service will operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday of Eclipse Weekend between Homestead and three sites in Beatrice.
The shuttle will also operate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on “Eclipse Day."
Park visitors who plan to use the shuttle should park near the Gage County Fairgrounds at 321 Logan St.; Aunt Mary’s Café at 111 S. Eighth St.; and Jim’s Carpet at 308 Court St. and follow signs and directions to the pick-up and drop-off points.
The pick-up and drop-off sites will expand to a number of area hotels, as well as the Beatrice Municipal Airport on Monday, Engler said.
Homestead will close the Heritage Center parking lot at 6 a.m. on Eclipse Day.
Parking will be available on the gravel roads surrounding Homestead: Southwest 75th Road, Southwest 89th Road and West Hoyt Road. Signs and staff will direct vehicles to the parking areas.
Engler said Homestead will be staffed 24 hours a day for Eclipse Weekend — a first for the park in his tenure — both to accommodate extended hours and to assist visitors.
Beatrice still open
Motorists backed up on U.S. 77 driving south into town might witness another rare event: Beatrice Municipal Airport is expecting as many as 200 planes to arrive for the event from all over the country.
People who arrive a few days early have a dwindling set of options.
Hotels in Beatrice have been sold-out for months for Eclipse Weekend, but city officials won’t turn away those who don’t mind roughing it.
Camping spots with hookups at Chautauqua Park and Riverside Park, both nestled along the Big Blue River, will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.
But to accommodate an influx of people — outside estimates range wildly from 10,000 to 100,000 people expected to converge on the area — Beatrice will also open up other green space for dry camping free of charge.
"If someone wants to put a tent up in Chautauqua Park, we’re not going to chase them out,” said Tobias Tempelmeyer, city administrator. “We get to keep them in town, so that’s the win we get.”
Beatrice police and firefighters, as well as other city workers, will be posted at sites around the city of 12,500 people to answer questions and direct traffic.
Planning for the once-in-a-lifetime event lasting 2 minutes and 34 seconds began more than three years ago.
Lora Young, executive director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce, has traveled across the country promoting Beatrice's vantage point for the experience.
"It will be great weather, because that's what the Chamber of Commerce promises," she said.