A bluff south of the downtown, topped by a 95-foot metal cross, overlooks the states of Missouri and Illinois, and the convergence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
It is a great spot to look up at the sky, so the mayor, George Lane, had a flyer drawn up: “View 3 states 2 rivers and a Total Eclipse.”
Wickliffe was going to join the rolling national boomtown on Aug. 21, when millions of people are expected to pour into the 70-mile-wide path of total eclipse that runs from Oregon to South Carolina. It is a coast-to-coast ribbon composed mostly of rural areas and small cities, many having struggled to attract people and money until a fluke of lunar orbit did it for them.
And Wickliffe could use a break. A shrinking town of around 670 people and one deserted paper mill, it no longer has a police officer, a hotel or more than a couple of places to get a meal.
Lane considered all that. Then he thought again about his promotional plan. And he scrapped the flyer.
We’re just not geared up to handle this.
Wickliffe Mayor George Lane
“I kept reading more and more were coming,” he said of the crowds. “We’re just not geared up to handle this.”
There is great promise in the solar eclipse. In town after town across the U.S., on the weekend leading up to the eclipse, there will be rock concerts, lectures, wine tastings, drum circles, costume parties, art exhibitions, mini-golf tournaments and car shows. They offer opportunities for civic boosters to show off overlooked towns and opportunities for many others to make a buck.
Farmers in some states are renting camping spots in their fields for hundreds of dollars; hotel rooms have been booked for years. The new Holiday Inn in nearby Paducah was booked before it opened.
George Lane, the mayor in Wickliffe, is not going to park a fire truck across the road to keep out eclipse seekers, as he had said earlier.
But the millions flocking to see the eclipse will also mean a logistical headache, a claim on local resources in places like Wickliffe that have few resources left.
“Maybe we could have handled it,” Lane said. “But here we are not knowing if we’re going to have 20,000 people. We sit here with no city police and have to depend on the sheriff. I’ve heard estimates they'll be just lying on the street.”
State officials talk of half a million people coming to western Kentucky, where the sun, moon and earth will line up most precisely, the point of greatest eclipse. The epicenter will be 100 miles to the east, near Hopkinsville, which has been preparing for this for more than a decade.
200,000Hopkinsville’s estimate as to how many people may visit for the eclipse
Hopkinsville has called itself Eclipseville and is planning to host as many as 200,000 people, more than six times its population. City officials are expecting a $30 million economic boon — “we actually think that may be conservative at this point,” Mayor Carter Hendricks said.
Ballard County, where Wickliffe sits, has the distinction of being the first place in Kentucky to find itself in the shadow of the moon. (Nearly all of the county lies in the path of total eclipse; Wickliffe is about a mile outside). The county has a lot of experience with the whims of forces beyond its control. Most of it has not been good.
The county was prosperous once, dotted with thriving towns and flush with wealth from the tobacco fields. This was before people quit smoking, huge lawsuits were filed and the government bought out tobacco farmers. Still, hundreds were making a good living at the uranium enrichment plant outside Paducah. A Cold War relic, the plant eventually succumbed to its outdated technology and shut down in 2013.
The blow was softened by the presence of the paper mill, with hundreds of solid union jobs in the production of high-quality magazine paper. But the outlook for printed magazines is not so different from that for cigarettes.
“People don’t seem like they have the time to sit and read like they used to,” said Syl Mayolo, a former mayor of Wickliffe who, like Lane, worked at the mill for decades. The mill closed in 2015.
“It’s just devastating, some of the things that have happened to us,” Mayolo said.
Not much else is here now. Some talk of tourism: kayaking, fishing, duck hunting and goose hunting — well, duck hunting at least. The geese no longer come this far south in great numbers, since the winters have gotten warmer.
Up the road from Wickliffe, Barlow does not have a police officer or hotel either, and over the decades, it has also lost its grocery stores, gas station, appliance store, drugstore and dentist.
But Barlow, surrounded by acres of soybean and corn fields, is fully in the path of the total eclipse, and the mayor, Jo Wilfong, is not going to let that good fortune pass.
“I’m thinking 5,000 people, but that’s just off the top of my head,” Wilfong said of how many people she thinks could come.
The city is planning a big barbecue on eclipse day. Live music is lined up, and T-shirts are for sale (“I Blacked Out In Barlow, Ky”). The town, having voted to go wet in a recent referendum, will even have a beer tent, “the first alcohol event in Ballard County that is legal,” Wilfong said.
The mayor does not talk of an economic boom as they do in Hopkinsville. There are barely any businesses left in Barlow that could benefit.
Personally, I’d just as soon everybody stayed home.
Bob Middleton of Barlow, Ky.
Making money is not the aim, she said, sitting in her office in city hall, formerly a bank. “We’re just opening up this area to people who have never been here before, who might see this as a business opportunity or a place to live.”
Maybe somebody will look around, see a nice, friendly town and decide to open a convenience store. That would be the jackpot. It is not impossible to imagine. Barlow is the only town in Ballard County that is doing anything for the eclipse.
“That’s the issue around here,” Wilfong said. “They don’t want people coming in.”
The mayor was not wrong. The farmers eating lunch at the Bluegrass restaurant over in La Center thought all the talk of eclipse crowds was going to turn out to be just hype. And they were fine with that.
“Personally, I’d just as soon everybody stayed home,” said Bob Middleton, 53, picturing the back roads he travels crammed with sightseers. “An eclipse is not going to bring people a job for the next 20 years.”
Lane, the mayor in Wickliffe, is not going to park a fire truck across the road to keep out eclipse seekers, as he had said earlier. But there are still no firm plans for an eclipse event, besides the weekend of festivities over at the ancient Native American mounds. The church and the Boy Scouts will serve food there, but that event is managed by the state park, not the city.
Wickliffe might end up having something modest up on the bluff, selling soft drinks. But the city will not advertise it, not to out-of-towners.
The mayor asked somebody in the City Hall front office to find a copy of the discarded flyer. “Be in Place by 12:45 p.m.,” it read. “Spots Available First Come Basis.” “Hosted by the City of Wickliffe.”
“That’s pretty neat isn’t it?” Lane said proudly. “Maybe 10 people come, maybe 10,000. I just can’t operate like that. It’s the guessing that’s getting us.”
He thought for a moment. Then he concluded definitively: It would have been a sellout had they gone through with it.
He leaned back in his chair and looked at the flyer as if the moment it advertised had already come and gone.