It wasn't totality, but it was close. 

Billings residents came out late Monday morning, craning their necks to see the most significant solar eclipse in the area in almost four decades.

At about 10:20 a.m., the moon began to creep in front of the sun. Hundreds showed up to the east lawn at Montana State University Billings, where the science department set up a telescope that allowed a closer view of the solar system's star, sunspots and all.

Others peered through specialized paper glasses, which the university handed out until there were none left.

James Barron, MSUB professor of evolutionary biological and physical sciences, answered questions and gave tips to eclipse watchers. For those without the glasses, he suggested using tree shadows as natural pinhole viewers.

"A tree will act like a million little pinhole cameras, projecting light onto the ground," he said.

Mostly he gave general information, like when the sun would be most covered (about 11:39 a.m.) and how long it would last (about two minutes). 

Others had other information about the eclipse. Lynnette McDonald said that she heard the temperature drops 15 degrees and the roosters crow. She wasn't sure about those claims but came out to MSUB anyway. She said she waited an hour for a pair of viewing glasses.

The last total solar eclipse hit Montana in 1979. McDonald said she saw it from Lewistown, and while the eclipse was a brief affair, the gathering was its own attraction.

"It's so quick," she said. "The excitement really is all of the people."

The Rims along Billings were lined with open rear hatches and tailgates. People sat on hoods or in rows of seats. More than one group brought out welding helmets to look skyward. Hundreds of cars lined the sandstone cliffs overlooking the Magic City. 

In a parking lot on the north side of East Airport Road sat the Stubbs family in the back of their F-150. Parents Laura and Milton Stubbs brought out their children Camila, 6; Milton, Jr., 5; and Mariely, 2, for the event.

"It hasn't happened in a long time," Milton Stubbs said. So they decided to bring out the family.

Laura Stubbs said they heard about the eclipse at an astronomy museum earlier this year. They'd already secured some viewing glasses, enough so that Laura Stubbs could share a pair with people outside another car.

Shortly after 11 a.m., Camila Stubbs peered up through the glasses and reported that the sun looked to be about half-covered.

By 11:30 a.m., it felt noticeably cooler outside. It wasn't 15 degrees cooler, like McDonald had heard. The National Weather Service in Billings recorded a two-degree drop from 10:53 a.m. to 11:53 a.m.

It was also a gathering event for the Pickens family of Billings. They started planning more than a month ago when Sarelle, 13, got eclipse glasses from a program at the Billings Public Library. The family converged atop the Rims at 11 a.m., right above Rocky Mountain College. In addition to their family dog, Bentley, they grabbed sandwiches from Jimmy John's. Bentley seemed more interested in the remnants of a sandwich and grabbed a few scraps as his family looked skyward. 

Father Cory wore a "Sun" Records shirt.

A little farther down the Rims, groups gathered to look up. 

Tyler Stephens, 20, of Billings tried ordering some eclipse glasses online, but couldn't get them delivered until Tuesday. Searching for ideas, he found the night lightbulbs from his lizard's cage. The dark UV glass worked as a perfect shield to the sun's still intense light.

"See, a life hack," Stephens said. "It's definitely the cheapest."

When the peak eclipse time arrived, it wasn't the total sun coverage found in the "path of totality," which brought die-hard viewers down to Wyoming. 

Just a sliver of sunshine gave light to the Earth, as viewed from Billings. People honked their horns. Minutes later, they pulled out of the parking lot to get on with their Monday.

The next total solar eclipse viewable from the United States comes in 2024.

Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick contributed to this report. 

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