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The Solar Spectacle That Is 'Chicagohenge'

Looking west in downtown Chicago on the fall equinox, Sept. 23.
David Schaper NPR
Looking west in downtown Chicago on the fall equinox, Sept. 23.

Westbound traffic on many Chicago streets came to a stop between 6:40 and 6:50 p.m. Central Time on Monday as drivers snapped pictures over dashboards, passengers with smartphones in hand leaned out of windows, and pedestrians set up tripods in the middle of some busy roadways — all so they could capture the incredible image of a burnt orange sun setting exquisitely framed by a canyon of skyscrapers.

It's known as "Chicagohenge," one of two days a year when the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment with the city's east-west streets. Chicago's street grid corresponds almost exactly with the directional points of the compass.

It happens in other cities with gridded streets, too — Manhattanhenge, for example — but Chicago is unique in that the phenomenon takes place every year on the spring and fall equinoxes.


With perfect early fall weather of partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 60s, I timed my departure from NPR's Chicago bureau on Michigan Avenue at about 6:20 p.m. CT and walked east up an incline on Randolph Street, across from the north end of Millennium Park.

Several dozen amateur (and maybe professional) photographers had already set themselves up on prime real estate in the road's median, on curbs and along a railing on an overpass above where the street separates into upper and lower levels.

But others, myself included, just dodged taxicabs, buses and Ubers and stepped into the bike line or the street to capture the spectacular moment. It's one of the rare instances I've experienced when hurried city drivers didn't seem to mind stopping for the many people moving in and out of traffic as they stared into a blinding orange glare.

In the same way our Washington, D.C., colleagues attach the word "gate" to designate the scandal du jour, Chicagohenge gets its name from Stonehenge, the monument of massive rocks in England that scientists believe was erected more than 4,000 years ago. On certain dates, the rising and setting sun lines up with the stones, leading some to suggest that Stonehenge could have been built by early astronomers.

The next date to catch Chicagohenge is when the weather is almost certain to be less enjoyable: March 19, 2020.


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