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Chronicling a sunset on the shortest day of the year

At 4:10 p.m., half the streetlights on the High Bridge are already on when I arrive. At 4:30, the Schmidt Brewery sign turns on — three minutes before sunset.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant

4:10 p.m.
Twenty-three minutes before sunset
Half the streetlights on the High Bridge are already on when I arrive. It’s the lights on the half of the bridge nearest to the West Side. On the side by West Seventh, they’re not yet illuminated. The cars crossing already have their headlights on, though there’s still light in the sky. I was hoping to get to the bridge when all the lights come on, to be walking across by that time and poof, have all the lights flash on around me. But of course, it’s not like someone at Xcel Energy just flips a switch like Clark Griswold and every piece of illumination in the city blows up at once like a suburban Christmas light display. It happens slowly, piece by piece.

Below, along the Mississippi River, some of the lights along bridges and parkways have already come on. Way off on the horizon, to the east, the 3M building in Maplewood has also powered up for the night – the turquoise and bright red is the only daub of color on the horizon, which is light gray above and varying shades of brown below.

It’s December 21, winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. On this day there will only be eight hours and forty-six minutes of daylight. The High Bridge seems like a good place to watch night descend on the city, well before a lot of people have even left work for the day. If you work eight hours during the first shift, today you arrived in darkness and will leave in darkness.

4:15 p.m.
Eighteen minutes before sunset
The sky this time of year is a completely featureless blue-gray, like someone draped a piece of thin piece of silk gauze over the atmosphere. There are no individual clouds, or any streaks of color or light in the sky. The sun is setting to the west, but you can’t see the sun. You can’t see anything but perfectly uniform cloud cover.

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About this time, I notice the lights on the Cathedral of St. Paul have been switched on.  

4:19 p.m.
Fourteen minutes before sunset
I once had a job at the University of Minnesota Medical School walking prospective doctors who were visiting campus to their various interviews. I remember one visiting in December, from somewhere further south in the U.S. (which of course is most places). We were walking across a skyway to Moos Tower after lunch to another meeting, and shadows were already starting to fall across the floor. She looked out the window, up at the sky. “What time does the sun set this time of year?” she asked. “Two o’clock, usually,” I told her.

“Oh my god,” she said, with a look of concern on her face.

“Just kidding,” I told her.

“Oh, phew,” she said.

“Well, sort of kidding,” I said.

4:22 p.m.
Eleven minutes before sunset
The other half of the lights on the bridge come on. Not instantly, though. Most street lights in St. Paul (or anywhere else) are high-pressure sodium vapor lamps. All the lamps turn on at once, or they seem to, because of course I missed the exact moment while looking down at my phone. But the initial glow is quite dull. Over the course of a few minutes, the illumination increases slowly in strength. They seem to illuminate at the exact rate at which the sky behind them is darkening.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The sky this time of year is a completely featureless gray, like someone draped a piece of thin piece of silk gauze over the atmosphere.

4:30 p.m.
Three minutes before sunset
Finally, the Schmidt Brewery sign turns on to the west. I’d been waiting for that since I arrived. Last year, the landmark sign was reconstructed from old blueprints, and it illuminated that stretch of the Mississippi river valley for the first time in twenty years. In just the past year, I am already struck by how much I’ve come to rely on it for wayfinding around St. Paul, or at least just for orienting myself in the neighborhood. It seems like an ancient part of the landscape – already it seems indispensable.

4:33 p.m.
Fifteen more hours until sunrise.

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4:34 p.m.
Thirty-two minutes before civil dusk
The sodium vapor lights along Cherokee Avenue fizzle to life. It’s also slow, almost somnambulent in the way they seem to pop on, initially just an ember, then building to full illumination. Many of the houses and condo high rises along Cherokee haven’t yet turned on their exterior lights, and the insides of the rooms still seem to be dark. People haven’t yet arrived home from work.

4:37 p.m.
Twenty-nine minutes before civil dusk
By now, most of the lights in the office buildings along the river have turned on. It’s fun to guess who’s working late and who’s not. Does the presence of more office lights at Ecolab means all the scientists, project managers, interns and chief supply chain officers are staying later over there than they are at some of the other nearby office buildings? The old Post Office and Customs House, closed for renovations, is the only building not illuminated. The darkness across its windows looks a little eerie on the increasingly illuminated landscape.

4:39 p.m.
Twenty-seven minutes before civil dusk
The water of the Mississippi makes a transition more impressive than the sky’s. When I arrive, it’s a brown stretch of muddy water, punctuated by dots of light from the lamps that line it. That brown transforms into a lighter gray, and then into a deep blue, and finally a shimmering black surface reflecting back yellow sodium points of light back into the sky.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Most street lights in St. Paul (or anywhere else) are high-pressure sodium vapor lamps

4:40 p.m.
Twenty-six minutes before civil dusk
This is what’s known in French as l’heure bleu, “the blue hour of twilight when the sky and the earth are at the same level of luminosity,” writes Michael Bywater of that expression. It’s the favorite hour of landscape painters and impressionists. The steel gray of earlier has shifted into more of a muted blue, though there’s a lot of Payne’s Grey mixed into the cerulean blue on this particular pallette. The magic hour, as we know it in English, really only lasts about 40 minutes. It’s even less this time of year – perhaps 20 minutes.    

4:45 p.m.
Twenty-one minutes before civil dusk 
The Schmidt sign glows red to the west, and now the First National Bank “1st” glows red from the east – the enormous neon three-sided “1st” over the First National Bank Building has now switched on, rotating its message of primacy to all corners of the city. Finally, three of the most visible forces in the city’s historic economic well-bring are illuminated – beer, the Catholic Church, and banks. What about government? Alas, the Capitol remains under construction, shrouded in white plastic and unlit for the time being. As the sky grows darker, the plastic takes on a more and more sickly shade of gray, until it wholly disappears into the atmosphere.

Actually, the Capitol aside, government is represented in the illumination of the skyline. The Senate Office Building appears to have the highest level of window-by-window illumination in the skyline.

MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The light pollution from the centers of density along the river and the rest of the metro is more apparent in this light.

4:50 p.m.
Sixteen minutes before civil dusk
Minneapolis’ big three skyscrapers – the IDS, Capella Tower and, barely visible from behind it, the Wells Fargo Center – just peek up over the landscape to the northwest. There’s a little smudge of light in the sky directly overhead downtown Minneapolis. The light hasn’t completely left the atmosphere yet – the sun is still 6 to 12 degrees below the horizon – but the light pollution from the centers of density along the river and the rest of the metro is more apparent in this light. There’s a similar little thumbprint of light over downtown St. Paul.

4:55 p.m.
Eleven minutes before civil dusk 
The landscape grows indistinct – the terraced appearance of the west side of the river from this perspective, from the top of the bluffs to the bottom, begin to merge together into one dark mass. At the end of civil twilight, objects below the horizon cease to be distinguishable from one another.

5:06 p.m.
Civil dusk, beginning of nautical twilight
I walk back over the bridge. My phone dies – it won’t hold a charge in the cold – and I get lost, finally wandering into DeGidio’s Restaurant around 5:30. I order a Linguini Bolognese. Two kids in the booth behind me are shrieking to their dad, “Dad! Is this the city? Are we in the city?” 

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I leave about 6:30 and wait for the 74 bus. It’s been dark for an hour and a half. By the time I’m on the bus, it’s been dark for two hours. The landscape of Highland Park rolls by, shrouded in total darkness. By the time I get home, it feels like it’s been dark for days. It feels like it will be dark forever. 

Update: Santa brings two corrections this afternoon. 3M headquarters is in Maplewood, not Woodbury; Cherokee Avenue is the street immediately off the High Bridge, not Water Street.