In these wild few days of wildfires in our San Gabriel mountains, we’ve heard many stories. One story is the drama & importance of saving the “Historic” Mt. Wilson Observatory.
What do we mean by “historic?” Well, I’m no historian. And, where would you even begin. Let’s just start at the beginning – 1903 – when the founder George Ellery Hale began putting his astronomical dream into reality. Here are two very, very brief chapters of early Mt. Wilson’s history. What follows is per the Mt. Wilson Observatory Association (MWOA). Check out their website and consider supporting this organization if you’re interested in history, astronomy, or just a local.
The year 2004 was Mount Wilson Observatory’s 100th anniversary. Here is a small excerpt of a series of articles about that first momentous year, 1904. They are reprinted from 2003-2004 MWOA publications and are written by Bob Eklund, MWOA Executive Editor:
Mount Wilson in December 1903
I was recently talking to a man about how chilly this early winter weather seemed, and he said it took him a winter in Alaska to appreciate what we have here in Southern California. “You’ve been too long in paradise,” he said.
Turn-of-the-century refugees from the icebound East usually spoke of winter as “The Season” in Southern California. One such man, Frederick H. Rindge, wrote in an 1898 book, Happy Days in Southern California, “What think you of taking a sleigh ride on Mount Lowe in the morning, descending on a marvelous inclined railway to Pasadena, where you stop long enough to gather your pockets full of oranges off the trees, and then electrically speeding away to Santa Monica for a swim in the Ocean of Peace—and all in the same day?”
It was just at this time of year in 1903 that Mount Wilson Observatory founder George Ellery Hale left his home in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, to begin a new life in Southern California and start building his dreamed-of observatory on Mount Wilson. Helen Wright describes the event in her biography of Hale, Explorer of the Universe: “On December 20, just six months after his first visit to the mountain, he arrived in Pasadena. The sky was a brilliant blue, the sun as warm as on a summer’s day. On the station platform, he found his family waiting, dressed in summer clothes, startlingly different from the wintry garb they had worn when he had seen them off in Chicago.”
Four days later, Hale wrote to his friend H.M. Goodwin, “Here I am sitting in the shade of the porch of our cottage with the sun too hot to stay in, the birds singing around me, and the flowers so numerous that I can’t begin to tell their names. William is out in his cart, and Margaret has just run away to join him. Both are bare-headed and wear no jackets. I haven’t been here long enough to be in the least blasé, and I can’t say enough of the beauties of the place and the climate. The orange trees in the yards around us are full of fruit. One of them, so heavily loaded that it seems ready to break, is a great mass of oranges and roses, a great rose tree beside it thrusting up bunches of flowers in the midst of the fruit. I would give anything if you could be here to enjoy it all.”
By the second week of January, Hale would begin the unprecedented task of creating the world’s largest astronomical observatory on a remote mountaintop—but for now, he was content to enjoy the climate and revel in his new surroundings. As 1903 drew to a close, he and his wife Evelina spent their time touring the bustling, 17-year-old town of Pasadena, which then had 25,000 inhabitants and was reputed to be the wealthiest town of its size in the world.
Mount Wilson in June 1904
Arriving back in California from Washington and Chicago in early June 1904, George Ellery Hale made it his first order of business to meet with the directors of the Mount Wilson Toll Road Company (owners of the land atop Mount Wilson) to discuss securing a lease for the proposed Observatory.
In the words of Helen Wright, author of the Hale biography Explorer of the Universe: “On June 13, 1904, the lease was signed — in the name of George Hale; it was for ninety-nine years, free of rent. Privacy was assured — the land at the east end of the mountain was some distance from the trail’s end and from any point where an electric railroad might reach the summit.
“After this, one of the first tasks was the choice of a site for living quarters. Years before, Hale had become fascinated by Curzon’s tale about the monasteries of the Levant, perched on rocky promontories, looking out on distant peaks. He had dreamed of building such a monastery, where the male astronomers could live while observing on the mountain. (He had not forgotten the difficulties at Yerkes, or his resolve made then that, if he should ever found another observatory, the astronomers and their families would not live on the observatory grounds.)
“Soon after their arrival, therefore, he set out with Adams in search of a ‘monastery’ site. To explore the ridge they had to hack their way with small hatchets through the dense underbrush. Finally, about a quarter of a mile away, at the end of the ridge, they came out on a small opening. The ground was nearly level; on three sides the land fell away in sheer precipices, revealing a magnificent view of valleys, canyons, and distant peaks. ‘This is where we must build it,’ Hale exclaimed. So the future ‘Monastery’ was born.
“Six months later, designed by [the celebrated Southern California architect] Myron Hunt, it was finished. It had a large living room and a huge fireplace built of granite from the mountain. On a beautiful, mild still night in December, Hale, Adams, and Ellerman moved from the old Casino. They walked down the hill carrying lighted candles, and that night, sitting late around the embers of a fire, they talked of their hopes for a great observatory.”
As I said before – it would be a shame if this major piece of our history, World history, were to be lost on our generations watch.