Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Yerkes Observatory Dedication -- October 21, 1897

October 21, 1897 -- Dedication Ceremony for the Yerkes Observatory
(cr.rps.gov)
Attention turned to Williams Bay, Wisconsin on this date, October 21, when a crowd gathered for the ceremony that would dedicate the University of Chicago’s great Yerkes Observatory, featuring the largest refracting telescope that would ever exist.  It was a day of speeches, glorifying both the telescope in its Beaux Arts observatory and the man who made the whole thing possible, Charles Tyson Yerkes.

As is so often the case when the history of Chicago is examined, the story of the observatory is a fascinating study in conflicting impulses that drive people to leave their mark on history and the battle of good and evil that can both canonize and condemn individuals whose reach may sometimes exceed their grasp.  Charles Tyson Yerkes was nowhere near a saint, but the sins of which he was accused ultimately eliminated much of the chaos of Chicago’s surface transit lines and gave a great observatory to the world.

William Rainey Harper
This story begins in July of 1892 when the president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, invited a young astronomer, George Hale, to join the faculty at the university.  It was a good move for Harper . . . with the 24-year-old came an observatory the young man’s father had built at 4545 Drexel Boulevard and a promise to raise $250,000 in cash within three years to build a bigger observatory.  Young George was, as part of the deal, to be named as the director of that new observatory.

By September the lens of history begins to sharpen George Hale’s ambitions when he learns there are two 42-inch optically perfect lenses that are sitting useless as a result of a deal that fell through.  That deal, brokered by the University of Chicago, had at its heart the construction of the world’s largest observatory in the world atop California’s Mount Wilson.  [atro.uchicago.edu.]

The trick was to find a way to cough up 16,000 bucks to get the things out of hock.  A willing benefactor turned up in October as Hale and Harper drop in on Charles Tyson Yerkes at his office at 444 North Clark Street on October 4, just three days after the university officially opened its doors.  [Franch, John.  Robber Baron:  The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes.  University of Illinois Press:  2006]

Promising that the telescope would be the largest in the world and that, with a little luck, it might even be ready in time to be displayed at the great World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the two men convinced Yerkes to foot the bill.

Charles Tyson Yerkes
“Gentlemen, go ahead and build the finest telescope on earth and let it be equipped with everything that is needed to make it the best,” Yerkes is supposed to have said.  “When you have it all finished send the bill to me and I will pay it.  Never mind the question of cost.”

Unfortunately, a sum was mentioned in the meeting on Clark Street – somewhere around $60,000 for the telescope and the frame on which it would be mounted.  You can’t blame Yerkes (and he can be blamed for a lot) for figuring that was the figure that he would eventually owe.  Perhaps, more unfortunate was that there was no mention in the meeting of the building that would eventually be needed to house the massive piece of apparatus.

The question of the building become a good-sized problem by January of 1893 when Harper received a letter stating that without knowledge of the final site for which the telescope was intended, the piece could not be finished in time for display at the fair. With time sliding past, a site just outside Lake Geneva, Wisconsin was chosen after a group considered candidates from Highland Park to Peoria.  

You can imagine Mr. Yerkes’s reaction.  Facing significant criticism in Chicago because of his heavy-handed – some might say less than legal – methods of doing business, the railroad magnate was probably hoping the telescope would deflect a galaxy of criticism and underscore the magnificent generosity of a gift that placed Chicago second-to-none in the world of astronomy.  But the great observatory would be sited in farm country, 80 miles north of the city, and it would take a significant amount of effort to get there to hold the grandiosity of the railroad baron's gift.

Construction of the dome of the Yerkes Conservatory
(atlasobscura.com)
In any event, the great telescope was somehow completed for display at the Great Fair.  It was massive.  Mounted on a base that stood 43 feet high and weighed 50 tons, the six-ton telescope towered above fairgoers in the Manufactures Building.

Even before the telescope was finished, though, the relationship between William Rainey Harper and Yerkes began to deteriorate.  Yerkes had certain goals for his traction empire and was willing to do almost anything to achieve them while Harper, as a prominent member of the Civic Federation, was complicit in efforts by that group to curb corruption in the rapidly growing city.  Ultimately, though, Yerkes wrote checks for $285,000 to cover the cost of the greatest observatory in the world.

Despite the animosity, though, by  October 21, 1897 the observatory was ready for dedication.  With a design by Henry Ives Cobb, who had done so much work at the new University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park (you might also want to check out the Chicago Athletic Association Building on Michigan Avenue, the Newberry Library at Clark and Walton, and many of the pre-1900 buildings at Lake Forest College), the observatory had all of the classical touches that would have appealed to Yerkes’s personal desire to impress all who beheld it.

Two trains carried over 700 people from Chicago to the ceremonies, which began with “the august company of the college fathers,” entering the observatory dome room in a long procession.  Over 50 astronomers filed in along with distinguished guests from around the country.  Last in line were President William Rainey Harper and Charles Yerkes.

A quartet played Tschaikowsky’s Andante, at which The Tribune observed, “The acoustic properties of the dome room were not all that could be wished for appreciating the performance of the quartet, but it was pleasing, nevertheless, and was roundly applauded.”  [Chicago Tribune, October 22, 1897]

Details of John D. Rockefeller and
William Rainey Harper in the Beaux Art
stylings of Henry Ives Cobb
 
After a rousing lecture, The Importance of Astophysical Research and the Relation of Astrophysics to Other Physical Sciences, President Harper rose to accept the gift of the observatory and to recount the struggles it took to create the observatory and the reasons for choosing Williams Bay as the site for the telescope, disclosing that 26 different locations were considered before the choice was made.

Then, turning to the man who had made it all possible, President Harper said, “We realize that you have greatly increased the glory of the university by furnishing an equipment which makes it possible to discover new and important facts in the structure of the universe . . . that you have honored the City of Chicago, the Northwest, the entire Valley of the Mississippi, by planting in its midst an institution which through the centuries will contribute to the uplifting of men and the upbuilding of character.  We appreciate above all the simplicity and the sincerity of the motive which prompted you make this gift and the purpose which has controlled you throughout these years during which the gift has taken tangible form.”

Charles Tyson Yerkes listened.  He probably had a lot to say, but he did not speak.

The Yerkes Observatory is still in operation at its original location.  You can learn more about it here.

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