Oakland's Observatory

The original Oakland Observatory in the 1880’s,
at Lafayette Square in Oakland. Credit: Chabot Space
& Science Center archives.
This year marks an anniversary for the astronomical heritage of Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area: Chabot Observatory turns 125!

Originally established as the Oakland Observatory in 1883, the facility was a unique creature from the very beginning. Conceived by then Oakland Public Schools Superintendent Jewett Gilson, who was inspired by a school observatory he saw in Philadelphia, the observatory was created for use by Oakland schools and the general public at large.

Gilson looked for, and eventually found, a donor to fund the observatory project: Anthony Chabot, a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist who made his fortune building municipal water systems in the Bay Area-- including Lake Temescal and Lake Chabot. Anthony Chabot stipulated as part of his original $3,000 gift that the telescope shall forever be available for public observation at not cost-- a tradition that continues today.

Chabot didn't want the observatory to be named for him, so in its earliest years it was called the Oakland Observatory. The public, as the story goes, insisted on calling it Chabot Observatory in gratitude for the gift-- and eventually the name was made official.

The original location for the observatory and its 8-inch Alvan Clarke and Sons telescope ("Leah") was close to downtown Oakland in Lafayette Square-- which today remains a square block of parkland, at 10th and 11th Streets and Martin Luther King Junior Way and Jefferson Street. In those days, 10 or so visitors on any given night would climb the tower-like structure to the telescope dome and peer at the heavens through the high quality instrument. Reservations had to be made in advance-- sometimes as long as a month or two.

Sponsored

As Oakland grew, and particularly as it converted its street lighting from gas-powered lamps to electric lights, the necessity of moving the observatory to a darker spot grew. The observatory’s first director, Charles Burckhalter (who is said to have been the first person in Oakland with an astronomical telescope, set up in a backyard observatory at his home on Chester Street), arranged for the relocation. A number of different sites were considered-- including a spot near Redwood Peak, the current location of the observatory-- but a small hill next to the Mills College campus was finally adopted.

In 1915, Chabot Observatory opened at its new site, along with a new 20-inch Warner and Swasey telescope ("Rachel"), and continued to wow the public with the astronomical vistas it conveyed. In 1923 the directorship passed to Earle Linsley, a Mills College professor, who expanded the reach of the observatory to the public through outreach to schools and the establishment of an amateur astronomy group (today the Eastbay Astronomical Society).

Having visited this Chabot Observatory as a child in the 1960s, I now appreciate how long and distinguished a career those two telescopes spanned. At the time, I had no idea that Leah, even in 1968, was 85 years old-older than my grandparents! Then the observatory was run by the beloved Kingsley Wightman -- "Mr. Science" to a generation or two.

It took the moving Earth to relocate the observatory a second time-- literally. Because of Chabot Observatory’s location almost directly on top of the Hayward Fault, and the fact that the aging buildings were not quake-- safe in the first place, another site had to be found: the present location of Chabot Space & Science Center, adjacent to Redwood Peak.

Happy 125th to Oakland’s special connection with the stars!

Benjamin Burress is a staff astronomer at The Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA.