Brownsville connection to Allegheny Observatory

img_9823I’ve lived in the Pittsburgh area for nearly 30 years, and, though I’ve visited many of the area attractions and landmarks, I’d overlooked and missed the Allegheny Observatory. Somehow, it slipped off my radar until a visit to Brownsville reminded me that John Brashear, one of the observatory’s early directors, was from that Mon River town.

Surfing the site’s website on the Internet, I discovered that public tours of the observatory are offered twice a week, on Thursday and Friday evenings, April through the end of October. A quick phone call later, I made a reservation for one of the public tours.

Located in Riverview Park just four miles north of Downtown Pittsburgh, the observatory is actually a part of the University of Pittsburgh, located eight miles away in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. My 8 p.m. Thursday evening tour took me to a part of the city I’d never before visited, and I was impressed by the large size of Riverview Park and the attractiveness of the surrounding neighborhood.

The observatory dates back to February 15, 1859 when a group of prominent industrialists formed the Allegheny Telescope Association (ATA). The group got interested in astronomy the previous year with the arrival of the Great Comet of 1858, also known as Donati’s Comet. The bright object, the first comet ever to be photographed, got the attention of the world, so much so that sales of telescopes and binoculars skyrocketed worldwide.

The ATA joined in on the astronomical craze, purchased a 13-inch refracting telescope and made its first skyward gaze with the new instrument on November 27, 1861. From the start the group decided to use the telescope for entertaining its members and for public education rather than for research.

By 1867, interest among the members had waned, and the group decided to donate the facility to the Western University of Pennsylvania, now the University of Pittsburgh. Following the appointment of Samuel Pierpont Langley as its first director, the observatory began studying sun spots. Langley also used a new transit telescope to accurately measure time and began servicing, for a fee, railroads who were in desperate need for uniform time over the web of rails that then crisscrossed the nation.

At noon on November 18, 1883, the first day railroad standard time took effect in North America, the observatory sent a telegraph signal to railroads across the continent, which synchronized their schedules to the signal.

Langley also experimented with heavier-than-air craft on the grounds in front of the first observatory, built ¾ of a mile down the hill from the current observatory in Riverview Park. After assuming the post of secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in 1888, Langley continued his aviation work in the nation’s capital.

His renown in scientific circles eventually led to naming numerous structures and places after him both in Pittsburgh and the capital region. Today, a hall at the University of Pittsburgh and a Pittsburgh high school as well as a mountain in the Sierra Nevada and an Air Force base in Virginia all bear his name.

On my tour of the observatory, which began with a detailed talk by Eric Canali in the lecture hall, the audience learned about other scientific giants who served as observatory director. These included James Keeler, whose observations of the rings of Saturn proved they were particulate rather than solid, as was believed at that time, and John Brashear, whose company made the lenses for two of the observatory’s main telescopes.

Following the lecture, we were led to a rotunda where bronze statue of the seated Brashear is sited next to a large stained glass window of Urania, the muse of astronomy. The flight up a steep set of stairs led to a space under the site’s largest dome, dominated by a Thaw 30-inch refractor. Forty-seven feet long with a moving mass of 8,000 pounds, the Thaw was designed and built by the Brashear Company for photographic use. From its start in 1914, the observatory photographic program has amassed more than 110,000 exposures on glass plates, making it one of the oldest and largest collections of its kind in the world.

Under the dome, Canali demonstrated how the telescope is moved to focus on a particular object in the cosmos. Surprisingly, the floor underneath the telescope also conveniently lowers and rises mechanically, a demonstration of which is included on the tour. I won’t spoil your tour experience by giving you the answer why the floor moves upward and down.

Further on, after entering the smallest dome, tour-goers get a look at the 13-inch Fitz-Clark Refractor, constructed in 1861.One interesting anecdote heard on the tour is the story of the theft of the telescope lens, held for ransom by the perpetrator in 1872. Langley refused to pay the blackmail money, and the identity of the lens-napper has never been discovered. The lens however, was recovered from a waste paper basket in a hotel in Beaver Falls.

Scratched and useless, the lens was reground, and, when reinstalled, proved to have better clarity than the original. On clear nights, tour-takers get to see whatever celestial objects are in range of the telescope.

The tour ends on an eerie note in the basement crypt where the ashes of James Keeler and John Brashear and his wife, Phoebe, are interned under the pier of one of the telescopes Brashear’s company produced.

The cornerstone for the current tan brick and white terra cotta observatory complex was laid in 1900, and the building was completed in 1912. Current research work is focusing on detection of extrasolar planets using photometry to measure the brightness of stars as a way to discover orbiting planets.

The Allegheny Observatory is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Pennsylvania state and Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation historic landmark.

Tours of the Observatory, located at 159 Riverview Avenue in Pittsburgh, are offered at 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays from April through late October. The tours are free of charge, but reservations are required by phoning 412-321-2400 between 1 and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Every third Friday of the month (except December) the Observatory offers a public lecture beginning at 7 p.m. with free refreshments. The one-hour long lectures begin at 7:30 p.m., followed by a tour. For more information, phone 412-321-2400 or visit website

Story by Dave Zuchowski for Pennsylvania Bridges