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Yerkes Observatory in Walworth County opens again for tours

Posted at 3:01 PM, Jul 07, 2022

WILLIAMS BAY, Wis. — One of the most important observatories in history is back open, and it's just a few hundred yards away from Geneva Lake.

The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay was home to the largest telescope in the world when it was finished in 1897. It is responsible for some incredible discoveries like the discovery of the shape of the Milky Way galaxy. Famous astronomers and astrophysicists like Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble, who the Hubble Telescope is named after, did some of their most influential work next to Geneva Lake. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekar won a Nobel prize in 1983 for his research at Yerkes. Albert Einstein even visited the observatory.

yerkes Observatory
A photo of Mars captured by the telescope at Yerkes Observatory in 1909.

"Because these telescopes in here took the first pictures of deep space that the world would see in magazines and newspapers, that put this place on the map," Walt Chadick, the director of programs and external affairs with Yerkes Observatory, said.

For the past five years, Yerkes Observatory was just a shadow of what it once was. The University of Chicago owned the observatory. The school shut down operations Oct. 1, 2018. For three years the building was dormant. Then in 2020, remodeling of the historic building began. Now, the doors are back open to the public.

Chadick and his small team, which includes famous scientist Dr. Amanda Bauer, hope to remind Wisconsinites just how important the state was to the progression of astronomy and astrophysics.

"First astrophysics school in the U.S., so it was a thorough school here. It has dorm rooms. It has five dark rooms. We're talking about the burgeoning astrophotography movement," Chadick said.

There are three telescopes at the observatory. The world's largest refractor telescope (which was at one point the largest telescope in the world) and two smaller reflecting telescopes. All of those are operational; however, more restoration needs to happen to the structures that house the telescopes. Chadick said that he expects people will be able to look through the telescopes in the fall of 2022.

Yerkes Observatory
When this refracting telescope was built in 1897, it was the largest telescope in the world. Now, it is covered by tarps to keep it clean while masonry work is done on the dome.

Right now, you can go on a tour of the main telescope room, various exhibit halls, two libraries, and more. Tours are offered four times a day five days a week.

Chadick and his team also hope to turn the observatory into a multi-purpose facility with botanical gardens, art exhibits, and telescope time for graduate students. Yerkes Observatory will still be a research institution, but it will just serve a different purpose.

When the telescope was built in 1897, it was the pinnacle of telescopic achievements. A few things dropped Yerkes from its throne, though. First, only about half the days in a year have a clear sky in Wisconsin. That's an obvious issue for an observatory. Second, Yerkes is almost a suburban facility. It's in the middle of a triangle surrounded by Milwaukee, Chicago, and Madison. When it was first built, the light pollution wasn't an issue. But as those cities developed and grew, the light pollution spread.

Furthermore, subsequent observatories weren't built in low-laying lands. They were built on top of mountains in climates that don't experience clouds as often. Beyond that, telescopes like the Hubble and the James Webb were literally sent to space.

Yerkes Observatory
Scientists like Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble worked at the observatory. Even Albert Einstein came to Williams Bay.

However, none of that should take away from this observatory. Plus, it's an architectural masterpiece and the landscape was designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, the famous park designer who helped create Lake Park, Washington Park, and Riverside Park in Milwaukee. He also designed Central Park in New York City.

Finally, the observatory is no longer funded or operated by the University of Chicago. Remodeling it has been a privately funded endeavor. So far, they have received $13.5 million in private donations.

"We’ve been emboldened by - all of a sudden people are taking tours, going out into the parking lot, and donating $1,000 on our website. It's happened over and over and over for the past four weeks," Chadick said.

The goal is to reach $25 million. To donate click here.

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