atop Mount Locke in the Big
Bend area, McDonald Observatory is far removed from East
Texas, but without the interest and generosity of an orphaned Confederate
soldier from Clarksville,
the world-famous astronomy center might not exist today.|
from Fort Davis, TX
looking NE toward Mt Locke during a fast moving storm|
courtesy Coyne Gibson, February 12, 2013
McDonald, a bachelor lawyer and banker, lived frugally and had little interest
in charities, religion or public affairs, but he owned a small telescope to look
at the distant stars and planets. |
Born in 1844 on a farm near Howland,
a small railroad stop in southern Lamar County, McDonald and his two brothers
were orphaned at an early age and attended McKenzie College under the guardianship
of Rev. John McKenzie.
When the Civil War erupted, McDonald left college
to join the Confederate Army. He came home after the war ended, finished his schooling
in 1867 and taught school and worked as a printer for three years while studying
He opened a law office at Clarksville,
the seat of Red River County, and was soon regarded as one of the best civil lawyers
in Northeast Texas. He also began
lending money to friends and became the president of early banks in Clarksville,
Cooper and Paris. When he opened his Paris
bank in 1887, he moved there.
Even with his wealth, McDonald lived modestly.
His single indulgence was traveling across the U.S. and to Europe and Mexico.
In addition to astronomy, he studied zoology and geology and spent two summers
honing his understanding of botany at Harvard University. He read science books
with the skills of a seasoned scientist.
McDonald never married and when
he died at Paris, Texas, he left an estate
of more than a million dollars, most of which he bequeathed to the University
of Texas “to build an observatory and promote the study of astronomy, ” a reflection
of his lifelong interest.
Although some of McDonald’s heirs contested
his will, the university eventually made an out-of-court settlement of $800,000
with which to build an observatory atop Mount Locke near Fort
Davis. The site was chosen because of its high ratio of clear nights, its
6,800-foot altitude and a low latitude that permits the observation of southern
McDonald’s observatory was operated for the first twenty-five years by astronomers
from the University of Chicago, which had an astronomy department but lacked an
observatory. The University of Texas, on the other hand, had a first-class observatory,
but no astronomy department.
Today, the University of Texas has both
and McDonald’s observatory is one of the most famous universe-watching facilities
in the world. Until 1948, its 82-inch telescope was the second largest in the
world. Discoveries atop Mount Locke have included interstellar polarization and
the satellites of several planets.
In addition to the original observatory
built with McDonald’s 1926 bequeath, two other observatories now stand on the
mountain, including one with the world’s largest telescope mirror.
difference between Mount Locke’s telescopes and William McDonald’s small telescope
he used in the early 1900s are as great as the terrains of the Big
Bend and East Texas, but the old
Paris bachelor’s interest in the heavens
has made the distance seem a little closer.
November 29, 2004 Column
Bob Bowman's East Texas
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
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