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  • Texas | Columns | Bob Bowman's East Texas

    An Orphan’s Gift
    McDonald Observatory

    by Bob Bowman
    Bob Bowman
    Standing 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.
    McDonald Observatory
    View from Fort Davis, TX looking NE toward Mt Locke during a fast moving storm
    Photo courtesy Coyne Gibson, February 12, 2013
    William 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 law.

    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 skies.


    Ironically, 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.

    The 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.


    © Bob Bowman November 29, 2004 Column
    More Bob Bowman's East Texas >
    A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
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    (Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 50 books about East Texas history and folklore. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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