NOTES ON THE OBSERVATORY: Like light from the stars, DU astronomer's diaries travel thru time to illuminate the present... REPRINTED from The Rocky Mountain News (Oct.4, 1998 p.44-45, by John Enslan, staff writer -- with permission. (with some corrections provided by H.J.Howe, Nov.1998): Introduction-- Under the light of a recent half-moon, the lawn at the Chamberlin Observatory was crowded with celestial sightseers adjusting their telescopes for a view of Jupiter and its moons, Io and Calisto. Inside the observatory, they waited two by two to climb the wooden steps to use the 300-inch-focal length telescope that pokes out of the cast-iron dome. Few knew of the struggle and sacrifice more than a century ago to build the observatory for the University of Denver. However, a set of old leather-bound diaries has shed light on the observatory's origins in the late 1880s. The diaries tell the story of a young astronomer's dream and how that dream was nearly lost. "The vision of an observatory still floats enchantingly through my brain," Herbert Alonzo Howe wrote on March 8, 1888. "I am coming almost to consider it as a fixed fact." But it was far from fixed. Howe was 29 years old. His next six years would be consumed with building the Chamberlin Observatory. Howe's long-forgotten journals were discovered two years ago in an attic in upstate New York. His third grandchild, Herbert Julian Howe, donated the diaries in July to the university's Penrose Library. "The diaries are valuable on many levels. It's an insight into the early university's daily life," said Robert Stencel, DU's astronomer. The diaries also give a glimpse of Denver as a young city, when it had just 125,000 residents. The late 1880s were a boom period for city real estate, though utilities had not quite kept up. When Howe built his home in University Park a few years later, he had no running water or electricity. He had to carry water home each day. Today, the observatory is an antique, a creaky yet elegant structure built in a style known as Richardson Romanesque. With its 40-foot-diameter iron dome, it is virtually unchanged since its completion in 1894. It remains the graceful centerpiece of Observatory Park and the neighborhood that grew up around it. A royal heart-- The observatory's story began on Feb. 7, 1888, when Howe was called into his boss's office after daily chapel services at the Methodist university. Chancellor David Moore explained to his young astronomy professor that an anonymous benefactor had offered to build and equip an observatory for the school. The benefactor was Humphrey Barker Chamberlin, a real estate tycoon who made millions traveling the country selling land in Colorado. "A royal-hearted Christian man," wrote Howe, who had left a Cincinnati campus that had an observatory to teach mathemetics and astronomy at DU. On June 13, 1888, the skies were lowering and a wet wind blew as Howe and a group of dignitaries took a train ride to University Park for a ground-breaking ceremony. At the time, the DU campus was at 14th and Arapahoe streets. Howe joined the others in making short speeches and pitching a shovelful or two of dirt. "I was carried away with enthusiasm and on that account, made a better speech than otherwise," he reported. The original proposed site was in an area known as Simpson's Grove. But after surveying the area, Howe decided it was not large enough. He picked another location in an area whose boundaries now include East Warren Avenue and South Fillmore Street. Chamberlin and other university officials agreed to the change, but Bishop Henry W. Warren resisted. Warren, the university's religious leader, wanted a site closer to his home. Howe dug in his heels, insisting that vibrations from traffic made that site a poor choice. As a test, he poured a bit of mercury on the ground and watched it quiver as horse-drawn wagons passed by. "We had quite a discussion," Howe wrote of this talk with the bishop. "I thought he got a little worked up at one time, but he cooled off speedily." The two men agreed on a site, a university-owned tract along Warren Avenue, with the bishop having final say on the exact location. Meanwhile, Chamberlin found a contractor who agreed to take three-quarters pay in university land in southeast Denver in exchange for building the observatory. That breakthrough left Howe ecstatic. "I walked home treading on stars," he wrote. The actual groundbreaking-- The days and months that followed were filled with construction details as the observatory began to take shape. Paying for expenses out of his own pocket (Chamberlin would later reimburse him), Howe toured observatories in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin before visiting the Boston office of Alvan Clark, the man chosen to grind the lenses for the telescope. "Saw our glass which is beautiful, almost perfect and very transparent," Howe wrote. On Thanksgiving 1889, the actual groundbreaking took place. The excavator arrived with two teams of men and drew a circle 40 feet in diameter on the ground where the dome was to be built. The professor's young son, Julian, lifted a little coal pick and garden trowel and tossed a bit of dirt. His father did likewise. Then the work crews began to dig. Six days earlier, Howe had noted his birthday in his diary. He was 31. Of the observatory, he wrote, "It won't be long before my work is done." He had no idea how far off he was. Three Thanksgivings later, work on the observatory building was complete. But inside was an empty shell. On October 13, 1891, workmen lowered the cast-iron, bell-bottomed pillar that was to serve as the telescope base. It weighed 4,300 pounds and had to be hoisted and shoe-horned through the aperture in the dome to the wooden floor of the second-story observatory room. Howe, who weighed about 130 pounds, came directly from his class on analytical geometry that afternoon to help the men hoist the pillar. The crew chief ignored the professor's advice, and for one heart-stopping moment, the pillar "got away," Howe wrote. Swinging like a pendulum, it smashed the scaffolding and clanged onto the wooden floor without crashing through. "We finally got it into place," Howe wrote, "much to our relief," Not much happened at the observatory over the next 18 months. Electricity arrived and Howe had the observatory wired so that his wife could buzz him from their nearby home. But still no telescope. The silver panic-- By the spring of 1893, a worldwide financial panic and economic depression threatened not just the observatory, but the university itself. Sensing weakness in an American economy, foreign investors began withdrawing capital. Railroads went bankrupt. The stock market tumbled. Banks verged on failure. In May, Howe and his family traveled to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition on the shores of Lake Michigan. It marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus=92 landing in America. Howe manned an exhibit by George Saegmuller, the Washington, D.C. manufacturer who was to craft the observatory's refracting telescope. While touring the fair, Howe witnessed a fire in a cold-storage warehouse. Fireman were battling the blaze when the tower they were in collapsed. Several died. Another tragedy followed, this one for Howe. In the evening paper that same day. Howe read that the Chamberlin Investment Co., his benefactor=92s company, had failed. Howe's grandfather wrote from Denver that Chamberlin was trying to make the observatory secure, but that he might not be able to. The Howes remained in Chicago through the end of the fair. When they returned to Denver, Howe found a letter from Saegmuller, thanking the professor for his work at the exhibit. Saegmuller added that he would finish work on the telescope, but that he needed ready cash. The payment would have to be cash, not land. Howe jotted in his diary, "So my heart is to be broken at last, is it?" The darkest hour-- On Thanksgiving 1893, four years had passed since the workmen began digging at the site. The empty dome, one of the few structures in that part of town, still lacked a telescope. Still, Howe managed to put in about 11 hours of work on the observatory that Thanksgiving, crossing the muddy field on the planks he had laid between his house and the dome. Part of that time was spent talking over the situation with Warren. "He sympathizes, but said we must save the university first." The situation was dire. The Silver Crash that spring had dried up the value of the university's main asset, some 80 acres that had been donated to DU by a potato grower. The university was land rich but cash poor. Several professors, including Howe, kept on teaching even though the university was three months behind on their pay. Howe, like others on the faculty, had been given land on which to build his home. And Howe had new responsibilities: He was now dean of the school of liberal arts, and on Nov. 6, his wife gave birth to their third child. At least the couple had been able to make the final payment on their graceful home, which is still there today. Chamberlin, who once sold $1.8 million in Denver real estate in a single cross-country trip, was financially strapped. He could no longer aid the project. In fact, he wanted to send the telescope to Arizona when it was finished. He hoped to rent it to another university there. And Saegmuller, who was to build the observatory's 20-inch-diameter telescope, wanted $5,000 in cash, not worthless Denver lots. In this darkest hour, Howe and the bishop came up with a plan. First, Howe got the telescope maker to make design changes that brought the price down from $5,000 to $3,000. The school's new chancellor, William F. McDowell, proposed that the money be borrowed for two years. McDowell pledged to raise the money through fees for speeches, and Howe figured he could make money by charging the public for viewing the stars at 50 cents a head. Bishop Warren pledged to kick in $1,000. By the spring, though, the plan narrowed down to one man: Howe would borrow $3,000 to pay for the telescope. At the time, his annual salary was $2,000. As a result of the discounted price, Saegmuller couldn't afford to send anyone to Colorado to help Howe assemble the telescope. If the professor wanted to know how to put it together, he had best come to Washington to see it taken apart for shipping, Saegmuller wrote to Howe. The university pulled some strings and got him a half-price train ticket. He arrived in Washington on May 9, 1894. The telescope maker met him at the depot. Everything was cordial. The telescope was nearly complete. But by the next evening, Howe reported that Saegmuller was very glum "because I had not the $3,000 with me." The news from home was not good either. Howe's wife, Fannie, wrote to say that all three children had whooping cough. She wanted him to come home as soon as possible. Somehow, the professor managed to keep things going with assurances that at least a partial payment of $1,200 was on its way. He watched and took careful notes as the scope was disassembled. The telescope housing was boxed up for its train ride to Denver. Saegmuller's sister-in-law sewed the lenses into a cloth case for Howe to take back by himself. There had been some recent heavy rains and reports of bridges washing out that month. Howe was apprehensive as he boarded the train for the first leg of the trip to Chicago. In the Pullman car that night, he slipped the lenses into the lower berth and slept in the upper bed. He arrived in Denver on May 27 after a three-week journey. A porter carried his bags as Howe carried the lenses past the iron gates at Union Station. At home, he found his wife tending to three sick children. The baby had nearly died from coughing. Fannie had been alone most of that time. The next morning, Howe returned to the classroom, trying to act as if nothing had happened in the nearly three weeks he=92d been gone. But during chapel hour, students and faculty applauded as he entered. Howe led the prayer service and then gave a 30-minute talk about his trip. Howe ended the day by jotting into his diary: "Baby Warren has a tooth." A gold brick-- Eight days later, Howe attended a meeting of the university's executive board. McDowell, the chancellor, gave his report, stating that Howe had borrowed all the money for the telescope and paid for the expenses of the trip. One trustee rose to ask what security Howe gave for the loan. McDowell replied that Howe gave his own security. "He is a brick," the satisfied trustee said. "Yes, and a gold brick, too," Warren chimed in. He had done it. Six years after that first news of an anonymous benefactor, Howe had discovered in the end that he was his own benefactor. That night he wrote, "How much undeserved glory people get." With help from an astronomy student and some other professors, Howe assembled the telescope that towered over his small frame. A picture from the period shows Howe, in his trim beard wearing a workman's cap, standing next to his telescope. On July 14, 1894, the telescope was complete. Howe and his wife walked to the observatory that night. They climbed the wooden ladder that allows two people to scale the sides of the dome to look through the scope. Fannie looked first. She saw a star. Howe then pointed the telescope at the moon and at a cluster of stars near the constellation Hercules. "It looked fine, despite moon and haze," he jotted in his diary. A common bond-- Howe lived until 1926, spending his entire career at the university where he had started as an astronomer without an observatory. Last year, the university opened its newest observatory atop Mount Evans. It is a high-tech wonder that is twice as powerful as the telescope at Chamberlin and not as hindered by smog and light pollution. The wooden floors of the old observatory still creak with every new moon, when it is opened to the public. The next open house will be after sunset Oct. 24. Stencel, the university's current astronomer, is only the fourth person to hold that title. He read through Howe's diaries with a sense of wonder. Like Howe, he also oversaw construction of one of the university's observatories. "The parallels are in many ways, uncanny," Stencel said. "We both share a feeling that it's a privilege to accomplish what we've managed." He found something else they have in common: an unbounded curiosity. Astronomers, Stencel said, are never really satisfied with their work. "We're trying to make sense of a universe that defies the human imagination." (end) Reprinted from the Rocky Mountain News, Oct. 4, 1998, pages 44-45.