A brief history of the University of Denver's High Altitude Research Station, or High Altitude Lab, located at Echo Lake and Mt.Evans Colorado

For further information, visit DU Physics & Astronomy homepage
The origins of high altitude physics and astronomy research in Colorado
trace back to 1880 with the hiring of Herbert Howe as professor of
astronomy at DU.  By 1890, he was building the Chamberlin Observatory in
south Denver, and attracting the interest of scientists like George
E. Hale [Yerkes and Palomar] in telescope sites in the Rockies.  Donald
Menzel, Howe's student and eventual Harvard Observatory director, later 
commissioned the Climax solar observatory and the High Altitude
Observatory institute now affiliated with NCAR.

Also in the early years of the 20th century, C.Wilson discovered cosmic
rays with his homemade cloud chamber.  Cosmic rays are charged atoms
boiling off the sun and stars, filling space.  Those reaching earth caused
small "tracks" to appear in Wilson's cloud chamber.  This was occuring in
parallel with the development of nuclear theory, and it didn't take long
for researchers to notice that more CR tracks were visible at higher
altitudes.  This caused A. Compton (U of Chicago) to visit Mt.Evans in
1930, because a new highway was being completed to the 14,000+ ft summit,
allowing easy movement of experimental gear.

In 1935, to support expanding CR studies, DU built the summit "A
frame" building, designed and overseen by
Burnham Hoyt - architect of Red Rocks Ampitheater and the Denver City and
County Building.  We like to think of the A-frame as his 'highest' 
achievement, of course.  In 1939, an Italian physicist - Bruno Rossi -
worked CR studies at Mt.Evans and was the first to demonstrate the energy
dependence of the half life of the mu meson, thereby providing another
piece of proof that Einstein's theory of relativity describes nature [time
dilation effects in particular].  Rossi might have received a Nobel prize
for this work, except that the political affiliations of Italy were not
welcome during World War II soon after.  Rossi recounts his experiences in
his memoir entitled "Moments in the Life of a Scientist" (Cambridge press
1990, IBSN 0-521-36439-6, QC16.R4956713).  Also, in 1940, Denver
businessmen built the Summit Hotel atop Mt.Evans which thrived as a
tourist stop until its firey demise Sept.1, 1979.

After WWII, there was an enormous interest in CR research, and a
consortium of universities - including Chicago, MIT, Michigan and others -
joined forces to work with DU and build the High Altitude Lab facilities
near Echo Lake - close to the site of a WWII training camp, now a
campground.  Echo Lab served then as now as a base camp for work there
and at higher altitudes on Mt.Evans.  The activity was documented in a
photo-story in the Nov. 1948 issue of LIFE magazine.  Through the 1950s,
Echo lab hosted numerous seasonal researchers at Echo and at the summit,
and several international conferences.  Work continued into the 1960s
until newer "atom smashers" began to eclipse work on the

Additional details can be obtained by contacting DU archivist, Stephen
Fisher at 303-871-3428.  Professor emeritus Mario Iona, High Altitude Lab
manager during that era, is still active and can be contacted via the
Dept.  As the cosmic ray work ended, new research began with the
construction in 1972 of the first summit telescope, and the 1996 upgrade
to the current Mt.Evans Meyer-Womble Observatory astronomy facilities.

--Dr.Robert Stencel
W.H.Womble Professor of Astronomy
18 December 2003

Return to Mt.Evans Obs. pages