The Way Back: Stargazers

In the 1930s, campus witnessed an unprecedented building boom as the ubiquitous wooden shacks spread out across the Forty Acres were replaced with Spanish renaissance stone and terracotta buildings.  The UT Tower would eventually stand 307 feet high, but it wasn’t the tallest structure planned on university property. On the other side of campus, 430 miles to the west, UT was constructing the McDonald Observatory.

Plans for the structure began in 1926, when William McDonald, a bachelor banker from Paris, Texas, left $850,000 in his will for the project. Construction began in 1933, the same year the Littlefield Fountain was completed. The weather was hard on workers and supplying materials from urban centers to the West Texas desert proved difficult.

So did hauling the 82-inch telescope’s gigantic mirror all the way up Mount Locke, which required the construction of a new road and then the pouring of a giant concrete and steel foundation. What’s more, UT didn’t even have an astronomy department yet, so plans were drawn up to contract with the University of Chicago, which staffed the site until 1963. In 1966, the telescope was named the Otto Struve Telescope, after the Russian-American astronomer who served as the observatory’s first director, from 1932–47.

The observatory was dedicated 80 years ago this May. It now boasts several newer and longer telescopes—like the Hobby-Eberly, the third largest in the world—but old Struve remains in use to this day.

Photos courtesy the McDonald Observatory


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