Yerkes Observatory By David Drizner

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Charles Tyson Yerkes  (click on images to see larger views)
Charles Tyson Yerkes (click on images to see larger views)
On the shores of Lake Geneva, in the small town of Williams Bay Wisconsin, sits a world famous, and world-class observatory. Yerkes observatory (pronounced Yer-keys) is named after Charles Tyson Yerkes, it’s principal benefactor.

Yerkes came to Chicago in 1881 – hoping to escape his tarnished and scandal-plagued reputation in Philadelphia. It was here that he hoped to make his fortune. Soon after arriving in Chicago he took control of a local streetcar company and began to expand it’s routes throughout the city. His questionable deals with local politicians often left his competitors shaking their heads in disbelief. As a consequence, the local press had a field day digging up both real, and sometimes imagined misdeeds.

Yerkes soon realized that he must perform some admirable public deed to deflect the wrath of the press and the negative effects it was having on his business enterprises. In addition, he desperately wanted his wife Mary and He to be accepted into the social circle of Chicago’s elite. In the early 1890’s he began donating large sums of money to civic causes in an attempt to court public favor.

In October 1982 Yerkes met with William Rainey Harper and George Ellery Hale. Harper was the President of the University of Chicago, and the twenty-four-year-old Hale was a prominent astronomer on the faculty of the University. Both men however, were also experts at coaxing money from rich benefactors, and their talents were not wasted on Yerkes. Shortly after their initial meeting, a committed and enthusiastic Charles Yerkes told the two men “Build the finest and largest telescope in the world…. and I’ll pay the bill.�?

Map of Yerkes
Map of Yerkes
Construction on the observatory began in early 1895. The architect; Henry Cobb, was quite enamored with fanciful ornamentation and let his genius run wild on Yerkes as literally hundreds of architectural embellishments adorn the building both inside and out. The 77-acre grounds that surround the observatory are a gentle expanse of tree lined walks, forested thickets, and vast seas of well manicured lawns.

The observatory was designed in a cruciform shape with a 90-foot diameter dome at the foot of the cross and two smaller domes at the opposite end. The 90-foot dome houses a 40-inch Clark refractor; still the world’s largest scope of its type. The two smaller domes house 41-inch and 24-inch reflectors. One of the many remarkable features of Yerkes is the moveable floor in the 90-foot dome. Using a system of pulleys and counterweights, the entire floor raises and lowers to bring the astronomer to the eyepiece, rather than having him or her climb impossibly tall ladders.

Aerial view of Yerkes as seen from the back; the southwest
Aerial view of Yerkes as seen from the back; the southwest
Dedicated in 1897, Yerkes was instantly recognized as a world-class institution. With it’s great refractor it offered the scientific community an instrument capable of cutting edge astronomy during what is now acknowledged as the heyday of visual-light astronomy.

Some of the astronomers who have called Yerkes home over the most definitely qualify for the “A�? list of 20th century astronomy. George Ellery Hale, the young astronomer who was so instrumental in securing the necessary funding from Yerkes, revolutionized the study of solar and stellar evolution. Edward Emerson Barnard, whose photos of the dusty regions of the Milky Way remain some of the most beautiful and revealing ever taken, was entirely self-educated. Otto Struve; a major force in the field of stellar spectroscopy, Gerard Kuiper; planetary scientist par excellence, and Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar; famous for his studies of the life cycle of stars, have all called Yerkes home at one time or another.

Today Yerkes continues its legacy of cutting-edge astronomy and is known worldwide for it’s skill at the development and construction of new and innovative instrumentation. Infrared detectors designed and built at Yerkes are in use on telescopes around the world. NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory – a modified C141 jet with a 36-inch telescope installed - has a Yerkes detector on board. It observes at altitudes up to 45,000 feet where the air is thinner and dryer, permitting observations in the infrared wavelengths.

Yerkes in Danger

Late at night, if you listen closely,
especially the closer you are to William's
Bay, Wisconsin, you'll hear an familiar
sound echoing, "Danger.. Danger Will
Robinson." But this time, it isn't young
Will that's in danger. It's the Yerkes Observa-
tory and it's historic telescopes, building
and domes. The University of Chicago, which
owns the observatory and property has accepted
bids from parties interested in purchasing it.

The university is believed to have received an
offer as high as $10 million from a developer who
has luxury homes and a European-style spa in
mind. A $4.5 million offer has come in from
Aurora University, which runs the George
Williams College campus nearby.

For the latest information check out the
Save Yerkes Observatory website
or one of the following:

The University of Chicago, through Yerkes Observatory, is on of 11 institutions around the world that operates the Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica (CARA). Based near the South Pole, CARA scientists take advantage of the atmosphere’s extreme dryness there to observe the heavens in the infrared. CARA also sponsors an educational outreach program where high school students from Chicago can come to Yerkes to attend classes and conduct their own research.

Sadly, the efforts of Charles Yerkes to buy his and Mary’s way into Chicago’s high society were all for naught. They were never truly accepted into the social circles they so fervently coveted, and his streetcar business never quite grew into the empire he had long dreamed of. Disillusioned and disheartened, Yerkes moved to London, where, on December 29 1905 he quietly passed away at the age of 68.

What had originally started as a simple attempt to buy his way into the public’s favor may have ultimately blossomed into a true love of astronomy for Yerkes. It is said that upon his death, they found a room in one of his homes packed with astronomical instruments and books. I like to think that perhaps, in the last years of his life, Charles Yerkes might have finally found the unique comfort that can only come from the quiet contemplation of the night sky.


I highly recommend you make the trip to Williams Bay one day and take a tour of Yerkes Observatory. The grounds are idyllic and the architecture is overwhelming in its unique beauty. The tours are fun and informative and the staff seems to genuinely love showing off “their�? observatory. But, you better plan your visit sooner than later, for as outlined in the sidebar, real estate developers have their eyes on this historic site…

Yerkes Observatory
373 West Geneva St
Williams Bay, WI 53191

(262) 245-5555

Click here to read a recent account of an observation session at Yerkes.