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Locating Lowell

A-1 Mountain as seen from an aerial photo. The southwestern part of Fort Valley is in the center of the picture.Flagstaff was but 12 years old in 1894 and still struggling to exist, but the rough town became a topic of international attention when an eminent New Englander arrived to scout possible locations to establish an observatory. The opening of Lowell Observatory was the first of several major scientific organizations to locate in the town that was already well-known to scientists and explorers for its unique attributes.


Late 19th century astronomers were vastly interested in the Mars canals and were seeking the best locations to see and study the fascinating planet. Astronomers were visiting possible sites around the world. Among them was Percival Lowell of Boston, who looked internationally but also was interested in the American Southwest. He sent young astronomer Andrew E. Douglass (1867-1962) to southern Arizona to find a suitable site to establish an observatory.


Vermont-native Douglass graduated from Trinity College and began work with the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. When Harvard established an observatory in the Peruvian Andes, Douglass was assigned there for three years, where in 1892, he and fellow astronomers noted streaks in the dark areas of Mars that looked like canals.  Upon his return, Douglass met Lowell who was interested in the Mars canals and hired Douglass in January 1894.


In March of that year, Douglass was sent to Arizona. He first took the stage from Benson to Tombstone and set up a viewing site in the backyard of a resident. Curious townspeople visited and Douglass explained the tools he was using and the purpose of his visit. The people assured Douglass that they were a civilized community and not likely to be attacked or raided by outlaws. The town offered any land Douglass may want. Two days later, following disappointing viewing tests, Douglass knew Tombstone wasn’t the place and left for Tucson. 


After finding and viewing from several sites there, Douglass wired Lowell that the unsteady air was not suitable, even though the residents once again showed interest and promised support. On March 16, Douglass was in Phoenix and tried Tempe Buttes with little success due to poor weather. He wired Lowell asking if he should abandon the mission, wait for good weather, or explore other Arizona locales like Prescott, which had been recommended.  Lowell said to stay until good weather returned and try again. Douglass complied, but found the viewing not as optimal as it should be.


Lowell said to go to Prescott and then Flagstaff. In Prescott, Douglass had to wait for the skies to clear and was again disappointed. He left for Flagstaff and arrived at the night of April 3. He at once noticed the twinkling stars in a cloudless sky. Upon Lowell’s recommendation, he set up a viewing site on A-1 Mountain west of town, called Site #12, and south of the San Francisco Peaks. The mountain is 8,300 feet in elevation and was called Crater Hill before it became known as A-1 Mountain for the A-1 brand of the Arizona Cattle Company whose headquarters were located in Fort Valley, the lovely area in between A-1 Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks.  The dependable Leroux Springs were nearby which would be an asset if the observatory was located there.


Douglass also took observations from other sites around Flagstaff including Elden Mesa, Wing Mountain, and Schultz Hill, now known as Mars Hill. All were located near springs.  His viewing over the next few days in several locations provided the results he and Lowell were looking for and they decided upon Flagstaff for the new observatory. 


Lowell initially instructed Douglass to choose the final location, but then ignored Douglass’ advice for the sake of expediency as the best viewing of the Mars opposition  (when it would be closest to Earth) was  imminent.  Lowell chose Schultz (aka Mars) Hill and the town donated five acres, greatly due to the persistence and influence of sawmill owner D. M. Riordan. Additional land would come later through purchases and an act of Congress.


Douglass stayed in Flagstaff to supervise construction of the observatory and be the onsite director. The New Englander enjoyed the little town and its numerous attributes like mountain climbing. In 1901, Lowell fired Douglass from Lowell Observatory over disagreements in astronomical methods, and Douglass chose to stay in Flagstaff and was elected probate judge in 1902. At age 38, he married Ida Wittington whom he had met in Flagstaff several years earlier in 1905. 


He taught at the Flagstaff Normal School (now NAU) for the 1905-1906 school year, but went to the University of Arizona in the fall of 1906 to both teach and return to astronomical studies. Even though he stated a longing to return to New England, Douglass spent the remainder of his long life in the Tucson area where he established the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona and perfected the study of tree-ring dating, among many other studies.


— S.D. Olberding. Photo courtesy of the author.

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