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The Desert Laboratory

The staff of the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, gathered in 1906. (Left to right, back) Mr. Rider, Godfrey G. Sykes, Burton Livingston ,a founder of the Ecological Society of America, Mr. Lloyd, and two unidentified gentlemen. Front: Mrs. Godfrey G. Sykes, Mr. Davenport, Robert Simpson Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution; Dr. Daniel T. MacDougal, director of the laboratory, Mr. Shull and Grace Livingston.

The staff of the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, gathered in 1906. (Left to right, back) Mr. Rider, Godfrey G. Sykes, Burton Livingston ,a founder of the Ecological Society of America, Mr. Lloyd, and two unidentified gentlemen. Front: Mrs. Godfrey G. Sykes, Mr. Davenport, Robert Simpson Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution; Dr. Daniel T. MacDougal, director of the laboratory, Mr. Shull and Grace Livingston.

These scientists are gathered at the Desert Laboratory for a photograph on the occasion of a visit from Robert Simpson Woodward of the Carnegie Institution. The year is 1906.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. was founded by Andrew Carnegie with a donation of $10 million and the sole purpose of promoting study and research.

Frederick V. Coville, chief botanist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conceived the idea for the Desert Laboratory after exploring Death Valley in 1891 and convinced the Carnegie Institution to finance it.

He and Daniel T. MacDougal, assistant director of the New York Botanical Garden, toured the Southwest and Mexico searching for an appropriate site. In 1903, they chose Tumamoc Hill, a cactus studded butte overlooking Tucson.

Three years later, Woodward, president of the Carnegie Institution, visited the laboratory to see what his institution had financed.

He only recently had become president of Carnegie. He had spent most of his career as a scientist and teacher working for the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and then serving as professor of mechanics and mathematical physics at Columbia University. In 1904, he became president of Carnegie.

In addition to Colville and MacDougal, Godfrey Sykes, an Englishman who lived in Flagstaff, also was a founder of the Desert Laboratory.

During the 1890s, he and his brother ran a bicycle shop in Flagstaff, which became a salon for some of the brightest minds in the Southwest. Men such as astronomer Percival Lowell and Andrew Elliott Douglas (who developed the science of dating growth rings on trees) gathered daily to exchange scientific gossip while Godfrey and his brother Stanley worked on bicycles.

The group called themselves The Busy Bees.

The Sykes brothers arrived in Flagstaff after working their way across the U.S. They had emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in 1884 and worked odd jobs in the East until moving to Kansas, where they signed on as cowboys. They left Kansas on horseback in 1886, and headed for Arizona, intending to raise cattle. They settled near Flagstaff, where they built a log cabin.

But scientific experiment and tinkering were never far from their minds. In 1890, Godfrey built a boat in Needles, Calif., and sailed with a friend, Charlie McClain, down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California.

In Flagstaff, the Sykes brothers took on anything mechanical. Their first major engineering job came when Percival Lowell asked them to build a 40-foot dome for his 24-inch telescope. They later would build two other telescope domes, one at Lowell Observatory and the other at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory.

A year after this photograph was taken, MacDougal led an expedition to the Pinacate Desert, a volcanic region in northern Sonora, Mexico. Godfrey Sykes, lawman Jeff Milton and botanist William T. Hornaday, who chronicled the trip in his book, “Campfires on Desert and Lava,” were part of the group. Sykes climbed a crater to examine and measure it and MacDougal rewarded him by naming it Sykes Crater.

In 1923, on another expedition to Baja California, Sykes spotted a tree shaped like an upside-down carrot. He promptly named it a boojum after the mysterious monster in Lewis Carroll’s poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.”

At age 83, Sykes lost a leg. For a time he used a wheelchair, but it was too slow. He built a wooden leg out of pine and rigged his automobile so he could drive it with one pedal. He died of a heart attack in 1948. His brother Stanley remained at Lowell Observatory for 46 years and worked until two weeks before he died at the age of 91.

In 1940, after the university of Arizona refused to buy the facility for the nominal price of $1, the Carnegie Institution transferred the Desert Laboratory to the U.S. Forest Service, which used it as the Southwest Experiment Station until 1956. That year, the university finally bought the Desert Laboratory for $100,000, and it became the site for the new Department of Geochronology.

– Research by Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy UA special collections.

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