The Allegheny Observatory: How To Visit Another Planet (or two) Without Leaving the Burgh!


We checked yet another item off our summer bucket list! But this one comes with a caveat: If you want to be specific about things, I said we were going to stargaze at the Allegheny Observatory.  Turns out, that is not what you do at an observatory. In fact, our tour guide, (and the facility’s Electronics Specialist and sole full-time employee) Louis Coban, informed me that Pittsburgh’s Observatory Hill might be one of the worst places to look at the stars due to light pollution (this is true of any city).

So enough about what we didn’t see! Here’s what we did see – planets! Jupiter and Saturn were in range on the night we visited and it was a pretty cool experience mounting the stairs to peer through the eye-piece and view another part of our solar system.  Of the two, I would have to say that Saturn was the most impressive since you could actually see the rings around it. Jupiter, on the other hand, looked like a giant full moon.

 The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park
The Allegheny Observatory’s beautiful setting is adjacent Riverview Park

We took the tour on a beautiful Thursday evening and we enjoyed walking around the peaceful grounds of the observatory beforehand.  The current building dates to 1912 and the names of influential astronomers are inscribed at the roofline. 

 These may be the reason the observatory still exists.
These may be the reason the observatory still exists.

The tour began with a short lecture about the history of the observatory. Here’s my favorite bit – the telescopes and astronomy may be the soul of the observatory, but if it weren’t for the shrewd business sense of Professor S.P. Langley back in 1867, the whole venture would have gone bankrupt. Using a small transit telescope, he was able to obtain accurate time by observing the position of the stars as they crossed the celestial median. Big deal, you might say, as you glance at the current (absolutely accurate) time on your iPhone or laptop. But back in the 19th century, the era of pocket watches, sundials, and grandfather clocks, the concept was a little more fluid.  Not a problem if it made you five minutes late for a tea party, but a big problem if you were a railroad executive scheduling trains. Langley devised a system to sell time to subscribers through the telegraph, industrialists of the age clamored for the service, and the Allegheny Observatory was made financially sound!

 The 30” Thaw Telescope
The 30” Thaw Telescope

After the lecture we toured the building, starting in the largest dome with the 30” Thaw telescope, the third largest refractor in the United States.  This massive telescope’s primary mission has been to study the distance to nearby stars.  It’s so large that the floor of the dome moves up and down with a pulley system in order to position it! 

 Rick peeks at Saturn
Rick peeks at Saturn

We next moved on to the smallest dome, which houses the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor.  Constructed in 1861, it was the primary telescope of the original Allegheny Observatory.  After Coban opened the dome and got first Jupiter and then Saturn in view, our group took turns climbing the narrow stairway to look at the planets.  

We ended the tour with a trip to the crypt. I’m not kidding.  In the basement of the observatory, a few of its most ardent supporters are spending eternity. Early observatory directors, John Brashear and James Keeler, along with their wives Phoebe and Cora and Keeler’s son Henry, are all laid to rest here. (If you’re a fan of Halloween creepiness, you might want to schedule your tour on the last week of October, which is also the last week that tours are available.)


Tours take place Thursday and Friday evenings from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 412-321-2400 between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The observatory also has an open house coming up on October 4 featuring an expanded tour of the building, additional tour guides and telescopes on the lawn.  For more information, visit https://www.pitt.edu/~aobsvtry/tours.html

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