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

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

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park

Southside Johnny Brings a Jersey Vibe to Pittsburgh’s South Park
 Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

We checked another item off the summer bucket list! Allegheny County’s free summer concert series is just awesome! We went to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes Friday night at South Park Amphitheater and it could not have been better: Perfect weather, great company (we took a little crew of friends and family with us), Jersey-style rock and roll, and a lovely venue!

We’ve been to Hartwood Acres in prior years – also a great time – but I have to say, I liked the “ambience” at South Park Amphitheater a bit more. Also, for those with mobility issues, the handicapped parking at South Park is super convenient – maybe fifty yards from a good space on the lawn and adjacent the food trucks. (Random side note – when you google South Park your first results will probably be the Trey Parker/Matt Stone cartoon series, which you may or may not enjoy;))

We got to the park at 6 p.m. (we were planning to get there at 5:30, but those of you who know us know we never get anywhere promptly <insert eye-roll emoji>.)  We still had plenty of time to find good parking spaces and set up our picnic blankets and soccer chairs. (The kids are grown and long out of soccer, but the chairs are still going strong!)

 Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.
Food trucks included Bruster’s Ice Cream, PGH Halal, Tango, and Doce Taqueria.

We packed our own food, wine and beer so we didn’t partake in the evening’s food truck offerings, but they looked delicious and the lines never seemed overly long. Food trucks and craft beer from Hop Farm Brewing are available starting at 6 p.m. at all of the Allegheny County summer concerts in both South Park and Hartwood Acres. 

 Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.
Southside Johnny fires up the crowd.

Although no warm up act was scheduled, Bill Deasy from the local Pittsburgh band, The Gathering Field, started the evening at 7:30 with an acoustic guitar and some easy-to-listen-to music of his own.  Deasy happens to work for Allegheny County in some capacity (sorry, I wasn’t listening that closely) so he also acted as MC for the evening. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes took the stage around 8 and got the crowd rocking. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the band, the sound is similar to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – and for good reason: Southside’s biggest hits (among them “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “The Fever,” and “Talk to Me”) were written by or in collaboration with Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt. Also, at various times in the band’s 40-plus year history, Van Zandt has been a member and Springsteen and other members of the E Street Band have performed with them. And Jon Bon Jovi has toured with them and points to Southside as a strong influence on his music. Lots of good Jersey sound there, folks:)

Feel free to bring your furry friends…and your knitting. Both South Park and Hartwood Acres boast a very chill vibe and pretty much anything goes. Allegheny County’s concert website lists just three prohibited items: charcoal grills, fire lanterns, and drones.

Bottom line – Allegheny County’s Summer Concert Series is an amazing asset for Pittsburgh residents and one you should definitely check out. There are five remaining Friday night concerts at South Park this summer, and another five Sunday night concerts at Hartwood Acres. For more information about upcoming shows (including the food trucks scheduled for each show) visit:  https://www.alleghenycounty.us/special-events/summer-concert-series.aspx.