Postcard from McDonald Observatory

On top of Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in far West Texas, one of the darkest places in the world, is the McDonald Observatory. Protected under the multiple silver and white domes are large, extremely complicated yet incredibly sensitive instruments that allow mankind to study planets, comets, asteroids, stars and galaxies millions of light years away.

William Johnson McDonald was born on a farm outside the small town of Howland, Texas in 1844. In 1864, when he was 20, he left college and joined the Confederate army. After surviving several battles, he returned after the war ended and graduated in 1867. During this time he developed a deep interest in astronomy, botany, zoology, and geology.

After getting his degree, he supported himself for the next two or three years by teaching school while studying law. He opened a law office in Clarksville in 1881 and became recognized as one of the best civil lawyers of Northeast Texas. He also prospered financially as he served as president of banks that he organized in Clarksville, Paris, and Cooper.

Despite his wealth, he continued to work hard and live modestly. A life-long bachelor, he did not attend social functions and took no part in public affairs. He did, however, make numerous contributions to charity and helped a number of young men get an education. He eventually hired trusted men to operate his banks and traveled to Europe and Mexico, as well as various places in the United States. In 1895 and 1896 he studied botany in summer school at Harvard University.

McDonald never married. He died at his home in Paris, Texas on February 8, 1926, leaving an estate of over a million dollars, the bulk of which he bequeathed to the University of Texas to establish an observatory. His heirs contested the will, and the university eventually made an out-of-court settlement by which it received $800,000.

By 1934, the university used the funds to establish McDonald Observatory. Its 82-inch telescope, the 2nd largest in the world at that time, was used to make many new discoveries, including new moons around Uranus and Neptune in the late 1940's. In the mid-1960's, NASA granted five million dollars to the McDonald Observatory to help build a new reflector telescope with a 107-inch lens which, once again, was one of the largest in the world. In 1997, a 9.2 meter aperture telescope was dedicated. Today, it is still the 5th largest telescope of its kind in the world.

There are numerous programs and tours available for anyone interested, everything from a daytime safe look through a telescope at the sun (about 45 minutes, tickets are $5) through "Star Parties" which include a 1-hour educational program,  constellation touring, telescope viewing, and other presentations (3 - 4 hours, tickets are $12 with a discount for seniors and military). Over 40,000 people attend these events every year and space is limited so be sure to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible.


Postcard from a Frontier Fort - Ft. Davis, Texas

Entrance to Fort Davis
An important post in the defense of frontier Texas, Fort Davis played a major role in the history of the Southwest. Between 1854 until 1891, its troops protected emigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road on their way to the gold fields of California. Fort Davis is now considered one of the best examples of a frontier military post in the American Southwest.

Named for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the fort was first garrisoned by six companies of the Eighth U.S. Infantry. Constructed in a box canyon near Limpia Creek on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains, wood, water, and grass were plentiful. From 1854 to 1861, the soldiers spent much of their time in the field pursuing Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. With the outbreak of the Civil War and Texas' secession from the Union, the federal government evacuated Fort Davis. The fort was then occupied by Confederate troops until they abandoned it in the summer of 1862 and Fort Davis was deserted for the next five years.

Ruins of Ft. Davis
In June 1867, four companies of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry reoccupied Fort Davis and construction of a new fort just east of the original post began. By the end of 1869, a number of officers' quarters, two enlisted men's barracks, a guardhouse, temporary hospital, and storehouses had been erected. Construction continued through the 1880's until there were more than 100 structures, including quarters for more than 400 soldiers.

The primary role of safeguarding the west Texas frontier against the Comanches and Apaches continued until 1881, but the last major military campaign involving troops from Fort Davis occurred in 1880. The Comanche had been driven from the area several years earlier and in a series of engagements, units from Fort Davis and other posts forced the Apaches and their leader Victorio into Mexico. There, Victorio and most of his followers were killed by Mexican soldiers. With no more Indians to fight, garrison life at Fort Davis became routine and often boring for long stretches of time. Occasionally, the soldiers were called upon to escort railroad survey parties, repair dirt roads and telegraph lines, and pursue Mexican bandits and horse thieves. In June 1891, Fort Davis was once again abandoned as it had "outlived its usefulness." Over the subsequent years, many of the structures were stripped for lumber and building materials by area ranchers and the site decayed in the harsh West Texas sun. However, some of the buildings were utilized as homes and these were kept in repair and can be seen today in their original condition.

In 1961, the fort was authorized as a national historic site and restoration work began. Today there are 24 buildings fully restored (some are furnished with historically correct furniture and objects) and more than 100 ruins to explore. For those interested in frontier history, this is a must see. Of course, for a site that is over 160 years old, there are many interesting stories. There's even a reported haunting which you can read about on our sister site by clicking here. Ft. Davis is definitely out "in the boonies," but it is well worth the effort to get there.

2-story officer's quarters
Ft. Davis parade grounds. Officer's quarters
to the left.