Observatory Point: A shooting star in Tahoe’s history
Colonel Alexis W. Von Schmidt is known in Tahoe history as the mastermind of a water diversion scheme that would have taken Truckee River water to San Francisco through a tunnel and series of dams and canals. Von Schmidt also was a master surveyor who laid out the early California-Nevada border with questionable results.Never one to stray from controversial projects, Von Schmidt also had a hand in almost landing the James Lick Astronomical Observatory on Dollar Point east of Tahoe City. In 1873, Von Schmidt was on a search to find the perfect place for the worlds largest and most perfect space telescope, being funded by James Lick, who had made his fortune in San Francisco real estate during the California Gold Rush.At the time, Lick was still alive, but in very poor health, and was planning how to bequeath his millions after his death. Lick, even though he was a cabinet and piano maker by trade, had always taken in interest in astronomy and had spent many hours gazing at the stars through friend George Madeiras telescope.Astronomers from all over the nation were encouraging the extremely eccentric Lick and his associates to locate the new telescope at a 10,000 foot mountain-top location to get away from the lower atmosphere of earth. Lake Tahoe was the first choice, and Von Schmidt was more than willing to find the perfect site at his favorite mountain lake.
Von Schmidts explorations at Lake Tahoe didnt take long. He chose a peninsula of land on the north shore with a knoll about 300 feet above the shoreline. It had a commanding view of the lake and was easily accessible to Tahoe City. The site also had plenty of firewood and water, two important considerations in operating the complex.The location at what was known as Lousy Point or Cellars Point, was immediately announced by Von Schmidt to the world, but the response he got was disappointing. The Virginia City Chronicle opposed the location, claiming that the humidity and evaporation of the lake would prevent a clear view of the heavens. There would need to be a road and telegraph line built from Tahoe City, and the snow would prevent access during the winter. The Chronicle preferred the heights of Mt Davidson, directly above Virginia City and the Comstock Lode.The Grass Valley Union wanted the observatory built on Banner Mountain, pointing out to Von Schmidt that the lush green slopes were a more attractive location for the gathering of cosmical wisdom.Von Schmidt, in his usual high energy zeal, saw more advantages to his observatory site than just elevation. He saw the entire 300-plus acre peninsula as a park and summer campground. The owners of the land, Bliss andamp; Yerington of Glenbrook, even deeded over, free of charge, the needed acreage upon first hearing the proposal.Tahoes snows were not a concern for Von Schmidt, as he saw that Observatory Point could be accessed by boat from Tahoe City or Glenbrook, though detractors pointed out that during most winters, it was difficult or impossible to get to either point.In November Von Schmidt reported back to Lick that Observatory Point was the best location, and Lick, having spent many days relaxing at Tahoe, agreed with the selection. It looked like construction would proceed the following year. Lick was even starting to plan his own mausoleum at Lousy Point. Other people saw the advantages of the site and joined in the planning. The Mss. Clapp andamp; Babcock proposed to relocate their womens Seminary from Carson City to Observatory Point.San Francisco capitalists and developers also responded to the proposal by buying up land options and surveying lots around Tahoe for resorts and town sites.Since cost was not a great concern, Astronomy Professor George Davidson persuaded a dying Lick that he should fund the highest quality equipment, and at the most accessible location. Davidson preferred a site nearer to the coast and the University of California at Berkeley, and started lobbying Lick not to build at Lake Tahoe.The public followed the discussion of location closely, even those who had little care for the advancement of science. The astronomers who dreamed of using the finished telescope pushed for a more accessible location so the most eminent scientists in the world could routinely work there.
As the spring of 1874 arrived, Lousy Point was silent. Instead there was talk of moving the observatory to the peaks above Emerald Bay. While the scenery was quite impressive, the site was far too remote.Lick hadnt lost interest, instead, he expanded his plans and talked about spending a million dollars on his pet telescope. He funded lens experiments to see just how large a telescope could be built. The glass for the lens was to be cast from sand found from near Brockway Hot Springs, and as much work contracted locally as possible.Scientific American was excited in the project and pointed out that a 12-foot lens would make Mars appear 100 times larger than the moon. At the time, the largest telescope lens was 6 feet in diameter.Locally, amateur astronomer Charles McGlashan, then serving as the Truckee School principal, was doing all he could to encourage the observatory construction. He had just received a 4.5-inch telescope and was starting to teach astronomy to Truckee residents.By June of 1874, the Truckee Republican declared the observatory was definitely going to be built at Lake Tahoe. Von Schmidt was, by then, involved with other schemes and projects and was no longer involved in the discussion. The estimate for the observatory had crept up to $700,000, a major portion of the $2 million estate.By the middle of 1874, James Lick turned his estate decisions over to a committee of trustees, who, without Von Schmidts lobbying, were leaning away from the Lousy Point site and looking closer to San Francisco. Lick, in his declining health, made constant changes to his will, and found himself battling multiple lawsuits from those who wanted his money. The Lake Tahoe Observatory site fell by the wayside in this bickering atmosphere.
It was also apparent there was dwindling support from astronomers for the Tahoe location, and their support was now with a proposed mountain to the east of San Jose. This mountain, soon to be renamed Mount Davidson, would be the site of the great Lick-funded telescope.Lousy Point continued on in obscurity for another few decades, visited by campers and fishermen over the years. The Blisss got the land back, and loggers also moved in, cutting the virgin forest for the mining timbers needed in the Comstock Lode. The stars continued to shine, but there was no great telescope to view them.Over the years, Observatory Point would have more names attached to it than any other Tahoe location. The Washoe called it Chinquapin, Tahoe City locals in 1870 named it Griffs, after a local woodcutter who refused to bathe and was infested with lice, which led to the Lousy andamp; Old Lousy Point designations. When Laura Knight bought the property from the Blisses, she named it Wychwood, before going on to build Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay, and finally the one it goes by today, Dollar Point, named for shipping magnate Stanley Dollar who used the point as his summer residence.But if Alexis Von Schmidts dream came true, it would be Observatory Point, home of the worlds most powerful telescope. Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society website at http://truckeehistory.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at Sierra Sun.com in the archives.
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