Record number of visitors get last look at Yerkes Observatory before closing

Final tours Saturday
Record number of visitors get last look at Yerkes Observatory before closing

Time is running out for those who’d like to visit the historic Yerkes Observatory.

Yerkes Observatory in southeast Wisconsin is known as the birthplace of modern astrophysics and draws in the public with its detailed architecture and the biggest lens telescope in the world.

“I think a large part of the community is what it is because of the observatory and the influence of its people,” said Dave Denton, who said he who grew up in the “shadow of the observatory” in Williams Bay.

The facility was established in the late 1800s and is part of the University of Chicago. For much of the last century, researchers in the observatory looked to the sky for new discovers.

“This place is all about astronomy,” tour guide Richard Dreiser said. “Probably the most important discovery (is) we live in a spiral galaxy.”

Tour guides such as Dreiser, who has been doing this for nearly 39 years, have seen a record-breaking number of visitors lately, and he doesn’t need a telescope to see why: The observatory closes Oct. 1.

“I’m getting a little more emotional today than I thought I’d be,” he said.

“Sure, it’s kind of a shock. It’s a big change,” Denton said. He attended one of the last tours Friday. “My favorite part about being here is just to see it one more time. It’s pretty cool inside — old architecture, and the telescope.”

That telescope, the largest in the world about a century ago, can’t keep up with new technology. Because of the age of the observatory’s equipment, the University of Chicago announced in March that it was cutting ties with the facility.

“Despite its important history, the Yerkes facility and its instrumentation no longer contribute directly to the research mission of the University of Chicago, which has made major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile,” the university said in an announcement.

“I’m going to be sad to not come in and do tours,” Dreiser said.

University officials said they are looking into what happens next.

“We will continue to work towards options for a new long-term steward for the Yerkes property, and are hopeful of reaching an agreement that reflects the observatory’s potential for education,” the university’s vice president for civic engagement and external affairs, Derek Douglas, said. “The Yerkes Future Foundation has shown dedication to preserving the observatory, and talks with parties that demonstrate such a dedication will continue.”

The Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM group formed after UChicago announced that it was ceasing operations at the observatory. The group hopes to sustain educational outreach programs there that are not affiliated with the university.

In the meantime, visitors are getting a last look at the observatory.

“I certainly hope that parts of it endure so people can see it,” Denton said. “Whatever happens is for the best.”

Final tours are Saturday.