atop Mount Locke in the Big
Bend area, McDonald Observatory is far removed from East
Texas, but without the interest and generosity of an orphaned
Confederate soldier from Clarksville,
the world-famous astronomy center might not exist today.
|View from Fort
Davis, TX looking NE toward Mt Locke during a fast moving storm
Photo courtesy Coyne Gibson, February 12, 2013
William McDonald, a bachelor lawyer and banker, lived frugally and
had little interest in charities, religion or public affairs, but
he owned a small telescope to look at the distant stars and planets.
Born in 1844 on a farm near Howland, a small railroad stop in southern
Lamar County, McDonald
and his two brothers were orphaned at an early age and attended McKenzie
College under the guardianship of Rev. John McKenzie.
When the Civil War erupted, McDonald left college to join the Confederate
Army. He came home after the war ended, finished his schooling in
1867 and taught school and worked as a printer for three years while
He opened a law office at Clarksville,
the seat of Red River
County, and was soon regarded as one of the best civil lawyers
in Northeast Texas. He
also began lending money to friends and became the president of early
banks in Clarksville,
Paris. When he opened his Paris
bank in 1887, he moved there.
Even with his wealth, McDonald lived modestly. His single indulgence
was traveling across the U.S. and to Europe and Mexico. In addition
to astronomy, he studied zoology and geology and spent two summers
honing his understanding of botany at Harvard University. He read
science books with the skills of a seasoned scientist.
McDonald never married and when he died at Paris,
Texas, he left an estate of more than a million dollars, most
of which he bequeathed to the University of Texas “to build an observatory
and promote the study of astronomy, ” a reflection of his lifelong
Although some of McDonald’s heirs contested his will, the university
eventually made an out-of-court settlement of $800,000 with which
to build an observatory atop Mount Locke near Fort
Davis. The site was chosen because of its high ratio of clear
nights, its 6,800-foot altitude and a low latitude that permits the
observation of southern skies.
McDonald’s observatory was operated for the first twenty-five years
by astronomers from the University of Chicago, which had an astronomy
department but lacked an observatory. The University of Texas, on
the other hand, had a first-class observatory, but no astronomy department.
Today, the University of Texas has both and McDonald’s observatory
is one of the most famous universe-watching facilities in the world.
Until 1948, its 82-inch telescope was the second largest in the world.
Discoveries atop Mount Locke have included interstellar polarization
and the satellites of several planets.
In addition to the original observatory built with McDonald’s 1926
bequeath, two other observatories now stand on the mountain, including
one with the world’s largest telescope mirror.
The difference between Mount Locke’s telescopes and William McDonald’s
small telescope he used in the early 1900s are as great as the terrains
of the Big
Bend and East Texas,
but the old Paris bachelor’s
interest in the heavens has made the distance seem a little closer.