Starry, Starry Night

Goldendale Observatory Celebrates 50 Years

By Rodger Nichols

The observatory is at 1602 Observatory Drive, Goldendale. From October to March, it is open Friday through Sunday and offers 2 shows: a solar program from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and a night-sky program from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made on the Goldendale Observatory website. Entry is free, but a Washington State Parks Discover Pass is needed to park at the observatory. Visitors can buy a $ 10-day pass or a $30 annual pass at the facility.

The Mid-Columbia has a unique attraction in its backyard that is often overlooked in its list of wonders: the Goldendale Observatory. The observatory boasts 1 of the largest telescopes available for public viewing in the nation.

It also has an interesting backstory.

In 1963, 4 members of an astronomy club based in Vancouver, Washington, wanted a larger telescope than was available at the time. John Marshall, M.W. McConnell, O.W. Vandervelden, and Don Conner took on the gargantuan task of building their own.

The project, with help from the faculty in the Clark College machine shop, was time-consuming. It took 4 years of grinding and polishing to produce the 24.5-inch mirror at the heart of the system and a decade to complete the project.

Once the telescope was built, the men needed a place to set it up. The group had several criteria: It should be on the eastern side of the state for the fewest cloudy days; it should be somewhere up high with a relatively dark sky; it needed to be near a small city to provide services; and someone would have to donate the land.

They also had a stipulation.

“They wanted it to be used for the public so that ordinary people could come and use their instrument,” says Peter Sinclair, an interpretive specialist at the observatory. “They were not professional astronomers. They were hobbyists. They didn’t want to just give it to someone like a university, where it would only be used for students or for research.”

These factors eventually led the group to a butte at the 2,000-foot elevation just north of Goldendale, where the skies were clear 300 days a year. The city agreed to its public-use status, donated the land, and connected the men to city services.

Funding for the building’s construction came in part from a federal grant through the Economic Development Agency, and the city of Goldendale contributed a small amount. The balance came from a low-interest loan from a local bank. A commission was set up to supervise operations.

A building and dome were built, and the telescope was installed. The facility was dedicated October 13, 1973.

Another factor influenced the men’s choice of Goldendale. Looking ahead, they saw the site would be in the path of totality for a solar eclipse in 1979. That event on February 26, 1979, saw the small parking lot covered in television trailers from local stations and national networks. An estimated 10,000 people crowded around the observatory.

The observatory benefitted from publicity when it was built and again surrounding the 1979 eclipse. But financial resources were thin.

“The initial corporation seemed to operate under a policy of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Peter says. “Unfortunately, what they failed to account for was the fact that Goldendale is far away from a lot of other places, and people don’t really pass through here. So, if you don’t advertise, people won’t show up because they don’t know that you exist.”

Old documents show the visitation and donation rate was so low that board members sometimes had to pass the hat to pay their single employee, and the bank had to extend the repayment deadline several times. Eventually, the bank called the loan. Board members who had cosigned the loan had to come up with $5,000 to pay it off.

The board decided to offer the observatory to the Washington State Parks agency, a move that allowed the facility to remain open to the public.

Talks began in 1980, and current Lt. Gov. Denny Heck—at the time, a state legislator whose district included Goldendale—drafted legislation that allowed Washington State Parks to buy the observatory. The transfer was finalized in 1981, and the facility has been operated by the parks agency since.

In the past 10 years, the number of visitors has quadrupled. The parks agency demolished the entire campus in 2018. The South Dome, which houses the main telescope, is the only surviving original structure. Everything else is new construction, which was completed in 2019. The official reopening ceremony was on April 7, 2022, with Gov. Jay Inslee and state representatives and senators in attendance.

The expansion included a small auditorium for educational presentations, restrooms, and more employee workspace. The parking lot was significantly expanded from its original 12 spaces. The telescope was upgraded to be more versatile and user-friendly.

The resulting design was featured in the March 2021 issue of Architectural Record magazine’s adaptive reuse issue. The observatory also won a Seattle American Institute of Architects design award and an international design award.

“We’re really excited to see what the future holds for the facility,” Peter says. “We have big plans for it, and we want it to continue operating as a science education facility. As a state park that is an observatory, it’s a very, very unique facility.”