Meteorites at Lick Observatory

My wife and I took a road trip recently up to Santa Cruz to see our daughter and granddaughter. We called her and said we were about twenty minutes from the hotel and she could head that way to meet us. She was picking us up as soon as we could check in and taking us to Lick Observatory over on the other side of San Jose. It was about an hour and a half drive to the observatory which is on top of Mount Hamilton. The observatory is actually pretty far from the city and I would guess it is still a reasonably dark site. But, no one is really allowed to be there at night. There is still some active observing going on, though the facility is clearly in decline from what we could see and were told.

It was about 1 pm when we arrived and it was just a few minutes wait until the next tour began. There were just a handful of people there for the talk inside the dome of the 36 inch refractor. I remember reading as a kid about the telescope. There were always these wonderful photographs with a credit given to Lick Observatory. Here I was standing under the great tube of the historic scope.

 Our guide who was also the cashier in the gift store gave a nice talk about the scope and the history of the mountain. She asked a question of the group. How does the astronomer look into the eyepiece of the scope as the height changes from position to position? None of us knew the answer and she told us that the floor rises and lowers under the control of the astronomer. He has command of the turning of the dome and the floor while he stands or sits in a chair observing. One of the people asked if we could see the floor go up and she said she does it sometimes and that today could be one of those times. It was pretty cool to see the whole wooden floor of the observatory rise in front of us as we stood out on the edge near the wall. Once the floor was up we got a view into the basement where the grave of James Lick was placed. He never saw the telescope finished but that was not as important to him it seems as the actual creating of the observatory itself.

We headed down the main hallway to the display rooms and the gift store. I left the family and went to the room with all the historical displays; while they went for souvenirs. And what do you think I found immediately upon enter the little museum room? You got it, meteorites.

This is a beautiful piece of Cumberland Falls

A very nice large Plainview stone.

There were only a few but they were actually really cool. The piece of Cumberland Falls was I think the largest piece I have ever seen. It looked to be 60-70 grams maybe a little less. But, since you usually see just crumbs for sale or small fragments this was exciting. There was a very sweet Plainview which was probably around 800-1000 grams and completely fusion crusted. Several Canyon Diablos were in the display case. Not surprising to see them since the heyday of the observatory was during the big debate and recognition time of Meteor Crater. Canyon Diablos were going everywhere around the world at a crazy rate. Two of the Canyon Diablos were typical sharp edged torn metal pieces. However, the largest meteorite on display was a Canyon diablo which was covered with holes. It was quite unusual. It looked to be over a hundred pounds.

This cut and etched Canyon Diablo is showing a little corrosion but this author thinks it has been sitting in this display case for around 80 years. They receive maybe a once a year feather dusting probably at most so stable meteorites can do well with little attention.

Two very typical Canyon Diablos are seen here.

This Canyon Diablo is full of holes and is quite unusual.

There was a nice stone with a label that said it was one of about fifty stones found in 1897 and 1898 in Ness County, Kansas. There are three Ness meteorites listed in the Catalogue of Meteorites. But this has to be one of those recovered from the find in 1894 which is an L6 with a total known weight of 82kgs. The date on the label excludes the H4 found in 1938 and the weight excludes the last Ness which has no recovery date but is only a single stone of 0.399 kg and did not come to light until 1999.

There was one other large slice of meteorite with no specific information and though I tried hard to get a picture of its surface the lighting made it impossible to shoot through the glare of the glass case. All the meteorites had been presented to the Lick Observatory by a W. H. Crocker. I cannot be sure from just the name but I think it likely that the W. H. Crocker shown on the old yellowed ID cards of the meteorites is the Crocker of banking fame. He was also a regent of the University of California the body responsible for Lick Observatory. He was a major financier of the reconstruction of San Francisco after the quake and fire. Both he and his wife were patrons of the arts and creators of museums. I am strongly led to believe this is the correct man who donated the meteorites but I wish I had thought to ask up at the observatory.

After finishing at the main building with lots of pictures taken and souvenirs in hand we headed across the property to the few parking spots near the 120 inch reflector. For a time this was the second largest scope in the world. It is interesting that the glass for the 120 inch mirror was a test casting done by Corning Glass in preparation for casting the 200 inch blank of the Palomar telescope. The 36 inch refractor and 120 inch reflector are the only two domes open to the public.

We could see that the property is not being maintained very well. It is a shame that because the science has passed this historic location by and is being done on larger state of the art new telescopes that there should be no funding spent on upkeep to the buildings at Lick. We heard from some of the personnel that when they retire their residences are no longer available for someone new. They will from then on be forever vacant. Some of the buildings many of which are cute wooden structures with great style are badly suffering from age and exposure. I am well aware of the money problems that schools of higher education suffer with in California. But, Lick is a famous site and deserves better than to simple dissolve to dust from neglect.

It is a great place to see but be prepared for a long winding drive up a narrow road if you ascend the mountain from the San Jose side. The road is the original road that was used to bring up the materials for the buildings and scopes a hundred years ago. I have been up a lot of old roads to observatories and this is among the longer of the roads. But, the history is worth it. There are public observing times during the year and special programs with music held up at the observatory. We were told the large reflector is available for online use by schools with a staff member is available to work the instrument.

About the Author

James Tobin
The Meteorite Exchange, Inc. was born in 1996 with meteorite.com and Meteorite Times Magazine in 2002. Still enthusiastic about meteorites and all things related to them, we hunt, collect, cut and prepare specimens. We travel to gem shows and enjoy meteorites as much now as in the beginning. Please feel free to share any comments you have on this or any of our other sites.
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