Queen's Observatory

[archival photo of the observatory ]
Pictured above: Queen's Observatory, 1924
Credit: W.J. Bolton, Library and Archives Canada, PA-031022

In the 1850s, humanity still only vaguely understood the universe that surrounded the earth. Nonetheless, on clear nights a handful of Kingston stargazers could be found in City Park peering into a telescope.

In 1855, a group of local "Gentlemen Amateurs" interested in astronomy, headed by Queen’s professor James Williamson, had petitioned the city for funds to erect an observatory. Professor Williamson had pioneered the study of science at the college and now sought to connect academic and amateur in a search for the stars.

This observatory, located in City Park, was the first in Ontario.

The city initially provided the operating funds but a few years later, the city balked at further funding. Some councillors objected to paying for such a specialized facility "which no one knows anything about except a professor and one or two students at Queen's College" and argued that scientific investigation was beyond the city’s mandate.

In 1861, therefore, the city happily sold the observatory and an acre of the park to Queen's for $1. There were several conditions, however, including that the observatory arrange weekly corrections to City Hall's clock and allow the mayor and all councillors and their successors to use the telescope at no charge.

[photo of the Observatory in winter]

In 1863, Professor Williamson appointed a promising Queen’s student, Nathan Dupuis, as curator of the observatory – the first step in Dupuis’ long career in science at Queen’s.

Due in part to repeated acts of vandalism, the Observatory moved in 1881 to a location just west of where Carruthers Hall now stands. It was taken down in 1901 and rebuilt in 1909 in a small domed building at the foot of University Avenue. This was destroyed to make way for McLaughlin Hall in 1946.

The Observatory has been located on the roof of Ellis Hall since that building was constructed in 1958. Its green metal dome, a conspicuous campus landmark, housed a 15-inch reflecting telescope built in 1958, which was replaced in 1999 by a state of the art 16-inch telescope.

By the end of the 20th century, many Queen’s graduates had taken up Professor Williamson’s original fascination with space, devoting their lives to exploring and understanding the universe.

Although modest in size by modern standards and somewhat limited in its performance by the brightness of Kingston's city lights, the telescope is still heavily used, partly as a teaching and demonstration tool for undergraduate and graduate astrophysics degree programs, and partly in hosting public groups of varied kinds.


Learn more about the Queen's Observatory...