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For now, Station fire spares Stony Ridge Observatory

September 3, 2009 |  1:47 pm
Stony Ridge Observatory, home to a hand-built 30-inch telescope and 30-foot dome, has so far survived the Station fire, an official at the Hansen Dam command center said today.

“I was told by operations people the building and observatory are OK,” said Marian Swinney, a spokeswoman with the Bureau of Land Management. “The only thing that burned is two small portable communication units.”

But the board members who own the observatory, which was not allowed to have property insurance due to its location, said they’re cautiously optimistic about the update. 

“We would expect the buildings to remain standing, because of what they’re made of: concrete and metal,” said Dave Hadlen. “That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been damaged to a varying degree. We don’t have a complete understanding of what the facts are. And apparently it’s still an area full of fire coming back. So Stony Ridge is still in danger.”

Located about six miles northeast of Mt. Wilson, Stony Ridge was built by 15 amateur astronomers who pooled their money over several years to build the project near Charlton Flats.

In addition to personally grinding the glass that would become the telescope lens, they also paved their own road to the summit, bulldozed the land and dug the foundation for both the dome and the administration building.

“We were a bunch of engineers with a wealth of resources in our heads,” said co-founder John Sousa, 75. “We had regular daytime jobs and were astronomers by night. We all had a mutual dream about building a significant observatory that would do something to further the science of astronomy.”

The observatory was finished in 1963 after a final contribution from Lockheed-California, which bought time to use the telescope.

“They were so impressed with our instrument that they said they wanted to do a project with NASA to create high-resolution photographs of areas of the moon for the first moon landing,” Sousa said.

Sousa, one of the last surviving founders, now lives in Phoenix. Over the last few days, he has watched the news with despair, searching for any glimpse of what might have happened to Stony Ridge.

“I’ve been sick for days about it,” he said. “Those buildings were built to last a hundred years -- we didn’t cheat on a thing. The only thing we didn’t and couldn’t build against was fire.”

-- Corina Knoll