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Founders fear Stony Ridge Observatory might be lost in Station fire

September 2, 2009 |  7:48 pm

As the plight of Mt. Wilson remains in the forefront, a summit six miles northeast that also houses a decades-old observatory has yet to receive much attention.

But Stony Ridge Observatory, whose fate is unknown, is worth acknowledging, said one of its founders.

John Sousa was among the 15 amateur astronomers who not only conceptualized Stony Ridge back in 1957, but also hand-built its 30-inch telescope and 30-foot dome.

Pooling their money over several years, the Stony Ridge astronomers poured their spare time and resources into 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,” Sousa, 75, said. “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, made of cinder block and metal, 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.

John Briggs, a high school physics and astronomy teacher who once worked at Mt. Wilson, said Stony Ridge deserves recognition.

“The telescope inside is really a masterpiece,” he said. “The fact that a group of people got together and did it as a team and set it up at that excellent location -- it’s a wonderful accomplishment.”

Owned by board members who pay a fee to join, the observatory has a 99-year lease on federal land, which means that tree clearing in the area is up to the U.S. Forest Service.

For years, towering pine trees have stood just 15 feet from the observatory, and some board members fear they may have added unnecessary fuel to the fire.

“Almost two years ago, a number of trees were marked for clearing, and they’ve never done anything about it,” said Dave Hadlen. “We don’t know the extent of the damage, but the situation would be considerably different if the trees weren’t in such close proximity to the observatory.”

It’s hard to tell how much money it would take to rebuild the observatory if it succumbs to flames, although the cost is estimated at up to $1 million.

“The trouble with estimating the cost of the telescope is that it’s a classic; it can’t be replaced,” said board member Kay Meyer.

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