University Lowbrow Astronomers

The History of the Portage Lake Observatory

by Dave Snyder
Written: 1998
Revised: March 2004

Portage Lake Observatory, Aerial View

The Detroit Observatory became an unsuitable location due to the lights of the growing city of Ann Arbor, its proximity to a dormitory for nurses, a hospital, a power plant and a railway line (vibrations caused by passing trains sometimes made it difficult to perform accurate observations). The need for a location away from city lights and the need for space to house other equipment prompted the University to look for a location to house a new observatory. While other locations were briefly considered, an area of land south of Base Line Lake and Portage Lake seemed to be a good candidate. (This is located about 15 miles northwest of Ann Arbor.)

Both the Astronomy Department and the Department of Forestry had an interest in this land (known as Peach Mountain). Purchases in the area had already been made (first in 1925, when the Bell tract and another tract were purchased for a total of 80 acres, and then in 1929 when the Newcomb tract was purchased). However the bulk of the area was acquired by the State of Michigan in 1944 and transferred to the University in 1945. In addition to the name Peach Mountain, the area also acquired the name “Stinchfield Woods” and was used by the Department of Forestry for research. Two parcels within Stinchfield Woods were reserved for the Astronomy Department. (These parcels are separated by approximately half a mile.) It was agreed that the Department of Forestry and the Astronomy Department could use separate sections of the land (but the agreement was verbal, at least at first).

On the east parcel, a telescope and supporting residence were constructed. This observatory was referred to by the name “Portage Lake Observatory.” After 16 years of use, the telescope was sent to Chile. The observatory was abandoned and a new observatory was built along with a new telescope. Later the telescope was moved to Kitt Peak and this observatory was also abandoned. The land reverted to the Department of Forestry (ending the Portage Lake Observatory).

An chronology of events follows:

After the telescopes were removed, control of the parcel and the three buildings reverted back to the Department of Forestry.

There is no longer a Department of Forestry at the University of Michigan. Faculty members who were part of the Department of Forestry are now members of the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

All three buildings still exist; in addition a classroom building was constructed. (This building is in the middle of the photograph above). Stinchfield woods was expanded somewhat since the original purchase including land purchased in 1949 (to bring the total to 780 acres) and 90 acres of land acquired in two separate purchases, the first in 1955-1956 and the second in 1964-1965. Neither purchase was used by the Astronomy Department.

The shore of Base Line Lake was never used by the Astronomy Department (as was the original intent), that area is now the home of the University of Michigan Sailing Club.

Photo Credit

Photograph taken by Mark Deseck, Summer 2001.

A Olympus C-3030Z camera was used (1/100 second, f/2.8 at 19.1mm).

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