History of the McCormick Observatory

The Washington & Lee and University of Virginia Telescope Debate




There is still considerable uncertainty and confusion about the exact circumstances that led Leander McCormick to present his twenty-six inch refracting telescope to the University of Virginia. The pieces of this puzzle consist mainly of newspaper articles and correspondences throughout the post Civil War period, approximately from 1867 to 1878 when he formally offered the telescope to the Rector and Board of Visitors at UVa.

The McCormick family has always been held in the highest esteem in its native Rockbridge County in western Virginia. Viewed as the local celebrities, local papers such as the Lexington Gazette noted donations made by the McCormick brothers to institutions in the area, including Washington College which became Washington and Lee University, and announced their occasional visits to their family homestead to visit family and old friends. It came as no surprise that Leander J. McCormick was considering Washington College as a possible location for the donation of what would have been the largest refracting telescope in the world. McCormick and Washington College president, Robert E. Lee, were acquaintances who exchanged occasional letters and sent each other books and newspapers to keep one another abreast of the happenings in their respective locations. They had begun correspondence by 1868. Exactly when McCormick first mentioned the possibility of donating the telescope to Washington College to Lee is unknown.

In January 1870, seven trustees of Washington College each pledged $1000 to the endowment of an astronomical observatory, including college president Lee. This might indicate that they had knowledge of McCormick's conditions for the donation of the telescope, which consisted of the raising of funds for the building of the observatory and the funds to purchase necessary equipment and hire a proper staff to use the telescope for research.

Colonel Charles S. Venable served as a mathematics professor at the University of Virginia for over thirty years following his service for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Venable served on Lee's staff during the war and it is possible that Venable learned of McCormick's offer through Lee. It is also possible that McCormick began considering the University of Virginia after corresponding with Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. In either case, Venable had been in contact with McCormick by May 1870 attempting to determine what would convince McCormick to donate the telescope to the University of Virginia. In spring of 1869, UVa Rector, Benjamin Barbour, had sought information on the costs involved and benefits possibly derived from constructing an astronomical observatory. Though he made no mention of McCormick's offer, it suggests that he may have known of Venable's correspondences with McCormick.

Though McCormick had made no formal commitment to Washington College, the trustees of the college seemed confident that they could raise the funds and secure the donation of the telescope. Over the course of the summer and fall of 1870, the Trustees formed several committees to correspond with McCormick, to begin raising the estimated $100,000 it would take to properly endow the observatory and to help secure the donation for Washington College in any way possible. They carefully articulated that, at that time, McCormick had still not committed himself to the selection of their institution, but they continued to act with confidence. President Lee died in the spring of that year and the name of the institution was changed to Washington and Lee University in October 1870. In the spring of 1871, the Trustees formed a committee to select a site for the telescope.

By late 1870, the Lexington Gazette had picked up the possibility of McCormick's donation and kept track of it for much of the next decade. Interviews of McCormick's family still located in Rockbridge County and unnamed "reliable sources" from Washington and Lee fueled occasional newsclips and furthered the belief that Lexington would soon be receiving the finest telescope in the country. The Gazette also ran stories from Chicago and New York papers mentioning the construction and future donation of McCormick's telescope. The Gazette reported having seen the plans of the proposed observatory at the home of Washington & Lee trustee J. D. Davidson, though it is unclear what plans had been drawn up at that point.

The Great Chicago Fire on 1871 proved a major set back for the McCormicks, who lost their entire factory and as well as their homes. The Lexington Gazette reported that Leander McCormick had not allowed work on the telescope to cease, but some accounts claim that the telescope McCormick originally commissioned went to the U. S. Naval Observatory and then after recovering from the fire, he reordered the lenses for the telescope to be ground by Alvan Clark & Sons in 1876.

The next major mention of the telescope occurred in June 1877 when Washington & Lee Trustees met, concluded that McCormick had again intimated his intention of donating the telescope to Washington & Lee and trustee James D. Davidson moved that official words of appreciation be sent to McCormick and their official acceptance of the gift. Unfortunately for Washington & Lee, their enthusiasm extended itself a little too soon.

The following December 17th, Leander McCormick wrote making his formal offer of the Clark twenty-six inch refracting telescope to the University of Virginia. The following day the Lexington Gazette published an article describing continuing efforts to raise the necessary endowment for the telescope. The following two months produced much debate as the reality of what happened slowly came to light at Washington & Lee University.

Early in January 1878, a Boston dispatch picked up by the Lexington Gazette reported that Cyrus McCormick was no longer giving the telescope to Washington and Lee because they were unable to provide funds, so he planned to grant it to another higher education institution in Virginia. The Gazette immediately refuted the article, starting with the fact that it was Leander, not Cyrus, McCormick who intended to donate the telescope. The Gazette declared that the telescope would be located in Lexington, "despite the endeavors of jealous rivals to defeat that purpose. But whether recognized or not, a suitable building will be erected here for the generous gift of our distinguisehd countyman, Mr. L. J. McCormick, who no doubt smiles at these efforts through the press to influence him in the bestowal of his gifts." Unfortunately for Washington & Lee and residents of Lexington, the newspaper was unaware of the offer made to and accepted by the University of Virginia.

The following week, Leander McCormick sent a letter to Washington & Lee trustee James D. Davidson, requesting that he set the trustees straight on what had transpired between the two of them and why he had elected to donate the telescope to UVa. McCormick wrote of conversations he had with Davidson in which Davidson described the dire financial situation of Washingon & Lee and how Davidson believed that no Virginia institution would be able to raise the necessary funds given the financial difficulties of the whole region that characterized the South of the Reconstruction Era. McCormick reiterated his desire to locate the telescope in Lexington, thought that after their conversations that it would be impossible and McCormick spoke with Col. Venable shortly thereafter, who argued that $30,000 could be raised through the State Legislature, with further funds being donated by alumni and the University. McCormick had also replied to a letter from General Lilley, another Washington & Lee trustee hoping to determine what it would take to secure the donation, and told him that he had already granted the telescope to UVa.

Meanwhile, the University of Virginia wasted no time going to the State Legislature in search of funding. The Lexington Gazette accused UVa in a February 1st editorial of trying to undermine Washington & Lee's efforts to acquire the telescope. General Lilley immediately began a campaign to hold McCormick accountable for claims he made of giving the telescope to Lexington and sought accounts from people who had read telegrams or letters from McCormick mentioning the telescope.

Davidson replied to McCormick's letter by arguing that he had spoken to McCormick as a friend and not as a representative of Washington & Lee. Regardless, Davidson agreed to present McCormick's letter to the Board of Trustees and maintained that he thought it best that McCormick know the true nature of Washington & Lee's financial situation.

A writer for the Lexington Gazette attempted to quell anger by reporting that it was better for a neighboring Virginia institution to receive than a Northern university. The Lexington Gazette continued to hope that the telescope was on its way to Lexington, particularly after the State Legislature denied UVa any funds at the beginning of March 1878. Southern Collegian, a Lexington collegiate newspaper, chastised McCormick for having offered the telescope to the University of Virginia without any notification to Washington & Lee University officials. By this time, it was a moot point. The University of Virginia had already begun its fundraising effort and was well on its way to receiving the telescope.

The last official word on the matter at Washington & Lee University was at the Board of Trustees meeting on June 25, 1878, where Davidson read the correspondence between McCormick and himself, which was entered into the record and closed the discussion of an astronomical observatory at Washington & Lee University.