Darling Observatory

The Darling Observatory, c. 1950. (Image: University of Minnesota Duluth Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections)

910 West 3rd Street | Architect: Richard Schmidt | Built: 1917 | Lost: ca. 1970

In the spring of 1914, the Fifth Ward Improvement Club suggested to Duluth’s mayor that the recreation area located on West Third Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues West should be named Observation Park because “from it is obtained one of the finest views in the city.” Mayor William Prince agreed, and the park was officially christened in May 1914.

The name Observation Park took on more significance in 1917 when John H. Darling opened an astronomical observatory in a corner of the park. Born in Michigan in 1847, Darling studied civil engineering at the University of Michigan. Upon graduating in 1873 he took a job as an assistant engineer for the federal government, working on surveys of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. He spent two years in St. Paul before coming to Duluth in 1884 to work as a federal assistant engineer for harbor improvements on Lake Superior with the Army Corps of Engineers. Between 1896 and 1902 he and Clarence Coleman supervised the construction of the concrete piers along the Duluth Ship Canal, replacing a crudely engineered wooden pier system first developed in the early 1870s.

Between 1902 and 1903 he mapped magnetic variations in Lake Superior west of the Apostle Islands. His work was published in 1904 in the bulletin of the United States Lake Survey and was used by ship navigators for decades. In 1910 historian Dwight Woodbridge wrote that “astronomy is a science of which Mr. Darling is very fond and he has made frequent contributions of articles on astronomical subjects to the daily press of Duluth.”

When Darling retired in 1913, he turned his full attention to his astronomy hobby. Two years later the University of Michigan bestowed on him an honorary doctorate in engineering. That same year Darling approached the Duluth City Council and asked permission to build an observatory in a corner of Observation Park, which was ideally located on the Point of Rocks, roughly 325 feet above the lake. Darling and his wife Addie lived nearby at 532 West Third Street. The facility, he promised, would be built at his own expense and would be “open to the public to allow people to view celestial objects and to educate them in astronomy.” He received permission in December 1915 and broke ground the following spring.

The wooden building was covered in stucco; a nineteen-foot dome rose behind what looked like a Greek temple with columns supporting a parapet. The telescope, mounted on solid bedrock, had a nine-inch, 261-pound refracting lens with a focal length of 130 feet; Darling designed some of its components himself. By the time the facility opened in May 1917 Darling had spent over $11,000—$3,500 for the telescope alone—and had a list of people waiting to use the telescope.

The observatory included a lecture room that seated up to twenty people, and about six times a month Darling conducted public sessions lasting as long as three hours. Over sixteen thousand people visited the observatory in 1930. That same year Darling was elected to the Duluth Hall of Fame.

When Darling died in 1942, he willed the observatory to the City of Duluth with a trust fund of $20,000 to continue its operation. Public viewing continued until 1956 under the direction of Darling’s assistant, noted UFO enthusiast Frank A. Halstead. In 1965 the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) took control of the observatory. The telescope was moved to the UMD campus where it is on display at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium. The building at Observation Park, which had been repeatedly vandalized, was demolished in 1972.