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 mayor William Prince that the recreation area located on West Third Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues West—positioned atop Point of Rocks, roughly 325 feet above the bay—should be named Observation Park because “from it is obtained one of the finest views in the city.” Prince agreed, and the greenspace was officially christened Observation Park in May 1914.

The name took on much more significance in 1917 when local civil engineer John H. Darling, retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, opened an astronomical observatory within the park. Darling, a native of Michigan, first came to Duluth in the 1880s. 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. But, as historians Dwight Woodbridge and John Pardee explained in 1910, “astronomy [was] a science of which Mr. Darling [was] very fond and he has made frequent contributions of articles on astronomical subjects to the daily press of Duluth.” In 1915 Darling approached the Duluth City Council and asked permission to build an observatory at the park’s northeast corner. 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 stucco-covered wooden Neoclassical building was built in two sections. The rectangular, single-story front half featured an entry porch of Doric columns supporting the building’s extended hipped roof, which made its front gable appear as a pediment. The round, two-story back section carried a nineteen-foot revolving dome over the observation room. Together, the building’s two halves resembled a Roman temple not unlike the Pantheon. The telescope, mounted on solid bedrock for stability, had a 261-pound, nine-inch-wide 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, he had a list of people waiting to use it.

The observatory included a lecture room that seated twenty people, and roughly twice a week Darling conducted public lecture 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, his will gave the facility 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, who was a member of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. In 1965 the University of Minnesota Duluth took control of the observatory. The telescope was moved to the UMD campus where it remains on display at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium. The building at Observation Park, which had been repeatedly assaulted by vandals, was demolished in 1972.