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Hidden Cincinnati: Observatory offers more than just stargazing

Posted at 11:16 AM, Aug 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 18:30:00-04

CINCINNATI — When my kids were little, we would pack a blanket and lie down on the lawn at the Cincinnati Observatory and stargaze. Little did I know that this hidden gem was not just a place to stare into space: It's loaded with local history.

"This is the old telescope," said the observatory's astronomer, Dean Regas, as he led me on a tour of the site late last month. "The roof opens by hand and everything."

The 170-year-old wooden telescope is the oldest telescope anyone can look through in the Western Hemisphere, Regas said.

He explained how the observatory was born out of a dream by Ormsby McKnight Mitchell nearly 180 years ago.

"He went door to door asking people for 25 bucks in 1842 and 1843," Regas said. "So, that's like how much you make in a month. And he's like, 'I'm gonna go get us a telescope that will be world-class. I'm going to go to Germany; we'll bring it back here. It's going to be awesome.'

"And so many people signed on to this. This was the first publicly funded scientific institution in the United States."

READ MORE: For Cincinnati, this is the 'lighthouse of the sky'

The observatory — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — sits on a hillside in present-day Hyde Park, just north of the border with Mount Lookout. It eventually led to multiple neighborhoods' current names.

Initially, it sat closer to present-day Mount Adams, then known as Mount Ida.

"(President) John Quincy Adams comes to Cincinnati, gives a long speech to dedicate the observatory," Regas said. "Afterwards, the hill is renamed in his honor, and so that's where Mount Adams gets its name, because of the observatory."

But in the 1800s, the smog from the city basin obscured the view of the stars, so the observatory was moved to its current location on Observatory Avenue.

"So they had to move the telescope to the deep, dark wilderness of a new part of town called Mount Lookout, and that's where we are today," he said. "So when we moved out here, the town was formed and named Mount Lookout because of all the looking out that there was going to be happening."

For a hidden gem, though, Regas hopes it doesn't remain so obscured from the public's awareness.

"It was a little hidden, and we're hoping to get it out a lot more; that's for sure," he told WCPO. "We're getting more and more people coming from out of town visiting the observatory, especially in the last couple of years, and we're getting found and discovered."

Regas said he's heard one thing from locals more than anything else: "I've lived in Cincinnati my whole life, and I didn't know this was here."