DEL NORTE — The town of Del Norte is wrapped in a rich history that few know about. The small mountain town once contended to be the capital of Colorado only to lose to Denver in the early days of the town’s history.
One fun story that highlights the changing times of the mid-to late 1800s is the fact that Del Norte was once home to one of the largest observatories in the nation which was built by the Presbyterian College of the Southwest.
Now to understand the history, it would be apt to begin with how the college came to be in Del Norte. According to documents provided by the Rio Grande County Museum, Reverend George M. Darley met with the Synod of the Colorado Presbyterian Church sometime between Oct. 10 and 14 of 1883. The Synod was looking to choose a site for the new college and had to choose between three locations. Del Norte was once again pitted against Denver for the chance to be home to the new college.
According to records, George M. Darley offered the Synod, which consisted of 41 delegates, a total of $40,000 if they would agree to have the college built in Del Norte.
“One of the delegates felt Del Norte was not suitable and it was at this time that Reverend Darley, believing as he did, jerked the dissenting delegate over a pew by his coat collar and shook his fist in the delegates face until the man realized Del Norte was an excellent choice for the college,” records indicated.
It was at this time that Del Norte was given the honor of having the college.
In 1883, the San Luis Valley did not have any high schools and because of this the college continued to struggle until the day it was closed with low student attendance. The college was home to six teachers the year it opened and included a boarding house which was donated by a wealthy woman by the name of Mrs. Stuart. The building is still in use today but is now comprised of private apartments.
It was in 1885 that college workers began building an observatory at the top of Lookout Mountain which provided an excellent location for viewing stars and planets.
“Everyone helped. The town built a road near the top and burros packed timbers up a long winding path.” In an article submitted by the Rev. Darley in the San Juan Prospector he stated, “I will be at the bottom of the Mount Lookout with tools and I expect to work 10 hours a day, six days a week until it is done. Any citizen wishing to join me will be welcome.”
The telescope, driving clock and other instruments reached Del Norte in December of that same year. The telescope that was housed in the observatory was built in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was 10-feet long with 9 ½ inch glass. The driving clock could be timed with planetary bodies so that it would automatically aim the telescope to the appropriate place in the sky.
“The dome of the observatory was comprised of heavy imported tin which was soldered by Frank Hanna Sr.,” records stated. “The dome was constructed so the window or slit through which the telescope was sighted could be turned in such a fashion that any point in the sky could be scanned.”
News of the new observatory traveled by horseback to all of the surrounding San Juan communities and it was said that the observatory was, “Thought to be one of the finest west of the Mississippi.”
Once the structure was completed, an astrologer and mathematician, Dr. Notenstein, took charge of the observatory and the college quickly became known as one of the top institutions for astronomy and theology.
The college closed its doors in 1901 due to a myriad of issues that kept it from reaching its full potential. Some of those issues included difficult transportation, lack of students, and the Spanish American War. When the college closed, the telescope was shipped to California and placed in the Mount Wilson Observatory.