University of Chicago to cease support of Yerkes in October 2018

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The University of Chicago announced today that it will cease all support of the Yerkes Observatory, home of the world’s largest refractive telescope, in October 2018.

The University of Chicago has announced plans to wind down its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., over the next six months and to formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018.

The upcoming summer season will therefore be the final season of University activities at Yerkes. The University is announcing the plans well in advance in order to engage with Yerkes staff and nearby communities, including the village of Williams Bay, in considering long-term plans for the property.

The telescope is no longer useful for scientific research, but it is historically important, and as the press release admits, “has continued to make important contributions through its education and outreach programs.” And while I can understand their decision, they sure didn’t leave the staff at Yerkes much time to find new backers. When the National Science Foundation decided it was dropping support for its telescopes at Kitt Peak, it gave them literally several years to round up new support.



  • Dick Eagleson

    Given its deliberately remote location, it’s going to be difficult to repurpose Yerkes as a museum. There’s no sizable nearby urban area from which to draw visitors. The same problem applies even to more fanciful potential new uses such as refitting the place as a steampunk disco.

  • wayne

    A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin

  • Ron

    The place would operate fine as a museum if that’s the plan for it. There are numerous larger towns in the region of the observatory. Which also means there plenty of people who are interested in astronomy. Williams Bay is also near a lake which would mean that plenty of summer travelers would also be in the area and likely be interested in visiting the observatory. Plenty of visitors would be drawn to the area to visit it.

  • Dick Eagleson

    I’m aware that that part of Wisconsin attracts a fair number of visitors to area resorts during “the season.” But winters are long in WI. Making a go of year-round operations looks tough. The nearest cities in WI are on the small side and are agricultural/blue collar-ish places. Even from these places, a visit to Williams Bay and return is an all-day excursion. No one in a Northern Tier state makes any road trips more frequently, or longer, than necessary during snow season. Except for deer hunters, that is, even the most level-headed of whom are well-known to be a bit nuts.

    Chicago and its northern suburbs have lots of population but are also appreciably further away. That makes an excursion to Williams Bay an overnighter at best. That’s going to cut seriously into potential weekday visitation even during “the season.” Even assuming adequate road conditions, say, 30 weeks a year, 60 “good” days a year is not a promising base upon which to build a business – even a non-profit one.

    I was only half-jesting about that steampunk disco idea. One way to make a go of an attraction in Williams Bay would be to appeal to some particular sub-culture with enough numbers in the Greater Chicago area – and enough money – to keep it alive year-round. This would require making it attractive enough to that targeted demographic that even winter snow and ice-covered highways wouldn’t keep them away except during the absolute worst blizzards. Given the old-school-science vibe of the Yerkes facility, sci-fi fans and cosplayers seem the most natural fit. Also, these are people who are generally well-behaved and not inclined to vandalize a place they come to regard as theirs. A series of Yerkes-Cons every year could be just what the now-sponsorless observatory needs.

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