Cincinnati has one of the oldest continuous operating telescopes in North America; and our city is the ‘Birthplace of American Astronomy’.
The telescope arrived in Cincinnati after coming up the Mississippi then the Ohio Rivers to Broadway Street, near January 25, 1845. Dozens of boxes came with the telescope, filled with European astronomy books. It had already come across the Atlantic Ocean from Germany unrattled.
It wasn’t easy, even from day one in 1842 of the purchase by 34-year-old Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, for the Merz & Mahler telescope. Getting the telescope to Cincinnati from Munich took much more than the initial investment by the mathematics professor and astronomer Mitchel; father of 6. To be sure.
In between Germany and Ohio in 1844-1845, unfinished roadways, rickety vessels, pirated sailing ships, tired horses, and crazy weather worked against, rather than for, a telescope, its lens, brass and wood casings. Sinking ships, corduroy roads that would shake and curdle milk in 10 minutes, climate changes, no cranes or forklifts, no bubble-wrap, comes to mind.
Thomas Jefferson Halderman was Captain of the Yorktown Steamer that brought the telescope unscathed to Cincinnati, at the foot of Broadway. Halderman had a reputation, even before the Cincinnati Astronomical Society gave him honorary (and his crew) membership in the Society; because of their heroism, nothing short of it.
Jacob Strader Steamboat 1854, attributed to E. Hawkins
Reading the accounts of multiple steamboat explosions, ice sheets-a thing called frazil slush, sand bars, low waters….in the Daily Gazette, 1844-45 makes it a near-miracle a fragile telescope made it from Munich, Germany to Cincinnati, via the Atlantic, the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers. It also diminishes considerably the romantic, dreamy steamboat excursions, the calliope playing, lights aglow, cocktails held high, all we now regard as standard ambiance on these vessels. That illusion sinks reading these harrowing and drowning depictions of Captains trying to save cargo and passengers, who first?
There were publication days in the Cincinnati Gazette when there were more than 10 steamboat explosions, from New York to New Orleans…it was one of the most important news elements of the times. Between explosions and fires (the College Hall building the telescope was to be received in after reaching Cincinnati, burned to the ground a matter of days before it arrived there) it’s a combination of good fortune, good thinking by a riverboat captain, and good timing the telescope floated into Cincinnati looking good.
Watching for news of the telescope, several weeks in between, Cincinnatians read of it being more on its way than not. Riverboat Captain Halderman played not only a decision-making role on the river, in December and January ice and other obstructions leading to disaster if not knowing what to do; he also brought the newspapers to shore for the townsmen/women to read the news first hand from other ports and towns. The telegraph had not been perfected to yet to connect all river cities to give news in the moment. The newspaper in the hands of a riverboat captain would work fine; it had to.
The telescope had an observatory built on a newly named hill, Mt. Adams, to its purpose, created by the hands (with help) of the astronomer who started the project in the first place. Today the telescope is part of a National Landmark, the Cincinnati Observatory, The Birthplace of American Astronomy; celebrating its 175th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone by John Quincy Adams in 1843. The Merz & Mahler telescope is a centerpiece of any visit to the Observatory.
It is Captain Thomas Jefferson Halderman, “TJ” to end with here. Halderman’s partner was George Washington Walker, anyone surprised? Not really. Halderman went on to become the first steamer boiler inspector in the major river port of Cincinnati. He also testified as an expert witness in a Supreme Court case and wrote copious letters to Congress, newspapers, etc., advocating particular safety steps that the explosion-prone steamer industry could take. Captain Halderman retired, left his nice house on Fourth Street near Broadway, took his well-earned money and family then moved to sedate, elegant Glendale, Ohio. He invested in a paper company, and became mayor of Glendale. His portrait hung in the town hall back in 1870 and maybe that’s the next thing to research. We can think well of and thank Captain Halderman for his river years; for his foresight and instincts that got that telescope to the right place at the right time.