Space has always provoked an endless stream of questions, and over the years the Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory has done its part to provide answers. There are few which have been more influential to the development of Canadian astronomy, yet are less publicly known. Today, the observatory sits appropriately on its mantle upon Hillsview Drive, and continues to be a beacon for discovery and wonder.
The David Dunlap Observatory is a place that almost never came to fruition, and very nearly lived merely as a dream of one man. That man was Dr. Clarence Chant, who dedicated his life to the development of astronomy in Canada. In fact, he spent over 30 years training Canadian astronomers at the University of Toronto after obtaining his PhD from Harvard.
Maggie Mackenzie, Heritage Services Coordinator for the Town of Richmond Hill, noted, “He’s known as the father of Canadian astronomy. They called him ‘the visionary.’” While he did indeed have a vision, he didn’t yet have the funding he needed to build the observatory of his dreams, which Canada, he felt, needed badly. That was all about to change.
In 1921, Chant was delivering a lecture on a recently visible comet in the Canadian skies and one David Dunlap was in attendance, who happened to be the co-founder of a large mining company. Dunlap, apparently rather excited, expressed genuine excitement in building Chant’s observatory but, in a sad twist of fate, suddenly passed away. The mantle was then passed to his widow, Jesse Dunlap, who eventually very much came around to the idea. On May 31st, 1935, the observatory opens on Clarence Chant’s 70th birthday. With his mission accomplished, he retired the very next day, not far from the observatory.
Canada suddenly had the second largest telescope in the world, and instantly made itself relevant in the realm of astronomy. Since its formation, the Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory has been put to good use. As Maggie Mackenzie noted, “there was a lot of scientific discovery here that didn’t happen anywhere else.”
Helen Hogg was one of the few female astronomers working in the field in the first half of the 20th century. In her time, she wrote more than 200 papers, photographer over 2000 stars, and rightfully earned herself the Order of Canada. She also wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Star starting in 1951, for over 30 years! She’s even got an asteroid named after her.
Dr. Sidney Van den Bergh worked at the David Dunlap Observatory for over 20 years, and had a remarkable run of achievements, including creating a database of dwarf galaxies, appropriately known as the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue. Charles Thomas Bolton was actually the first to discover a black hole known as Cygnus X-1, and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada.
Needless to say, a place like the Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory is worth visiting because the face of astronomy changed here, and far too few people know about it. That being said, the observatory was at the forefront of the public eye when it was featured in the National Film Board’s film “Universe“, which was a nominee at the 33rd annual Academy Awards. That film was said to inspire Stanley Kubrick’s famed work, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Just take a moment and realize what would have been lost to the world should Chant have never gotten his funding. This is a history we need to celebrate and, thankfully, there are now plenty of ways that people can relish the past of the observatory, appreciate the present, and aid in the future.
After a brief lull, the David Dunlap Observatory and surrounding area is again alight. Much of the area around the physical observatory is being built out by the Town of Richmond Hill as public space which will pay respects to the contributions of the observatory, even with a “star path,” which is a self illuminating walkway. However, the consistent and impressive programming at the observatory itself is perhaps even more exciting.
There are family lecture nights, and family events to view things like the Perseid Meteor Shower, or get a better view of Mars, which, apparently, is the most visible its been in years. There are also speaker nights, and nights which combine exploration of the planetarium for adults, but also craft activities for younger visitors with a touch of stargazing. There are summer camps as well, which bring youth on a “journey through the universe.”
If you’re a history buff, you may want to tour the administrative building itself, which has an impressive library and enough secrets and stories to stir up any imagination. In short, at the Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory, there is something for everybody.
In a world of quick soundbites and videos which surge into popularity then promptly fade into oblivion, there is something to be said for enduring accomplishments which stand the test of time. Both the site itself, and the discoveries made using what still remains as Canada’s largest telescope need to be appreciated.
As Maggie Mackenzie so aptly noted, “This is the only building like this. It’s one of those landmarks that truly makes up Richmond Hill’s heritage.”
Written by: Christopher James Mitchell