History

By Phil Harrington in 2024

In the Cold War days of the 1950s and 1960s, the US Army constructed 12 Nike missile facilities in Connecticut, including two in Westport, known as BR-73. One housed Nike Ajax missiles from 1956-1963. The missile battery, now long gone, was located at 85 North Avenue, just to the north of where Westport’s Bedford Middle School is now.

The second was an Integrated Fire Control (IFC) site located at 182 Bayberry Lane, just south of the Merritt Parkway. The site was chosen by the Army in 1956 in part because it is one of the highest points in the town, some 232 feet above sea level. The site included two rectangular towers, each standing 40 feet tall, as well as several single-story support structures. Each tower also has a solid concrete pier.

The Army base, located literally in the backyards of some of the wealthiest homes in the country, was the inspiration for the 1958 movie Rally Round the Flag, Boys! starring Westport’s most famous residents Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

The property was turned over to the town by the Army in 1963 and was subsequently transferred to the school system.

In the mid-1960s, Westport resident Gerald Rolnick donated a homemade 12.5-inch Newtonian reflector to the local school system. The instrument was constructed by Rolnick and used many parts from Criterion Manufacturing Company in Hartford.

It was decided in 1967 that the south tower on the former Nike IFC site would be home to the Rolnick telescope. To accommodate the instrument, the tower was outfitted with interior wooden stairs for access. For security, gated chain-link fencing was installed around the tower’s open base. The telescope itself would be housed in a walled structure on top of the concrete pier. An observatory dome made by Ash Dome in Plainfield, Illinois, would cap off the observatory.

Rufus Morton, a science teacher in the Westport school system, was in charge of the project. He sought out the advice of WAS founding member Charles Scovil, himself a resident of Westport at the time. One of their first decisions was to order a suitable mounting and base for the new observatory. Just as Rolnick had done years earlier, Morton turned to Criterion, a leading telescope manufacturer at the time. Criterion’s heavy-duty “Observatory” German equatorial mount was installed on the concrete pier and the telescope was placed on top.

Unfortunately, not long after the observatory was completed, Morton left the school system. With no one overseeing observatory operation and maintenance, it fell into disuse. Vandalism soon followed and resulted in several parts of the telescope being stolen and the dome punctured by bullets fired from below. The telescope was finally moved to Staples High School for safekeeping, where it sat unused in the basement for several years.

In 1975, Fred Bump, a junior high science teacher in Westport, heard about the telescope and observatory, and set about to resurrect it. As luck would have it, one of his students that year, Dan Lasley was the son of Westport resident Jerry Lasley, Comptroller of the Perkin-Elmer Corporation in Norwalk. All three soon learned of the others’ interest in astronomy.

Eliciting the help of some of his other students, including Scott Hyman, Adam and Hamish Norton, Kevin King, and Maryann Warren, as well as other amateur astronomers in neighboring towns (among them, Weston resident Herm Vener, as well as your author, who lived in Rowayton at the time), Bump decided that before the telescope could be reinstalled, tower access had to be secured. The open base was closed off with concrete blocks held into place by special fiberglass-reinforced mortar. A heavy-duty metal door with a pick-proof lock completed the fortressing project.

As the observatory’s refurbishment was well underway, it was thought that a club might be formed to serve as caretaker and operator. Thus, the Westport Astronomical Society was born. Fred Bump was the club’s first president, with Jerry Lasley serving as vice president. Westport residents Marty Fallier and Mickey Marks served as treasurer and secretary, respectively. Our initial formative meetings were held in the small library at the Nature Center for Environmental Activities (now Earthplace) at 10 Woodside Avenue in Westport. Monthly meetings, which soon migrated to the museum’s meeting room, commenced, and the club newsletter, From the Observatory (later known as Field of View), started soon afterward with Yours Truly serving as its first editor.

That same year, the newly formed Westport Astronomical Society took over as the caretakers of the property.

Beginning in the spring of 1976, the Westport Observatory opened for public viewing every Wednesday night from 8:30 to 10:30 PM.

It soon became apparent that the observatory’s logistics needed improvement. Originally, the telescope was mounted atop a concrete extension of the tower’s pier, as seen in the cover photos of the Westport News profile below. That meant that you had to ascend a tall rolling ladder to get to the eyepiece. With both safety and convenience in mind, a raised wooden platform was added under the dome. The design allowed visitors easy access to the telescope eyepiece while also adding a table area for opening up star charts and other accessories.

The observatory site also has two outbuildings that had been constructed during the Army days. To give members a place to congregate and warm themselves on cold nights, we renovated one in 1977. Before that, it was little more than a graffiti-laden shell used once a year by the local amateur radio club for Field Day, with their antennas strung onto the smaller metal tower nearby. Refurbishment of the building was only made possible after a generous donation was received by the late Clinton B. Ford of Wilton. Ford, a close friend of Scovil, was a member and benefactor of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) as well as a long-time member of a nearby club in Stamford, the Fairfield County Astronomical Society. Known officially as the Clinton B. Ford Warm Room, the building also included a bathroom, library, and photographic darkroom. The latter was an especially welcome commodity back in those pre-digital days!

The largest of the on-site buildings had originally housed generators to power the radar units. In 1991 we gained exclusive use of the building. It too was gutted and refurbished to provide our present meeting room. Now known as the Frederick Bump Educational Center, the club has held its monthly meetings there since 1991.

The original 12.5-inch underwent several drastic makeovers in the ensuing years. The original tube, which was partially open to minimize weight, was replaced with a solid fiberglass tube, while the primary mirror was refigured by optical engineers at Perkin-Elmer. Their expertise gave us one of the finest mirrors of its size to be found in any amateur telescope anywhere. To better support this exceptional instrument, thanks to the efforts of Charles Leeper the original Criterion mount was replaced with a far sturdier fork-style equatorial mounting, complete with computerized GoTo control.

25 years ago, the club augmented the 12.5-inch by purchasing an Obsession 25-inch f/5 reflector. The 25-inch is taken out on public nights when it’s not too windy and the ground is free of snow making it the largest publicly accessible instrument in the state.

Meanwhile, the 12.5-inch was eventually replaced under the dome with a Meade 16-inch LX200 Schmidt-Cassegran telescope. That was recently replaced with a state-of-the-art 14-inch Celestron EdgeHD catadioptric telescope.

Many club members have come and gone since WAS first came into being in 1975. We thank every one of them for their time and contributions. Most of the work on the telescope, mounting, buildings, and grounds has been done over the years by WAS members.

We especially want to acknowledge those who held elected office since the club’s creation. Special thanks go to John Kamon and Carl Lancaster who obtained not-for-profit status for WAS in 1990, and to our Observatory Directors Fred Bump and Bob Meadows who in turn have kept the Observatory operational for half a century!

Most notable are the past presidents, each of whom guided the club on a steady course during their tenure. Past WAS Presidents include:

  • Fred Bump
  • Bill Flanagan
  • Greg Dolan
  • Cal Powell
  • John Kamon
  • Bob Deegan
  • Gary Oleski
  • Tom Davis
  • Phil Flynn
  • Todd Thompson
  • Dan Wright
  • Shannon Calvert

Several members have gone on to pursue astronomy as a profession. Among them is Scott Hyman, who is now an astronomy professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Your author has gone on to write 9 books and hundreds of articles for amateur astronomers while teaching astronomy courses at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island.

Today, the Westport Astronomical Society has matured from a small band of dedicated teachers, students, and amateur astronomers to one of the most active clubs in all of New England. As we continue to evolve, we can confidently proclaim a favorite “Bump-ism” first uttered by our founder decades ago: “WAS Is!”