The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


he and several associates purchased control of a North Side streetcar company. Yerkes could have done without the publicity: As he began forging a mass-transit empire, the newspapers attacked him daily.

This criticism was not wholly undeserved. Yerkes opposed legislative measures that would have benefited streetcar commuters. And, like many other businessmen of the period, he routinely resorted to bribery to obtain franchises from the city council. When bribery didn't work, he sometimes employed "professional vamps" to seduce, then blackmail, lawmakers. He also was a "frenzied financier," who issued stocks and bonds far in excess of the value of his properties; much of this profitable paper ended up in Yerkes' pockets.

By 1892, these methods--combined with public knowledge of his prison record--helped make Yerkes the most vilified man in town. His soiled reputation began to hurt his ability to borrow, which in turn threatened the transportation empire he had built on a mound of debt. Clearly, Yerkes needed to improve his public image, and fast, before all his channels of credit dried up.

That year, William Rainey Harper gave Yerkes a chance to better his image when he approached the streetcar magnate with a request for money to construct a biology laboratory. In a relentless race for excellence, the 34-year-old Harper expertly pursued renowned academics for his faculty with the promise of large salaries, while wooing capitalist titans like John D. Rockefeller to raise the necessary funds. In one of his greatest coups, he captured half of Clark University's faculty, including Albert Michelson, the physicist who accurately measured the speed of light. Yerkes, however, managed to elude Harper's magic touch--this time--and declined to fund the lab project.

A second proposal, made by a young astronomer, proved far more intriguing to Yerkes. Twenty-four-year-old George Ellery Hale dreamed of an observatory adequately equipped to study the sun, the center of his universe. President Harper had courted Hale in 1891 with the offer of a professorship, hoping to acquire for the University the astronomer's celebrated Kenwood Observatory and its 12-inch refracting telescope. Initially rejecting Harper's proposition, Hale finally accepted it in 1892, but with one very long string attached: He required the University to build a new observatory costing not less than $250,000.

Not long after delivering this ultimatum to Harper, Hale learned that two 40-inch-diameter glass disks were gathering dust in an optician's workshop. University of Southern California officials had intended to use these disks, when polished, as the lens in what would have been the world's largest telescope, but they could not complete this ambitious project because of financial difficulties. Hale saw an opportunity for the University of Chicago to capitalize on USC's misfortune. But first


Sidebar: "Musical Makeover"

Sidebar: "Star Power"

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