The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


a nervous Yerkes spoke briefly about astronomy, its history and its "uncommercial" nature:

"There is nothing of moneyed value to be gained by the devotee to astronomy," said Yerkes, "there is nothing that he can sell....Consequently the devotee of astronomy has as his only reward the satisfaction which comes to him in the glory of the work which he does and the results which he accomplishes."

The speech received a thunderous ovation. The financier had finally found an audience that accepted, even appreciated him. Here was a man of business donating a huge sum in support of an "uncommercial" science, a science whose devotees have nothing to sell.

President Harper expressed the thinking of this group as he addressed Yerkes: "If it were possible for you to derive a tithe of the satisfaction from your gift which the giving of it will bestow upon each one of us you will have been rewarded." At least according to the Evening Journal, the magnate was rewarded, and in record time. "YERKES BREAKS INTO SOCIETY--Street-Car Boss Uses Telescope as a Key to the Temple Door--AND IT FITS PERFECTLY," that newspaper's headlines declared only a few hours after the observatory's dedication. But such was not truly the case. Yerkes remained a social outcast until the day he died.

The same year of the dedication, Yerkes was building the Loop Elevated, another one of his Chicago legacies. As with all his schemes, the Loop also encountered strong opposition. Ironically, one of the fiercest opponents was Levi Leiter, a social leader whose summer home stood on the banks of Lake Geneva.

Soon tiring of this continual opposition and having failed to achieve his social and financial goals, Yerkes left Chicago in 1900. He next popped up in London, where he oversaw the construction of several underground railway lines.

Charles Tyson Yerkes died in New York City on December 29, 1905, at the age of 68. His will left $100,000 to the observatory in Willams Bay, provided that it was officially designated the Yerkes Observatory. Charles Yerkes used the great 40-inch telescope as a key to the temple door, but it did not fit. For 100 years, astronomers have used this same key to unlock the secrets of the universe. For them, the key fits perfectly.

Return to opening of "ASTRONOMICAL FIGURES"

Sidebar: "Musical Makeover"

Sidebar: "Star Power"

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