About The Gunnison Valley Observatory

Gunnison Valley Observatory

The Story of the Gunnison Valley Observatory

Picture Gunnison resident Tod Vandewalker sitting on his porch one clear evening in 2000 marveling at the stars.  Picture inspiration striking him.  Perhaps it was divine intervention.

Tod shared his idea with friend Tom Willis and together they cooked up a scheme to help improve the local economy through science tourism.  Their vision became the Science and Technology Center of Gunnison.

They only had one or two obstacles to overcome – like no telescope and no place to put one.

On a separate track, step back in time to 1986.  The place is Colorado Springs. Haley’s comet is approaching and Paul Van Slyke, a nuclear power engineer, had an obsession with Haley’s Comet and with publically accessible astronomy.  The Black Forest Observatory was born of Paul’s vision.  Van Slyke had a site but he too has the problem of no telescope.  Even the site was no “gimme”.  Van Slyke’s battles with El Paso County to be able to use the site were epic.

Fund-raising efforts for the Black Forest Observatory resulted in the donation of an expensive lens grinding machine which Van Slyke was able to trade to Intermountain Optical in Salt Lake City for a 30” Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain optical set.

The stars must have been in perfect alignment because while travelling to Utah in a borrowed truck to deliver the grinding machine and pick up the optics, Van Slyke had a breakdown in Gunnison.  They rented a vehicle to continue and returned to Gunnison to pick up the repaired vehicle and make their way home.  But, it is interesting to note that the 30’ Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain telescope optics made their first of three visits to Gunnison.

The Black Forest Observatory operated 1986 to 2001. By 2001 Haley’s comet is gone for another 75 years and life moves on.  Paul Van Slyke had other interests to pursue and an exceptional used telescope became available.

Meanwhile, back in Gunnison, Tod Vandewalker, Tom Willis, architect Joe Bob Merritt, Dallas astronomer and Pitkin summer resident Dr. Richard Olenick and astrophysical engineer Arthur Sweeny began a fundraising effort of their own.  Coffee cans for contributions appeared on nearly every business counter in Gunnison County.  Tod and Tom began a new business selling bottled water, Skywater in particular, in which a portion of the proceeds were directed to the fledgling project.  Donations from community organizations were solicited and grants applied for. 

You see there was an urgency in the efforts. They had learned of a used telescope for sale in Colorado Springs.  It was a large 30” Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain telescope capable of scientific research.

They were able to contact Paul Van Slyke and a deal was made.  The scope was purchased and transported back to Gunnison where it was placed in the lobby of the Community Bank until a permanent home could be found

ScopeYou may remember the display in the bank.  It looked like this

 I’ll certainly never forget my first contact with the scope.  Nearly everyone in town was excited about this project and many local businesses offered to help in any way they could.  Our computer technology business offered to help as well.  I believe it was Joe Bob Merritt who asked me to look at the scope to see about connecting the computer control circuits.  I’m sure I muttered OMG or something similar when I saw that in their excitement to get the scope home to Gunnison they simply cut all the control cables with bolt cutters and didn’t even bring the controls.  Paul Van Slyke built everything himself and didn’t make any diagrams. The situation was further compounded by the fact that Paul was also experimenting with a giant million volt tesla coil which could generate two foot long high voltage streamers. Spectacular to say the least, but the discharge fried all the control equipment.  OMG!!!!  Ultimately Arthur Sweeny built totally new control circuits with new connections.

Let’s go back in time again and follow the roots of the organization this time.  The Science and Technology Center of Gunnison formed in 2001 and was incorporated in 2002 as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit.   The vision of the group seems to have evolved independently from the Black Forest Observatory but with some remarkable parallels. Key objectives for both included:

Public access to a large, high quality telescope, available regularly to community members and visitors.

Outreach programs to promote astronomy related education at all levels from K-12 classes to Western State Colorado University.

They wanted to promote and support the amateur astronomical community.

And they wanted to provide facilities that support research in astronomy.

By 2004 enough money had been accumulated to begin building an observatory on property leased from Gunnison County.  Architect Jo Bob Merritt designed the building using the latest energy saving and high efficiency features available.  The telescope was sent to Dallas to be reengineered by Arthur Sweeny into a rigid frame and polar mount. 

Construction dribbled along until 2006 when it was apparent that the program was struggling.  Donations tapered off while expenses mounted. The entire program was in jeopardy.

However, by this time there were some new faces added to the cast of characters; Dr. Ted Violett, Mike Brooks, and Bill Maier among others sought and received support from Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, Gunnison Rotary and an energy impact grant. 

The project reorganized as the Gunnison Valley Observatory with new life.  The building was completed in 2007 and the scope was returned to Gunnison and installed early in 2008.  The first public viewing began in June of 2008.  GVO is now open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights from mid-June to mid-September featuring public viewing on the 30-inch scope, a lecture on a variety of astronomy related topics, viewing through a variety of smaller telescopes and occasional special events.

By the end of the 2010 season the board felt there was a need to expand.  We wanted to increase both our scientific research capabilities and add video and photography to our offerings.  The idea for the Ted Violett Memorial Observatory was born.  Volunteers worked hundreds of hours over the summer of 2011 to build this building.  This observatory currently houses a 10 inch Celestron scope equipped with a digital camera.  Our dream for the future is to add a high quality scope and a state of the art video system enabling us to show real-time video to groups, engage in astrophotography, and to support more sophisticated research.