Northern Lights
Students on Observatory Hill during sunset
Student walking in winter
Using the telescope inside Washburn Observatory
Group of Honors students in front of Lake Mendota
Honors students in front of Washburn Observatory
Group of Honors students in front of Lake Mendota

Location History

The L&S Honors Program has called Washburn Observatory home since July 2009, following a complete, historic renovation of the UW landmark (listed in 1985 on the National Register of Historic Places). Washburn Observatory is located on Observatory Hill, a site that has had special cultural and spiritual significance for thousands of years before the Observatory was placed here.

We recognize that this campus is located on the ancestral lands of the Ho-Chunk, on what they call Teejop (day-JOpe), the Four Lakes. This is not a comfortable acknowledgement, since the 1832 treaty through which this land became available to build this university was an act of violence against the Ho-Chunk nation, followed by other acts of violence continuing over more than the next 100 years. We accept our share of the responsibility of encouraging respect towards this heritage while keeping the memory of this shameful history alive.

Part of the message of First Nation members of the campus community has been an invitation to share in the pleasure of this special place and its spiritual traditions.  The UW-Madison initiative “Our Shared Future” acknowledges the history of this land and of the Ho-Chunk Nation, including a public marker on campus: it also indicates a way forward to a new DeJope community in this place, and we are grateful to be included in this community.

We invite you to learn more about our location using the tabs below.

From atop Observatory Hill, visitors of the L&S Honors Program can enjoy views of Picnic Point and the scenic Lake Mendota. Near Washburn Observatory is the site of the Tree of Peace, planted in 1988, and two visible effigy burial mounds, which were part of a larger mound group created over one thousand years ago. These sacred mounds are listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Please do not walk on the mounds.

The peaceful landscape of Observatory Hill welcomes us to learn and to reflect. To continue learning about this place’s history, we recommend visiting the Lakeshore Nature Preserve pages about Observatory Hill and the Native American mounds.

Map of Observatory Hill mound group
Map of the Observatory Hill mound group
Tree of Peace marker
The Tree of Peace, a Native American cultural icon planted in 1988 on Observatory Hill  (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Historic Washburn Observatory (constructed in 1878), home of the L&S Honors Program; photograph of Washburn Observatory, ca. 1880

Interested in visiting the observation deck? The Department of Astronomy offers free public observing and provides updates on public open houses via their Twitter account.

The Observatory is named after former Wisconsin governor Cadwallader C. Washburn, who, in 1876, allocated a sum of $3000 per year over 3 years for the creation of an observatory for the University of Wisconsin. At the time, $3000 represented a seventh of the University’s state-funded budget!

On Sept 19, 1877, John Bascom, the president of UW at the time, announced that the observatory would be built and that it should be larger than the 15-inch refractor at Harvard. The observatory was started in May of 1878 with a contract with the famous Alvan Clark family to build the telescope. It was decided that the telescope would have a diameter of 15.6 inches, which would make it the third largest in the United States. James C. Watson was appointed to be the first director of the Observatory, but he died before its completion in 1881.

The telescope was used heavily from the 1880’s until 1958 when the new Pine Bluff Observatory, about 15 miles from Madison, was dedicated.

UW publication 2000-7M8A141-78 by Prof R. C. Bless

For a more complete history of Washburn Observatory, we encourage you to read Washburn Observatory 1878: A History by Bob Bless.