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McDonald at 75, II

May 6, 2014

It’s not unusual for a new venture to face lawsuits and to be wooed by competing cities. In fact, that’s just what the University of Texas faced as it planned its new astronomical observatory — eight decades ago.

When William Johnson McDonald died in 1926, he left most of his estate to the University to build an observatory — more than a million dollars. But a few nieces and nephews contested Johnson’s will. They charged that he was of “unsound mind,” and incapable of understanding his own actions.

The jury in the lawsuit found for the University. But an appeals court overturned the verdict, and a second trial ended in a deadlock. With attorneys’ fees mounting, Texas settled with the heirs and received about $850,000.

That much money attracted interest from several Texas cities. Austin proposed eight different sites — including several on hills that today are some of the most expensive property in the city. El Paso, which sits in a gap in the mountains on the state’s western tip, also put in a bid.

The eventual winner, though, was the village of Fort Davis. The Davis Mountains offered clear, dark skies. And two ranching families sealed the deal when they donated 400 acres of land that featured two tall mountains.

With money and a site in hand, the University began construction on one of those mountains in 1933, and McDonald Observatory was dedicated 75 years ago this week.

More about the birth of the Observatory tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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