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Local Reaction and Influence

The idea of an observatory in Victoria captured public interest as soon as rumours spread that the city was being considered. The residents of Victoria welcomed the idea of the observatory with enthusiasm. BC Premier Richard McBride wanted to make sure that a competing site for the telescope in Ottawa was not chosen.

A sepia colored photograph of a man holding a book sitting on a chair with a young boy sitting on his lap

Arthur Williams McCurdy was a businessman, editor, private secretary, photographer, inventor, and astronomer. He moved to Victoria in 1906 and set up a laboratory at his country home outside Victoria. His granddaughter now lives in the house.

A.W. McCurdy, formerly Alexander Graham Bell’s private secretary, introduced Plaskett to the Premier. Plaskett must have been convincing because the province agreed to buy the land for the observatory and construct the road to the telescope on Little Saanich Mountain.

Plaskett started regular public engagement efforts following announcement of the telescope’s coming construction in order to foster widespread interest in the new observatory. The first event occurred on March 4, 1914, when Plaskett provided Victoria citizens with an overview of the proposed telescope’s design, as well as information about the size of stars and elements of the planets. His presentation also included picture slides of galaxies and nebulae that had been captured by other reflecting telescopes. Plaskett’s efforts captivated the city’s inhabitants by introducing them to the capabilities of a telescope.

Newspaper article: Heavenly Bodies Subject of Lecture. Under auspices of Natural History Society Distinguished Astronomer Spoke

John Stanley Plaskett gave many public talks in Victoria. He talked about work done with the telescope but also about astronomy in general. Advertisements for his talks often mentioned that there would be “lantern slides”. The ability to project images was a relatively new technology at the time

After this first public talk, the organizers, A.W. McCurdy and W.J. Sutton, went on to establish a Victoria Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). This group played a crucial role in fostering further interest in astronomy in the city. The RASC were the first members of the public to see the completed mechanical parts of the observatory during a visit in October of 1916. The support of the astronomers associated with the observatory was important in that Victoria became the first city to maintain an RASC centre without having a local university.

Plaskett continued to give public talks during the construction period. He kept people informed about progress on the project and participated in promotion of the future institution with the goal of boosting the city’s profile. In 1915, the Victoria and Island Development Association arranged for 60 citizens to visit the site. During the visit, they learned about plans to develop and promote the observatory. The July 7, 1915 Daily Colonist noted that “[w]hen this work is completed there will be a paved highway from the centre of the city to the observatory site, and in time this route will undoubtedly become one of the chief tourist highways.”

Newspaper article - Sixty approve the selection of site. Magnificent Prospect From Saanich Hill for Observatory.

Among his many talents, Plaskett was a very good promoter. He found many ways to highlight the site (as in this story), the observatory, and his work. This aspect of Plaskett was not appreciated by some of his peers.

The enormous telescope was officially opened with great fanfare in June of 1918 by the Lieutenant Governor of BC, Sir Frank Barnard. It was considered a “marvel of modern engineering.” The celebration for the completed telescope drew prominent visitors from every corner of the region, as well as from the US. At the official opening, Plaskett announced that the “institution would be open to the public every Saturday night hereafter.” This tradition of Saturday night viewing continues to this day. The telescope became an international tourist attraction overnight as the largest telescope in the world that an “ordinary” visitor could look through.


Newspaper Clipping: OBSERVATORY ATTRACTS MANY. Great 72 - Inch Reflecting Telescope on Little Saanich Mountain Drawing Visitors From Afar.

With the opening of the telescope in 1918, Victoria saw an increase in visitors as the observatory attracted people, This was the largest telescope in the world that the public could visit. Later, bus tours would visit the observatory before visiting the recently open Butchart Gardens.

The observatory became a key element of promotional efforts for the city as soon as it opened. Promoters and residents envisioned the telescope elevating Victoria’s tourism reputation. They also hoped the institution would help to establish Victoria as a scientific centre.

The observatory featured prominently in tourist publications for Victoria, including newspaper advertisements, tourist brochures, and even promotional videos highlighting Victoria’s appeal as a premier tourist destination.


People could also visit the observatory via the BC Electric railway which ran by the foot of Observatory Hill. The railway made it very easy to see the top attractions on the Saanich Peninsula. The railway was closed on November 1, 1924, due to low ridership.