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The Observatory Crypt

Postcard of Allegheny Observatory, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1915.

Allegheny Observatory is located atop a high hill in Riverview Park, four miles north of downtown Pittsburgh. It was built between 1900 and 1912, and replaced the old observatory which was outdated.


The old observatory was where James Edward Keeler, my great grandfather, made his discovery that the rings of Saturn are not solid disks, but are composed of many tiny particles. He was also its director from 1891 to 1898 when he became director of Lick Observatory.     

Allegheny Observatory. The Keeler Memorial Telescope is on the right. 

Following Keeler's death in 1900, fellow astronomer W. W. Campbell suggested to my great grandmother that her husband's remains be cremated and the ashes placed at Lick Observatory in the base of the 36-inch refractor telescope where the ashes of the observatory's benefactor James Lick were entombed. However, the University of California, which controlled Lick, refused, arguing that "the great telescope should stand sentinel over James Lick's body alone." Keeler's remains were instead interred in Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco in the family vault of Richard S. Floyd, the man responsible for building Lick.

Marble tablet on which is inscribed “James Edward Keeler (1857-1900)” and “Henry Bowman Keeler (1893-1918)” in crypt of Keeler Memorial Telescope at Allegheny Observatory.
Marble tablet on which is inscribed “John A. Brashear (1840-1920)” and “Phoebe S. Brashear (1843-1910)” in crypt of Keeler Memorial Telescope at Allegheny Observatory.

In 1905 the Keelers' good friend John A. Brashear, the astronomical instrument maker from Pittsburgh who was overseeing the construction of the new Allegheny Observatory, contacted my great grandmother about placing her husband's ashes in the crypt below the Keeler Memorial Telescope, the 31-inch reflector named in his honour. My great grandmother agreed and in 1906 his ashes were interred there. 

Following the death of my great grandmother's 25-year old son Henry Bowman Keeler in China in 1918, his ashes too were placed in the crypt next to his father's.

The crypt also contains the ashes of John Brashear and his wife Phoebe. 

In 2005 I learned that there was a third tablet in the crypt which was blank. Knowing that my great grandmother was buried in a cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas where none of her family ever lived, I contacted the University of Pittsburgh about whether her cremated remains could be interred in the crypt next to her husband and son. They agreed. 

Blank tablet in crypt of Keeler Memorial Telescope at Allegheny Observatory prior to 2007.
Marble tablet on which is inscribed “Cora Matthews Keeler (1854-1944)” in crypt of Keeler Memorial Telescope at Allegheny Observatory.

And so in November 2006 I made a trip to Little Rock to have my great grandmother's remains exhumed and cremated. In April of the following year my wife, my sister and I headed to Pittsburgh for the interment ceremony. In attendance were the observatory's director and several of the staff. 

This excerpt from a condolence letter to my grandmother written in 1944 beautifully describes my great grandmother: "Your mother's good friend ... called me the other day to tell me about the passing of your precious mother. Even though she has been gone from California these many years, it seems such a short time ago, somehow, since  we were neighbors on the North Berkeley hillside. I suppose because we are now in the midst of another war. For Mrs. Keeler was such a great comfort to me during those months my husband was away from home in training camps, and, too, in France. Because of all she had suffered in her own life and because she had risen out of her own loss and sorrow, she had so much understanding and sympathy for the troubles of others. So I shall remember her always for the strength she gave to me, alone and bewildered as I was. And her southern charm with all the happiness she had known as a girl, as it can be experienced only in the real South, together with her ever present sense of humor, made her, indeed, a rare person. And I feel I was indeed privileged to have known her as I did twenty-odd years ago."

Notes on sources:

  1. Donald E. Osterbrock, James E. Keeler: Pioneer American astrophysicist and the early development of American astrophysics, Cambridge University Press, 1984. Quoted material: "the great telescope" (p. 330).     

  2. Family records. This includes the condolence letter from Eleanor van Loben Sels (1885-1958) to Cora Keeler Moore, dated Oakland, California, October 8, 1944. Eleanor was the daughter of UC Berkeley Physics professor Frederick Slate. Her husband served in World War I as an Army Engineer.  

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