Castlefield Observatory

(1938-72?) Bert Topham's observatory at 1250 Castlefield Ave., Toronto.


Castlefield Observatory was built in Bert Topham's back yard in 1938 and housed a 6½" f/15 refractor. Some information about his observatory and its activities was given in the Chant Medal citation¹ for 1941:

The dome of his own observatory is of his own design and construction, and is very light, cheap, and serviceable. It is driven electrically by an ingenious method of his own manufacture.

Variable star observing began on 17 April 1937 (JD 2,428,640.6, prior to completion of the observatory), concentrating on "rather faint variables" thanks to the larger-than-average aperture of the telescope.

For a time, an original 1868 draft of the Constitution of the Toronto Astronomical Club was pasted to the wall of the observatory, before being rescued and presented to the Society.

Up to 1941, some 3000 visitors came to look through the telescope and receive some instruction in astronomy, mostly on moonlit nights. Most famously, some time after 11 p.m. on the Saturday night (June 1/2) of the RASC / AAVSO 1940 meeting at DDO, a group of rather enthusiastic observers from Milwaukee paid a visit:

Topham was routed out of bed and spent several hours with a group of enthusiasts, demonstrating his equipment, discussing observational problems, and viewing Kodachrome movies of aurora, displayed by Dr. Gartlein in the basement of Topham's home.²

Topham suffered a serious work accident in 1944 and this adversely affected the amount of observing he did for the remainder of his life (see here for his annual variable star observation totals).

The property was sold around 1954 and Bert and his family moved to Brampton.³ Perhaps this was his way of retiring to a less urban setting (the population of Brampton was less than 20,000 in the 1950s) as the property was by now hemmed in on two sides by large commercial buildings. The observatory was abandoned (since it could not have been moved) and the dome was in tatters during its final years of existence.

In 1957 the RASC Montreal Centre purchased the complete 6½" telescope (including the mount and drive) and installed it in their observatory. Sometime later the objective was stolen.4

As part of the rapid urbanization that occurred after World War II, all of the land to the north of Castlefield Avenue was developed for commercial use during the 1950s and 60s. Surprisingly, the house and observatory survived until around 1972, when they were finally demolished.5

Coda

RASC member Joe Zeglinski recalls visiting the site and says

...the Topham observatory looked pretty much as in the sketch... The only difference was that there was absolutely no vast and barren landscape surrounding the site, as in the sketch, with the huge modern RCA Plant behind the home, back in the 1970's as I recall the date of my visit to the Consumers Furniture store, right next door to it.

He received permission from the tenants in the house to go up into the observatory where "ther[e] was only a stub on the floor to which the pier used to be bolted..."

I still remember admiring the construction of his dome with its many "skate" rollers, spaced about 2 inches apart up the shutter rails, and my wondering if I dare make an offer to remove the dome, for my own observatory some day, down by Humber Bay area — never mind somehow getting permission from my parents. There was a large wide yellowed photograph thumb-tacked on the lower observatory wall below the gaping shutter, depicting the DDO staff, or maybe it was the 1940 AVVSO meeting. I was sorely tempted to remove it, since it would soon perish anyway, with the Tepperman Demolition sign already plainly announcing its demise. But, my code of ethics prevented such an unauthorized removal. Still kick myself about not stealing or lets call it rescuing it, anyway.

It has been a privilege for me...to be the last person to be inside...perhaps a few days before the TEPPERMAN's wrecking staff demolished it. I did contact Tepperman Wreckers, back then about buying the dome if they saved it, but they knew nothing of it — probably smashed to bits. But, at my young age, my parent's wouldn't allow having it on our property anyway.6

WM

Notes

  1. JRASC, 35, 89 (March 1941).
  2. JRASC, 34, 224 (August 1940).
  3. Bertram John Topham (PDF), Lynn Kirk, p.7.
  4. Undated note from Geoff Gaherty.
  5. Using aerial photos, development in the area can be tracked. Two large commercial buildings appear between 1947 and 1950—one immediately east of the house and one on the south side of the street just a few doors to the west. By 1953, three more large buildings appear immediately to the west. At this point the house and observatory are hemmed in on two sides, and there is evidence of construction of a wide road on the east side of the house to access the undeveloped land to the north. By 1956 a large building appears NW of the house. By 1962, a large parking lot appears north of the house. By 1966 a large building appears east of the parking lot, and by 1967 everything that is not building has been paved.
    The End: The online version of the 1973 aerial photo is rather fuzzy, but it appears that the observatory and house are gone, torn down sometime after the 1971 photo was taken.
    Castlefield Observatory in City of Toronto Aerial Photos, 1947-75:
    1947 | 1950 | 1953 | 1956 | 1959 | 1962 | 1965 | 1966 | 1967 | 1968 | 1971 | 1973 | 1975
  6. H.L. Rogers file in the RASC Archives.

 

Description: 
Observatory, Castlefield
Type: 
Place