Heidi Crabtree | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
Sometimes history is hidden in plain view. A walk or drive around Main Parade draws eyes to the famous Rookery and the old post commander’s house, but what about the astronomical observatory where the first accurate longitude of Fort Leavenworth was determined, leading to measurements of Hays, Wallace, Denver and the West? An observatory here on post?
The stone wall on the corner of Kearny and Scott Avenues, which was either a defensive structure or a way to hide latrines from the fort’s original entrance, was witness to something more interesting. Primary sources and a few old blurry photographs indicate that the wall was once connected to McPherson Hall, the old dragoon barracks building that served as headquarters for a time.
Lt. Ernest H. Ruffner worked in that very building in the early 1870s as chief of Engineers for the Department of the Missouri. Ruffner was invaluable to the post. Under an act of Congress made in February 1871, he was responsible for construction of the water gauge installed below the pump-house.
That summer it was requested that a determination of longitude be made between the Lake Survey Observatory in Detroit, built in March 1871 with astronomical clock, and Fort Leavenworth. Previous attempts were made but a more precise longitude was required in the country’s move West. Though there was an observatory in Utah and a small shelter in Lawrence, Kan., used as an observatory, Fort Leavenworth was picked for the calculations.
Ruffner used a pier — a stone and mortar post — to conduct his observations. He also used a temporary shelter that could be opened to see in different directions. Instruments were mounted on top of the pier using plaster of Paris. Telegraph lines were connected from station to station and to the observatory.
Ruffner was in telegraphic contact with O. B. Wheeler with the U.S. Lake Survey at Detroit on the nights of Sept. 1, 2, 7 and 20, 1871. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the new observatory, its telegraph connection and Ruffner’s wait for better weather to begin transmitting with Detroit.
On those nights, Ruffner used a Frodsham chronometer, serial number 1,974, and a Würdeman portable transit with a 22-inch focal length. Wheeler, in his permanent building, used a larger transit. The movements of stars in constellations, including Aquarius, Cygnus and Capricorn, were listed and later published along with advanced mathematical formulas.
Ruffner’s final determination was given as longitude 94° 54’ 51” W, later updated and moved slightly to the west after he noticed an error in the transit. His reports were published in the Annual Reports of the Secretary of War as the first official longitude of the “observatory at Fort Leavenworth.”
By the late 1870s, it was noted in Army Engineer reports that the “present observatory is now located near the southeast inclosure (sic) in rear of the office of the commanding general.”
Since the original coordinates, along with other descriptions such as “945’ west of the steamboat landing,” nearly match the tiny, lone notation of an observatory on a post map dated “about 1875” in a history by Col. Elvid Hunt, Ruffner’s observatory was about where Building 53 at 700 Scott Ave. now stands.
When Building 53 was built in 1875, was the stone pier destroyed — or moved? Directly across Scott Avenue from Bldg. 53, in the area matching the above description of the “present observatory,” and perfectly along the same longitude coordinates, is a lone post, assumed to have been part of the original wall. A metal hook of sorts was obviously mortared in later. The hook could have been part of a door hinge, but it is rather low and fences of the day used thin posts connected by chain. If this was not the original observatory pier, it certainly seems to have been used as the second location given its location and style. The hook may have held instruments, including weather instruments. Perhaps it was even part of the wall, made from rubble from the original that had been removed.
Ruffner didn’t stick around to carve his initials in the stone pier — he was ordered to plot points further West. In 1872, records show he was allotted $12,371 to calculate the longitude of Fort Hays, Wallace, Denver and the “Ute country.” The U.S. government wanted hard determinations of parallels to quell the Ute Indian tribe’s claim on lands in Colorado where miners were encroaching.
Ruffner returned to Fort Leavenworth, where his wife and children were living, until the late 1870s. Besides the observatory, Ruffner left behind an infant daughter, who lays buried in Section A of the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
A way-marking website lists a simple mark on a rock on Lake Superior as an important piece of history when Wheeler calculated latitude there. Here, the lone post, standing apart from the defensive and/or latrine wall, tells a more complicated and important history, not just to Fort Leavenworth, but the Frontier as well. The location alone, along that longitude, may justify a nod to Ruffner and his work in future histories.