Welcome to this month’s edition of the History & Heritage Center. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
While we are in search of a permanent home, we have an office in the Summer Street School building. Our phone number is 424–1090 and our mailing address is P.O. Box 223, St. Johnsbury, Vt. 05819. Please check out our web site, stjhistory.org, for additional information and updates.
Observatory Knob is one of those places that has faded into our town’s history except by name only. Some folks may recall hearing about it and recognize the name but time has progressed enough to not have a veteran of that period. Observatory Knob was the name given a height of land west of Mt. Pleasant Cemetery and located on what was then Preston’s hill. It was reported to be the highest land between the Passumpsic and Sleepers Rivers in town. Upon reaching this knob through the lands owned by Preston or Penniman one had an “almost uninterrupted view in all directions.” To the north the guardians of Willoughby Lake, Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor were visible. To the east were the White Mountains including the presidential range with Mt. Moosilauke to the south.
Charles Hastings was the one to give credit to the existence and name of this piece of ground. After climbing all the high points of St. Johnsbury, he felt he had found something worth sharing. Who was this hiker? According to St. Johnsbury Illustrated printed in 1891, Charles Hastings was a native of Troy, Vermont and came south to St. Johnsbury in 1855. For the first twenty five years of his business life Charles was with the Passumpsic Railroad as cashier; his father, Hubbard, was in the same occupation. In 1887 he entered a second career in the insurance business. Another interest was music where he served as manager of the orchestra and band in St. Johnsbury for several years.
On this height of land were to stand two different lookouts between 1887 and 1914. Through the Caledonian of September 15, 1887, Mr. Hastings put out a request for labor for the first observatory building.
“Charlie Hastings is calling a meeting at his house on Spring St. at 1p.m. on Saturday, asking that people bring hammers, saws and paint brushes, to lend a hand erecting an observatory on the top of Preston’s hill, about one – half mile west of the cemetery. Caldbeck is getting out the lumber for a structure 22 ft. high, 12 ft. square, covered with a roof and surrounded by a flag staff. The group will complete the job in one afternoon.”
As you might guess, the volunteer labor group was far outnumbered by the crowd that followed for the next day of viewing! The observatory was equipped with rests for telescopes and spy glasses. With the aid of these, the “little train” could be seen going up Jacob’s Ladder on Mt. Washington. Signs were mounted to register the location and height of the visible prominent mountains.
In October of 1894, this lookout was destroyed by high winds. The second observatory was two story and 15 feet square with a flag surmounted 42 feet above the ground. One hundred and eighty two dollars was raised for this endeavor. Charles Hastings and Associates reported that:
Rests for telescopes have been built and the stairs have been improved lately, the latter especially for the ladies’ benefit.
From 1887 until 1914 the Knob was a favorite spot for outings. Hiram N. Turner became the owner of some of the area. He was personally responsible for setting out maple trees alongside the carriage road which was constructed in 1889. There were even horse sheds built near the summit so horses could be “parked” while owners took in the view.
Due to its vulnerability of height and open land the observatory was once again brought down in a storm in January of 1914. Were Charles Hastings still with us, so might the Knob be too. However the trees grown up today would not reveal the splendor of yesteryear’s view. Thank you Charles.
(I have included this picture that I believe to have been taken from the Knob but my documentation of this has escaped me so I am at the mercy of my memory!)