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In Search of Better Skies:Harvard in Peru, II

J. Donald Fernie

The year is 1889. Thirty-four-year old Solon Bailey, his brother Marshall, wife Ruth and young son Irving are in Peru, where Solon, a staff member of the Harvard College Observatory, has instructions to locate and establish an astronomical field station for Harvard University. In my last column we saw that they had tentatively chosen for their station a mountain (which they named Mt. Harvard) some 50 kilometers inland from Lima, while the two brothers explored a little further inland for a possibly better site. Finding nothing better, they rejoined Ruth and Irving and set to work taking astronomical photographs and measuring the magnitudes of southern stars from Mt. Harvard.

It was tough going. The mountain was desolate indeed; "it furnished neither water nor food. These were brought daily from [the little town of] Chosica eight miles away and nearly four thousand feet below. Considerable difficulty was experienced in finding a trustworthy man to act as muleteer, [and] ... we were repeatedly disappointed in the non-arrival of our day's water and provisions." Snakes were frequently encountered, as were scorpions ("one was met with in a shoe, another in a coat sleeve...") and seven-inch tarantulas. "Our life was so isolated that man and animal, dog, cat, and goat were on terms of the greatest intimacy and equality." Nevertheless, the two men and their Peruvian assistant, Elias Vieyra, made good progress with their astronomical work. At least they did at first, but with the coming of spring and early summer later in 1889 there came also persistent high, thin clouds, which put a halt to their delicate observations. Solon realized that Mt. Harvard would not do. He and Marshall must travel much farther afield to find a better site. They had already heard that Arequipa, 800 kilometers to the southeast, was a gorgeously sunny location, and that the Atacama desert, a further 1,000 kilometers to the south in Chile, was even better. So, leaving Elias to do what he could on Mt. Harvard, and installing Mrs. Bailey and Irving in comfortable quarters in Lima, Solon and Marshall set off on a four-month tour of promising sites.

They sailed from Lima on November 14 and arrived in Mollendo, the port for Arequipa, on the 17th. Ships had to anchor a mile offshore, and the swell was often so bad that passengers were taken in a cage by barge to shore, where a crane lofted them to dry land. It was a completely barren region of sand and rock; the only water supply was piped in from a hundred miles away, and "all food of every kind, except such fish as are caught in the vicinity, must be brought by rail or boat."

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