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In Search of Better Skies:Harvard in Peru, II

J. Donald Fernie

After Paris, La Paz

Inland, the Baileys traveled by train where possible, otherwise by stagecoach, mule, or—on occasion—by foot. It was by train that they approached Arequipa, some 100 kilometers from Mollendo. And what a difference! Arequipa, located in the valley of the Chili river, greeted them with "fields of waving grain and groves of fruit-trees.... The first view of the city is really beautiful, surpassing in picturesqueness any other Peruvian city we had seen. Above the city, which rests just at its foot, rises ... El Misti, a nearly extinct volcano about nineteen thousand feet high." Although clearly impressed, the brothers spent only a day there before leaving for La Paz in Bolivia. Again they went by train to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca, climbing ever higher into the Andes. The train traveled a considerable distance at an altitude around 4,500 meters, and "of those present in the car somewhat more than half were quite ill from mountain sickness." It was early summer, but bitterly cold in Puno, yet "while I shivered in my overcoat, Indian women with bare feet and legs and open breasts seemed happy and comfortable." They left Puno at 5:00 a.m. on a small steamer to cross Lake Titicaca, passing islands where they "were able to see quite distinctly the ruins of the ancient [Inca] buildings known as temples and palaces," including "the so-called Temple of the Virgins of the Sun." La Paz, however, was a disappointment: "'After Paris, La Paz,' say the Bolivians, and we decided that it was a long way after."

By late November the brothers were back in Arequipa, where Solon spent a week in bed recovering from some malady picked up en route. This unexpected delay provided further evidence of the clear and pleasant climate of that location.

Figure 1. Solon BaileyClick to Enlarge Image

Soon, however, the two were aboard ship again and sailing as far south as Valparaiso in Chile. Christmas Day was spent in Santiago, but there was little there to satisfy their site seeking, and by January 1 (1890) they were at Antofagasta in northern Chile, preparing to examine the potential of the Atacama Desert. It is one of the driest and most desolate places on earth, and "... utterly barren.... Not even the cactus gains the least foothold here." The only practical way to proceed was to take the railroad inland, away from the coastal fogs to where a nitrate-mining company operated. Even this could be a trifle uncertain, since "work is carried on wherever the yields are the richest, and when expedient the whole town, buildings, and population [of a thousand men] are shifted many miles along the railway." Water came from deep wells and was brought in some distance by donkey. "[It] has an unpleasant taste, but is said to be wholesome. As I could find no one who drank water, however, I do not know on what authority the statement was based." Nevertheless, the Baileys spent almost a month at this spot, Pampa Central, and were amazed at the clarity of the sky. Twenty-eight of their 29 nights there were cloudless, and the transparency was such that Solon could clearly see 11 stars of the Pleiades with the naked eye. Their photometric measures of stars were precise and repeatable.

On March 5 they arrived back at Mt. Harvard with Ruth and Irving. Almost no work had been accomplished in their absence, the weather having been terrible. In fact, torrential rains had severely damaged their living quarters and almost washed away the rain gauge itself. Solon wasted no time in writing home to Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard College Observatory, advocating that Mt. Harvard be abandoned in favor of either Arequipa or a site in the Atacama Desert. He noted that the latter offered the very best sites, but that running a station in so utterly desolate a place would be extremely difficult and impose great hardship on its staff. (If Solon could have seen a century into the future, he surely would have been pleased to find that later technology overcame most of the difficulties, so that some of the largest and most important astronomical observatories are now located in the high Atacama Desert.)

Pickering soon made up his mind. Instructions were issued that all equipment on Mt. Harvard be packed and removed to Arequipa, which would be home to Harvard's permanent southern field station. He went further. The Baileys had endured nearly two harsh years in finding a site, and once it was established at Arequipa they should return home to New England. Who then would run the new station? Here Edward Pickering made what was possibly the worst decision of his life. He would send his own brother, William.

Meanwhile, though, the Bailey team undertook the move to Arequipa. The hardest part was just getting everything off Mt. Harvard and down to Chosica, there being no road and the matériel including their living quarters. "Several mules, made unsteady by loads of lumber, rolled down the mountain-side for some distance. No bones were broken, however, and no special damage done. All the instruments were either carried by hand or on the backs of mules that were led by hand."

By the end of the year the Baileys had rented a suitable house a couple of kilometers outside Arequipa and begun astronomical observations from its roof. Choice of a permanent location awaited the arrival of William Pickering, his family and his assistants, which took place in January 1891. He quickly decided on a nearby site for a permanent observatory, and some time was spent moving everything there and setting up the instruments. Finally, on May 15, the Baileys "bade farewell to Arequipa, and two days later we sailed south. We had decided to return to the United States by the Straits of Magellan and Europe. The journey along the west coast was relieved from monotony by incidents in the Chilian [sic] civil war." They arrived home on August 15.

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