In 1903

By Harold Babcock

This poem, describing the first visit of George Ellery Hale and William Campbell to Mount Wilson, was written by Harold Babcock in 1937. It is based largely on Hale's own account of the trip as described to Babcock, along with Babcock's own recollections of the Old Trail first used to access the mountain.

Beneath a sky of purest indigo
An eagle soared in silent majesty,
Surveying his immense domain.
Mojave Desert shimmered in the north
And range on range of unspoiled wilderness,
Luxuriant with new growth on pine and fir,
Between it and San Gabriel Valley lay.
Intense June sunlight, unimpaired by cloud,
Revealed beneath his penetrating eye
Minute details of crag and shady glen,
But even his amazing power of sight
Was baffled in the valley to the south.
Completely covered by a bank of fog
Extending from the mountains far to sea,
The busy life of dwellers in the plain
Could only be imagined from above.
Reciprocally too, from underneath,
The clear transparent upper atmosphere,
The blinding white of sunshine on the fog,
Were pictured in the minds of very few,
As men looked up from city streets to see,
A thousand feet above, the dark gray clouds.

No ordinary morning this, although
To all but two it might have seemed to be.
Who were these two who slowly made their way
On horseback up the old Mount Wilson Trail?
An hour ago they mounted at the foot
And now had paused to let the horses breathe
Beside the rippling stream that murmured down
Between the alders and the sycamores.

No hunters these, in ordinary sense,
No fish nor any game their earnest quest.
Instead they sought a place somewhat remote,
Yet not too inaccessible, at which
To press the endless search for truth revealed
Through astrophysical research.

As Hale observed the dismal sky above,
A deep misgiving stirred within his mind.
Had Campbell not been overstrong to claim
That here they'd find an almost perfect site
For studying the sun with keen new tools?
Ah, well! He'd wait awhile and see,
Although the sun was still obscured as when
They started forth. They urged the horses.

The peaceful beauty of the wilderness
From time to time closed in upon their thoughts
Compellingly. The joyous song of birds,
The strong clean scent of sumac and of sage,
The flowers of mimulus that seemed to choose
Adversity in broken rock instead
Of easier living in abundant soil,
All spoke of summer at its glorious best.

The biting grit of steel-shod hoofs on rock,
The horses' heaving breath, as now and then
Impatiently they sought to find relief
From pestering deer-flies, clearly testified
To steady gain of altitude.

No sound of other travelers stirred the air.
Long since the early purpose of this trail
Had been fulfilled when thieves had ceased to drive
Their stolen horses back to Barley Flats.

And still the sky above was dark and gray
In spite of Campbell's reassurances,
Developed from his knowledge of the way
Mount Hamilton protruded through the fog.
Yet doubts continued to disturb Hale's thoughts
When Orchard Camp was passed and still above
No sign of blue appeared. How could it be
That here the kind of work he planned to do
With confidence could be begun?

But shortly after leaving Orchard Camp
A change of air and light was evident.
A coolness from the heights above was felt
And glimpses of the misty sun appeared.
At length they gained the ridge, to find above
A cloudless sky. Across the miles of clear
Transparent air that intervened they saw
The dominating peak, Old Baldy, San Antonio,
So sharp, clear-cut, distinct, it seemed to them
Impossible as far away as told
By maps. Exhilaration now replaced
All doubts in both their minds as next they saw
The here, a thousand feet below the top,
The sun had shone since dawn, for rocks exposed
Were clearly far too hot for other cause.

Enthusiasm grew with every step;
The horses even seemed to feel the urge
Of something more than that for food and rest.
With quickened pace they plodded on, to find
On Harvard's shady slope an easier grade
Above the point that later came to be
The Junction, where the tall old spruce trees shed
On cooler alpine air their own perfume,
And here the trail traversed two dangerous slides,
The only talus slopes in all its length.

At empty Martin's Camp they briefly paused
To note the unobstructed valley view.
Below them lay the remnants of the fog
That in the next half-hour would disappear.
Through oaken thickets splashed with clematis
The trail led on -- a short remaining span --
To reach the summit of the peak at last.
There Hussey's eager welcome made the day
Still brighter, with the record of his test.
For weeks he had been traveling alone,
Detached from lick Observatory staff,
Examining conditions that adapt
Southwestern regions to the purposes
Of astronomical research. And thus
He reached Mount Wilson, after visiting
Selected points still farther to the south,
Of which by far the best was Palomar.

Experienced, and equipped with telescope,
He watched the sky for hours by day and night,
Appraising what he saw. His records showed
To Hale and Campbell's careful scrutiny
That here the image of the sun appeared
At times to simulate the engraver's art.

They read his notes, confirmed his skillful tests,
And, near the old log house, for years unused,
Discussed at length the questions that he raised.

They separated then, more quickly to explore
The details of terrain they wished to know.
While Campbell worked to westward from the place
Where fifteen years before the Harvard men
Had turned a temporary glass upon the stars,
And Hussey went to Strain's, where they would camp,
A strange compelling force attracted Hale
To look and walk to eastward, where he found
A curious homely feeling of content.
No sound of ax, no barking dog was there
To welcome or to challenge his approach,
But peaceful stillness over all prevailed.

In tiny meadow west of Echo Rock
Nemophila had made her rendezvous,
While from the oak trees growing thickly there
Elusive, poignant, indescribable,
The two-note love song of the chickadee
Cast haunting sweetness on the summer air.
Through manzanita thickets' stubborn growth
The path led up and down to Northeast Point,
Where yuccas grew, immense and glorious.

In sharply cooling shade Hale rested then
Well down on jutting Monastery point,
And there he seemed to see in bold outline
A picture growing clear before his eyes
Of all that was to be in years to come
Upon that mountain top.

How fortunate that little group of men
Whom in those next swift years he chose to be
His friends and colleagues in the appointed task
Of realizing what he had foreseen!
We cannot speak the things we wish to say,
But bright and clear within our inner hearts
Devotion's timeless flame burns on.