Final Frontier

Chagrin Valley Times

March 31, 2022

by David Gustafson


While good lighting is something most parks boast as a safety precaution, the minimal amount of light at Observatory Park in Montville Township has helped create a unique distinction all of its own.

Since 2007, the 1,100-acre park located at 10610 Clay Street has had the distinction of being the only “Dark Sky” certified park in the entire state of Ohio – and one of only 113 such parks in the entire world.

The park is one of the Geauga Park District’s crown jewels, according to Chris Mentrek, an “astro-naturalist” who manages the site.

“Lots of parks close at dusk, but Observatory Park is the park where folks are encouraged to experience nature at night,” said Mr. Mentrek. “Whether it’s watching fireflies in the summer, listening for woodcock and wood frogs in the spring, or enjoying the wide-open sky, there’s always a fascinating experience waiting for nighttime explorers.”

Those dark spring nights will serve as the backdrop for a number of outer space-inspired programs planned for the month of April including a full moon hike planned for Wednesday, April 16.

“City folk like me are usually surprised at just how dark the night sky is once you get just a few miles away from the streetlights,” said Mr. Mentrek. “A lot of visitors are surprised that they can see the stripe of the Milky Way across the sky in the summertime; it’s not just something you see in photos.”

The idea for the park began with the donation of a 0.64-meter telescope and a small parcel of land.

In 2008, the park district acquired the nationally-recognized Nassau Observatory and 281 adjacent acres from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), which had owned the facility since 1957 when it was moved from Cleveland to Geauga County due to increasing light pollution.

Named in honor of Dr. Jason John Nassau, who served as director of the university’s first observatory in Cleveland from 1924 to 1959, the observatory has long played an important role in Ohio’s space-based research efforts, and was for a time operated remotely via the Internet until a lightning strike destroyed critical components.

Researchers at Case Western used it for visual study of the heavens through the 1980s.

From 1994 to 20005, the park district teamed up with the university to offer public “Astronomy Nights” and bought the facility outright in 2008.

The observatory’s central instrument was and remains a 36-inch reflector telescope built by the Warner and Swasey Company in 1957.

The park boasts another large reflector, a 25.5-inch Newtonian donated by the estate of Ohio telescope-building legend Norman Oberle, along with other astronomical and natural history attractions including life-sized cornerstones of the Great Pyramid of Giza, earthern mounds, and full-size henge stones.

The 36-inch Nassau telescope is one of the largest publicly-accessible telescopes in Ohio; only the Ritter Telescope at the University of Toledo’s Ritter Astrophysical Research Center is larger, its primary mirror measuring one meter in diameter.

In August 2017, restoration of the telescope and its observatory was completed and regular public access restored thanks to funds raised by the Foundation for Geauga Parks.

During the renovation, the astronomers’ bunkhouse was “redecorated,” museum features added to facilitate an understanding of how the observatory was used, and wheelchair accessibility provided to aid access to the observing floor.

The finished park boasts six trails totaling nearly four miles with interactive pods representing each trail proportionate to the sun. Visitors will also find a trail with interactive stations representing ways to study weather.

“The “self-serve” aspects of Observatory Park are great, but joining in one of our programs is a great way to experience a lot more that nature has to offer,” explained Mr. Mentrek. “Six nights a month, we schedule public night-sky viewing sessions using the park telescopes. Plus, if the weather ever turns cloudy on a night when we’ve scheduled night-sky viewing, we have our trusty planetarium as a fun backup plan.  Even on cloudy nights, visitors can learn what to look for on the next clear night.”

The Dark Sky distinction is handed out to a select number of locations worldwide for having “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” The program is sponsored by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit group dedicated to encouraging communities, parks, and other protected areas around the world to preserve and protect stewardship of the night sky. Designations are based on stringent outdoor lighting standards and innovative community outreach and partnerships.

For a complete listing of upcoming events, visit geaugaparkdistrict.org.

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