Pioneer Monument
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Little Mountain Pioneer Astronomical Monument

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Since so many local readers are interested in the pioneer history of our area right now, I decided to devote one more article to this theme. In this article I want to share with you an activity engaged in by one of my classes a few years ago -- a project related to the sesquicentennial theme.

Over the years I have noticed that the most basic astronomy of all has slowly and steadily disappeared from most college astronomy courses. Most of the time is spent on glamorous topics ranging from up-to-the-moment descriptions of the Sun and planets to stars, galaxies, quasars, black holes, life in the universe and the formation and possible destiny of the entire universe. Although these topics are exciting and important, it is unfortunate that most students exit astronomy courses without being able to recognize features of the night sky and without understanding the changes that occur as Earth rotates daily upon its axis and revolves annually around the Sun. Thus, when I had the opportunity of developing a course for the University of Utah Honors Program, I decided to introduce basic astronomy in a cultural context. I would focus on the most basic naked-eye astronomy that has been important to people in every generation since earliest human times. In order to make the course as interesting as possible I introduced each topic with cosmic stories and case studies showing how fundamental astronomy has been used in many different places throughout time. We studied Stonehenge, Egyptian astronomy, Pacific Island navigation and even Native American astronomical traditions, all with the primary objective of learning basic astronomy and understanding its critical roles in human history.

With one of my classes a few years ago I decided to have students do a project that would give them practical understanding of the things we were studying. I asked them to select an idea to develop into an outdoors-observational activity that would connect them to the past, and I gave them a list of things to consider. On the list was the idea of making some sort of observing device that could be used to mark important times of the year. After lots of discussion and thinking the class decided they would like to focus on local history rather than marking solstice and equinox directions as had been done over and over throughout time. They concluded that they would construct something aligned to the time when the pioneers came into the Salt Lake Valley.

We did research to find out what the sky was like in July 1847 and discussed various alignments we might work with. Finally it was decided to stick with fundamentals and mark the directions of the rising and setting Sun for July 24 and to do this someplace near where the pioneers came into the Valley. We found a suitable location for our work at the top of Little Mountain located between Emigration Canyon and Parley's Canyon. Since this class took place during spring quarter, ending in early June, we could not work on July 24, so we calculated the date in May when the Sun would rise and set in the same directions as on July 24.

We carefully looked around on the top of Little Mountain to determine just how we would mark the directions. Finally selecting a place where we could build a pillar of stones piled one upon another with the top formed by a single narrow stone standing against the sky as seen from two other places some distance away. To the southwest we would be able to see the Sun rise in the northeast directly over the top of our pillar and to the southeast we could watch it set in the northwest over the pillar. After constructing the pillar, we made our observations on the correct date, then laid out lines of stones running from the pillar to the two places where the observer should stand and these were marked by small semicircles of stones. At these two places an individual could stand on July 24 to watch the sun rise in the morning and set in the evening, aligned to the distant horizon by our stone pillar. Thus, our device accurately identified the date of July 24, which is annually remembered for pioneer entry into the Salt Lake Valley.

In order to have a little fun with our project we informed the Deseret News that we had constructed a primitive observing device and suggested an article inviting others to attempt to figure out what we had done. An article appeared in the News on May 30, 1989. Although no one, to our knowledge, took up our challenge, it was apparent that our work did not go unnoticed, for over the months others took down the monument and arranged the stones into a small medicine wheel. The last time I was up there it was difficult to see any trace of where our stone pillar had been, but if one knows where to look portions of the lines of stones can still be found.

On July 24 of that same year (1989) I got up early and went to Little Mountain to watch and photograph the Sun rising directly over our pillar and I returned in the evening to see it set. Although none of my students joined me on that day, I noted with pride how well their "ancient" device worked, and I thought I could hear the echo of wagons rolling down the canyon.

Although I am not aware of the pioneers constructing anything similar to what my students made, I am sure that they knew well the migrations of the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky. These phenomena, along with changing climate and wildlife behavior, have always announced the seasons and provided the natural rhythms governing our lives.

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