Photo of The Goodsell Observatory, at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota

Weekly Gem #187 Time to get side tracked

Published 3/9/2019

Location: Continuing our railroad theme started last week, this hidden gem is the Goodsell Observatory on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, MN (see the Clue Me! Map).

Q: What does the Goodsell Observatory have to do with railroads?

A: The observatory was directly responsible for numerous trains getting side-tracked.

In this case, getting side-tracked was not just a good thing, it was a necessity, perhaps even a matter of life and death!

This goes back to the late 1800’s, when the main motorized transportation in the western U.S. was railroad. Trains went both ways, on one set of tracks. Every so often, there was a short “side track,” where one train could pull off while the other passed by. Getting “side-tracked” meant twiddling your thumbs for a while, but that was clearly better than a head on collision with another train.

In this system, there’s one crucial requirement … Timing. Suppose one conductor’s pocket watch is running ten minutes late, and the other’s is ten minutes fast. Possible outcomes range from getting side-tracked early, to not reaching the side track at all. With dozens to hundreds of trains running back and forth, all with different pocket watches, the problems of mistiming would rapidly snowball.

Here’s where the Goodsell Observatory came in. James J. Hill, rail baron, donated a special telescope to the observatory. This “Transit Telescope” was used to precisely determine the time, based on the exact timing of stars passing across the meridian. Long story short, by using this telescope, you could set your pocket watch with extreme precision.

Having the only transit telescope available in the western U.S., Carleton College became the time-keeper for everyone west of the Mississippi. Cities, banks, businesses, and railroads, they all tuned in to their telegraph at about 11:55 am, give or take. At 11:57 am, a telegraph message was sent from Goodell, noting that it was, exactly, 11:57 am. Synchronize watches! Hack!

And thanks to this daily update, numerous trains got side-tracked, on time.


Here's the hidden gem entry from our Clue Me! map.


Star Struck


The Goodsell Observatory

Why It's Interesting

This is one of the first observatories west of the Mississippi, with telescopes that are over 100 years old, and still in use.

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