Telescopes & Tunnels.

Men and women generally make their mark in life through their achievements, earning fame from them and a place in popular culture, especially if the individual dares to toil in the unknown of a less categorizable pursuit, figuring out the hazier parts of our existence.

Though I can’t claim that Vermont breeds this type of person, our small state definitely draws them, and has been home to quite a few extraordinary people and legends who lived here, worked here, were honored here or cursed here.

James Hartness was one of those personalities who dallied with new frontiers of science and invention in such ways that he would eventually catch the imagination of the public. And as I figured out, his life is far more interesting than even I expected when I set out to visit his former estate and prepare to research for this blog entry.

Springfield is one of those Vermont towns that doesn’t cross my mind all that much, that is until I was told that one of the oldest telescopes in the country is hidden away in an underground observatory connected to an old mansion by secret passageways. That interested me enough to start asking questions.

Inquiring further, I found out that the telescope’s existence in Springfield is because of James Hartness, a former state governor, inventor and astronomy savant, who happened to build his own underneath his home. If you’re vaguely familiar with the name, that may be because you’re aware of the Hartness State Airport in Springfield, which wears his name. Or perhaps if you’re a pundit on state governors, you know that he once filled that spot with his single term from 1921 to 1923, his mission statement being to persuade Vermonters to stay and seek employment in Vermont as opposed to elsewhere, but was incompatible with the economy at the time.

A Google search revealed that today, it’s a bed and breakfast called The Hartness House, named after it’s dead builder and because it’s a business in, well, The Hartness House.

My next conundrum was how would I see such a thing. I had called the bed and breakfast in February of 2014 to see about checking it out for myself, but I found out that not only was it their off season and they weren’t opening the place up to visitors, the business had also been sold and the new owners were at the beginning of the seemingly arduous task of figuring out their game plan. So, I stayed persistent and called back again a year later at the end of May 2015, and after a few somewhat miscommunicated phone calls, I had excitedly scheduled myself an appointment to see it and found myself road tripping down to southern Vermont on a humid June morning where the steam was sliding off the slopes of Mount Ascutney.

Hartness’s mansion is a bit to the right of the center of town, inconspicuous in a spaced out neighborhood that was built up a hillside over the decades, with sinuous stripped asphalt streets and patches of woods between residential lots that gave the area a more detached, quiet feeling from town.

Pulling into the driveway that leads guests in front of the street obscured estate, I immediately saw the unique jelly bean looking white concrete shape of the telescope protruding from their nicely groomed front lawn, which lead my eyes to an architecturally impressive Newport style mansion that looks like it would fit in more on it’s namesake coastline in Rhode Island than the Green Mountain State.

I felt a little out of place being there – and I’m really good at feeling like I’m out of place. It was tacit upscale, I wasn’t a paying guest, and was tromping around in shorts, bowler cap, Keep Vermont Weird T shirt and camera bag slung over my shoulder, ready to grab a greasy breakfast and a few cups of coffee at a low key diner afterwards, before going to find some petroglyphs.

I decided to deal with my anxieties later and just make a casual walk through the dark stained front door. The interior exuded a sort of tamed glamor that you’d expect from such a house, and I followed a trail of intricately woven carpets and polished plank floors to the front desk. To my relief, I was pointed towards a nondescript door towards the public bathrooms. Clutching the old knob that wobbled a bit in my hand, I opened it slowly, and a narrow staircase came into my view that descended downwards, inhabited by cobwebs and your expected subterranean dampness. I took a few steps down hesitantly when I saw a light switch now at elbow level. I flicked it on and the tunnel lit up and filled with the hum of older yellow hued light bulbs that would lead me down to whatever I would find at the end.



My friend had speculated in conversation that at one point, Hartness has built a multitude of secret tunnels that radiated out from his house, towards downtown Springfield, but the hotel denied it when he inquired. However, when he received a tour years ago, he recalled finding a wooden door down in the main tunnel way, and because he was already underground, that door either met an underground room or another tunnel. He opened it when he had a moment alone, and indeed, there was another passageway that extended back into the dark, but he never got to explore it further than it’s door frame. I did see another door down on my walk, but it was locked, and whatever was behind it was off limits due to some sort of “accident” I found out later. Maybe that was the same door he was talking about. But I guess I’d never find out.

Further down the tunnel was another door which wasn’t locked, and that led into an open concrete space that used to be Hartness’s private laboratory, now a museum filled with older telescope prototypes, newspaper clippings, artifacts and hand drawn sketches of the arctic. It was dedicated to Hartness and James Russel Porter, but mostly James Russel Porter, a name I hadn’t heard of until then.

Back out in the tunnel, I opened another set of doors, which lead me to a narrow neck craning spiral concrete staircase that deposited me inside the post 100 year old Hartness Equatorial Turret Telescope, designed and manufactured entirely by Hartness himself, the turret dome being the only thing manufactured in Massachusetts. I began to eagerly scrutinize its design, trying to get a better idea of how it worked. The rotating turret was the green portion of the strange structure with it’s rounded, port hole-esque looking windows, and it rides on rollers supported by the rounded white, concrete structure. The telescope tube is a replacement made of more modern stainless steel and accommodates a ten-inch achromatic objective. Even the fact that the telescope is sheltered is unique – a feature Hartness incorporated because stargazing during a Vermont winter is rottenly cold.

The telescope also incorporates a sophisticated motor-drive, transmission system and clock drive to replicate the earth’s rotation. Using the equatorial drive system makes it possible to view solar residing objects over extended periods of time notwithstanding the rotation of the earth.

Everything here was fascinating to think about for your blogger. I love stuff like this. But disappointingly, the telescope was missing a part (I forget which), so it was only 97% functional, and not enough functionality was present to actually try it out for myself. That was in 2015 though, I’m not sure if they have replaced the part yet or not. I haven’t been back.

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Sitting back at home drinking amounts of coffee that my doctor would be upset about, I was in research mode. Even though first-hand experience here is cool enough, my curious nature wasn’t satisfied. Why is any of this here? Well, I suppose that anyone who can afford to build an astronomical wonder and tunnel system on their property can build it anywhere they want, but still. What’s the story here?


Springfield was once a place of civic pride and a personification of industrial advancement. But turning off Interstate 91 and driving past the Holiday Inn Express and down it’s not so aesthetically pleasing main drag today, is a windshield scene of sad looking old buildings with a bland retail district that doesn’t pry for your attention. But the corpses of its aging legacy has simultaneously inspired a swelling steampunk scene from what I’m told.


A small pocket park off Main Street revealed a glorious view of some broad cascades on the Black River with a photographic tumbledown old factory built into the river banks. This is one of my favorite views in Springfield.


What is such a grand historical artifact and adjoining elaborate DIY entrance point doing here in Springfield? To understand that, I needed a better understanding of the man who built it, which was connected with the history of the town itself.

The valley locality that wears an omnipresent name for American communities was known in the nomenclature as Vermont’s original “tech hub”. Thanks to the Black River, which rolls and tumbles through the center of the area’s defining long dip in topography, Springfield became a practical place for machine tool industrial operations and the dreamers who made them happen. This small town became so eminent that it adopted the nickname “Precision Valley”, and became Vermont’s highest per capita income generating community – with around 3,000 people employed in the nuances of the activity.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and apparently, Springfield was also allegedly on Hitler’s list of places to bomb if the Nazi’s ever made it over this way – making number two on his list, just after New York City. Or, at least as local lore fills us in with.

So, what happened? Economic death and postmortem go down best a chaser of assigned blame, and according to who you ask, there is a multitude of theories to tell the story of why Springfield was pretty much defenestrated. Unions are one scapegoat, who helped ensure a few strikes in the 1970s which lead to higher wages. Others speculate that newer Springfield generations had no interest in taking over the family businesses, so many were eventually purchased by outside firms, which employers argued gave them a lot less control. But maybe it was the fact that Springfield factories were still making old school products, and overseas companies were innovating both their products and how they were manufactured. Either way, the final result was a community that fell victim to depression and some bitter hindsight and a new footnote on the town’s Wikipedia page.

James Hartness and Russel Porter

Before Springfield imprinted itself with its economic momentum and national popularity, Vermonters were leaving Vermont in droves, with their compasses pointed west. Local industrialist Adna Brown was forced to look for creatively pragmatic solutions to keep Vermonters working in Vermont. He discovered that Jones & Lamson, a machine tool company in nearby Windsor was for sale. So, Brown got together a group of investors and Springfield put together and instigated a new Vermont law where towns would make new industry exempt from taxation for their first 10 years – hoping to give new business some incentive to stick around in the green mountains. The deal went through, and Jones and Lamson moved to Springfield. To run it, Brown hired a young James Hartness in 1889, who was already proving to be a precocious machinist and earnest inventor, because he looked at things at different angles.

I don’t know much about Hartness’s milieu. He was born near Schenectady, New York in 1861, and would become a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur in his life, becoming a working stiff shortly after completing grammar school and steered away from the insecurity dance many of us learn, and began to build and flex his foundation to enable him to bridge beyond orthodox culture. That phrase sounds sort of like a biographical platitude but really fits him like a hard earned degree considering his truly impressive list of accolades that is something that makes me feel a little down about my own accomplishments.

On his first day on the job, he announced that J&L would no longer be making their wide array of products – which consisted of machines to drill gun barrels, stone channelers and engine lathes. Instead, he conceptualized the company only producing one thing: the Hartness Flatbed Turret Lathe, his own invention, named for himself. According to the folks at the Hartness House, it’s considered “one of the most important machine tools ever made.” – because his was arguably the most efficient at milling and shaping all lengths of metal, despite there being plenty of other lathes already existing.

In 1900, Hartness would become manager of J&L, and 3 years later, president. Hartness’s business practices came down to one thing; that a company should only make one product, and it was that idea that built Springfield and secured his success. He was a mentor to other inventors in his employ, and some of them who became incredibly proficient or innovative in their traits or skill sets branched off and started their own businesses which grew the town’s prowess as a manufacturing power. During this time, he would create over 100 patents for improved machine tools and measuring techniques, and get royalties for them.

Being as ambitious as Hartness was, I reckon it rubs off on you in other aspects of your life, including in your hobbies. The sky seemed to be one of Hartness’s fondest devotions; whether it was flying in its atmosphere, or gazing up at it, and he let that seep into other endeavors.

Hartness had a penchant for aviation. He progressed with a Wright Biplane, got his pilot’s license in 1914, and became one of the first 100 pilots in America. In 1919, he would donate land and help construct the first airport in the state of Vermont which not coincidentally was in Springfield, and is now called the Hartness State Airport. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was coaxed into landing there after his transatlantic flight and hang out with Hartness at his mansion. But it was his love of astronomy that really stole the show, and secured his place in the public sphere.

In 1903, he was doing so well for himself that he decided to upgrade his digs, and began construction on a mansion atop a slight rise in elevation known as Cherry Hill. The mansion was completed a year later, but he didn’t stop there, and began to customize the place by building a turret telescope in his front yard (finished in 1910), connected it to the house by a tunnel system, and added more subterranean real estate for his study and laboratory. He may have added more tunnels, but that part is still a Vermont myth. Though it’s not exactly known what Hartness did with his telescope, he was so fond of it that he had it painted into his governor’s portrait in the state house, which has confused quite a few visitors who mistook the weirdly shaped object as a UFO.

The Hartness Mansion after completion. Via

Hartness standing in front of his turret telescope. Via

From his knowledge of optics gained from his interest in astronomy, Hartness invented an optical method of projecting an incredibly magnified image of a screw thread onto a drawing. He had the concept, but he needed it developed into a marketable machine – and engineer, former Arctic explorer and inventor Russel Porter was just the guy for the job. Porter was hired at J&L in 1919, and between the two of them, they would invent the optical comparator.

Porter seemed to be an amiable companion for Hartness, and their skill sets and ambitions were mutually beneficial. Eventually, the two formed a friendship and created the Springfield Telescope Makers club in 1920, where they would give classes on how to make telescopes -later renamed the Stellafane Society, which has a name that sounds like something you’d find on the shelf near saran wrap or tinfoil, but is actually Latin for “shrine to the stars”, a club that is still active and still meets in Springfield in a pink clubhouse on Breezy Hill – facing the isolated form of mount Ascutney, a monadnock that has been revered for centuries as an important wayfinding point in celestial calendars used by the original native Vermonters.

According to further research, it seems like it was really Porter that got hands on guiding the club and acted as an instructor and mentor. The original 15 club members were machinists tool makers or pattern makers at Jones and Lamson, who signed up to learn how to grind their own mirrors and make powerful reflecting telescopes – something which Porter was a genius at. He had spent years on Maine’s weathered coast years prior teaching himself as much as he could about building telescopes. He would eventually be recruited by George Ellery Hale and moved to California where he would help design the Palomar Observatory telescope. Now the astronomical presence that seemed to seep down all of Springfield’s walls was making sense to me. Even today, it’s still affixed in. Springfield-based J&L Metrology remains the only company making optical comparators today in the United States.

Hartness and Porter would continue to practice their craft until their deaths in mutual Februaries of 1934 and 1949. Luckily, Hartness left behind a tactile wonder and physical trace for future Vermonters to marvel at.

The thing about these sort of sites is that everyone has their own experiences and observations. The sights I saw that day and their creating personalities came with their gravity and left an impression on me. As I was ravenously waiting at a Bellows Falls diner for my stack of diner pancakes to arrive and sipping disappointing coffee, I was in a contemplative mood. I try to stay hungry, stay free and stay inspired, and recognize when fear begins to call the shots. I know from experience, resistance to personal growth only leads to becoming a figure of misery. Maybe I could learn something from Hartness and Porter.

As Slug said; You can’t escape regret but you might regret escape.

Hartness’s turret telescope on Breezy Hill. Back then, it looks like the views were a little more far flung than today’s property which is cozily hemmed in by woods that block out the distant hills. Via


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