A Hole in the Ground

The author shown pointing to the nearly filled-in depression near Phelps, which marked the site of Dr. William R. Brooks’ famed Red House Observatory. Photograph by Willis Coryell as seen in “Forgotten Stories of the Finger Lakes”

About 50 feet south of the Harold Harland residence on the Lester Road, just outside the village of Phelps, is a small depression in the ground. It once served as the cellar for a little red house, but, in the passing years, the house has long since gone and the cellar has gradually become filled until only this grass-covered hollow remains.

It would be safe to say that nine out of 10 people who pass by scarcely notice it, and the story back of it is remembered by fewer still.

In Maidstone, England, in the year of 1844, a son, William R. Brooks, was born to a Baptist minister and, when the boy was 13 years old, his family came to America.

Before coming to America, however, young William, while on a trip to Australia, used to watch with fascination the ship’s captain take daily observations. This gave the boy his first desire to take up astronomy.

He had not been in America a year when he made his first telescope. He lacked most of the tools for his work and had to trudge many miles each day to the home of a friendly cabinet maker to work on his hobby. His first telescope was finished in time for him to catch a glimpse of Donati’s comet in 1858.

At 17, William Brooks was delivering lectures on astronomy in his father’s church, and, with ambition driving him ever on, he studied photography in order to coordinate it with astronomy.

He married at the age of 24 and in 1870 went to live in Phelps, where he became the village photographer. He built a second telescope and then a third. It was with this last instrument that he received the thrill of his life, for he discovered his first comet October 4, 1881, in the constellation of Leo.

Astronomy now beckoned him in earnest and he forsook photography and moved to a little red house just outside the village of Phelps…to the spot mentioned at the beginning of this story.

Across a creek to the south, at the corner of an apple orchard, he built a small platform and post, which he used as a base for his telescope. To this crude open platform he gave the name of Red House Observatory, in honor of his little home. And, this little Red House Observatory became famous throughout the world.

The most brilliant part of his career opened with the completion of his fourth telescope. With his home-made instruments, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, he discovered comet after comet. He set an astronomical record when he discovered three comets in the short space of one month in 1886. Other astronomers in all parts of the world, working with costly equipment and watching for the same phenomena, were in every case beaten by the man working in the primitive Red House Observatory.

This amazing man chalked up eleven comets to his credit while in Phelps and when his long career finally came to an end years later, he had accounted for 27 of these heavenly visitors — more than has ever since been discovered by any one man.

His work brought William Brooks every honor given by this branch of the scientific world. In 1888, he went to nearby Geneva where an observatory had been built for his use and where he discovered the last 16 of his 27 comets.

Now known as Dr. William R. Brooks, “The Comet Finder,” he became a professor of astronomy at Hobart College, Geneva. All of his honors came to a great climax when he was made a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The rule of this Society — that no man can become a member and a fellow at the same time — was suspended  for the first time in its history for Dr. Brooks.

His long labors, however, finally took their toll and Dr. Brooks’ great career came to an end on May 3, 1921, at Geneva. Long hours spent in preparing to photograph an approaching comet proved too much for his physical self, but the end came while he was at the work he loved so well.

And so — his name lives on in the realms of science and many a comet in the outer reaches of space bears the name of this man.

The little red house at Phelps is no more. It has long since been gone and forgotten. The spot today bears no monument to Dr. William Brooks…no monument, that is, except a little grass-covered hole in the ground.

Thank you to the Ontario County Historical Society, which allowed us to publish this narrative. Visit the historicalsociety’s website at www.ochs.org.


by A. Glenn Rogers; This story was originally published in 1953