August 29, 2019

Photo Essay: Mount Wilson Observatory Engineering Tour

Located at 5,715 feet above sea level, Mt. Wilson Observatory is one of the oldest and most historic gateways to space that’s been treasured by professional and amateur stargazers alike.

With a long history as a research facility, it also houses two of the world's largest telescopes that have been made exclusively available to the public.

Built by George Ellery Hale and John D. Hooker respectively, these telescopes provided a way for man to try to understand the starry blanket that tucked them in every night.

They also facilitated amazing discoveries in the sky above and in the Universe as a whole.

On a few select weekends, stargazers are in for a special treat—because the Mount Wilson Institute conducts special behind-the-scenes tours of the 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes, machine shop, and historic powerhouse.

Inside the 60-inch dome...

...volunteer engineer Bill Leflang led a tiny group of us through all the mechanical, optical, and electrical details of this historic instrument.

We admired outdated control panels... array of tools...

...original levers...

...and the huge gears that help move the telescope above... well as its oil reservoir.

We even passed by Hubble’s personal locker where he once stored his lunch!

And in the 100-inch "Hooker" telescope dome...

...I once again stood beneath the chair where Hubble sat to measure the expansion of the universe... I had done during a nighttime stargazing session there years ago...

...when I was more interested in seeing double stars and dwarf planets than in learning how we could see such objects in the sky.

From the control console, our docent engineer rotated the dome (an optical illusion that makes it seem like the platform is moving)...

...and demonstrated different speeds of “slewing” the telescope...

...generally ranging from slow to slower and slowest.

Leflang and his fellow volunteers have spent years helping to maintain the telescopes—but they're experts in mechanics and electrical engineering, not astronomy.

So, we didn't see any stars in the sky...

...but it was daytime anyway.

We did, however, have stars in our eyes... we marveled at the machinery...

...and all the inner workings (like railroad tracks for the dome rotation!).

We encountered grease galore... we crammed into the smaller mechanical area beneath the telescope...

...and learned how the electrical control systems have been modernized over the last 102 years.

Our docent even unlocked the original electrical panel of the 100-inch...

...some of which is still in use...

...(and still “hot”).

Obviously, no touching is allowed. (But gosh, those levers are tempting!)

After lunch...

...we visited the Observatory’s original powerhouse...

...for a demonstration of its 50 HP Fairbanks-Morse Type RE engine/generator (circa 1911) by brothers Ken and Larry Evans.

This twin-cylinder gas-fueled engine—once nicknamed “Big Ben” by early engineers—once helped generate 40 kW of power at 125 volts DC. The Evans brothers refurbished it in 1999 and, in 2000, got it running for the first time in 30 years.

It was mind-blowing to see the rotating crankshaft, moving piston, pumping gasoline, and operating cylinders—all helping this magnificent machinery operate at 300 RPM.

Thanks to Mount Wilson Institute for offering the engineering tour!

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Mt. Wilson and Observatory
Counting Stars at Mount Wilson Observatory
Intergalactic Reflections at Mount Wilson's 100-Inch Telescope (Updated for 2017, Upon Its Centennial)

August 26, 2019

Indulging My Fandom at California's Only Elvis Festival

For the last 20 years, a bevy of Elvis impersonators and tribute performers descend upon Historic Main Street in Garden Grove, California for the annual Elvis Festival—held in August, around the anniversary of his death on August 16, 1977.

Some are on stilts...

...and some are girls.

Some are old...

...others silly...

...and still others a "Dunka Dunka Burnin' Love."

In addition to booths hosted by the local SoCal fan clubs, there are Elvis-branded vintage motorcycles...

...and a classic car show that focuses on Cadillacs, which Elvis loved.

My only wish was for the Elvis Festival to be more Elvisy—a wish that was granted when we had lunch at Azteca Mexican Restaurant.

It doesn’t make any sense for a Mexican restaurant to be devoted to Elvis Presley—but that’s just the point. It’s one of the most memorable Mexican restaurants I've visited in all of Southern California.

At Azteca, which has been in its present location on Main Street since 1980, “The King” is everywhere. Memorabilia doesn’t just cover all the walls—it’s on the ceiling, too.

The collection—reportedly the largest west of the Mississippi—comes courtesy of J.J. Jauregui, the restaurant’s former owner. He'd taken over the business for his Aunt Connie Skipworth (who later died in 2005) in 1993—but in 2014, he retired from Azteca and sold to a new owner.

Lucky for us, he allowed his collection to stay.

There are other Elvis Festivals, I've discovered, in Tupelo, Mississippi (his birthplace); Ypsilanti, Michigan; Collingwood, Ontario, Canada; and other places around the world.

So, why is California's only Elvis festival in Garden Grove, of all places? After all, the city is better known for its strawberry festival—and it's usually bypassed by tourists on their way to Disneyland in the next city over, Anaheim.

Well, why not?

You can find Elvis fans everywhere—even if they don't strike you as the "Elvisy" type.

And some of us will even cross county lines to indulge our fandom.

This blog post was adapted from my article "Where to Indulge Your Elvis Fandom in SoCal" on

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Elvis' Honeymoon History at The House of Tomorrow
Photo Essay: The Other Elvis of Palm Springs, The Elvis of My Childhood

August 23, 2019

Photo Essay: The Mansion Where California's Last Mexican Governor Lost It All

Excerpted and adapted from my article 

Pío Pico is one of the most intriguing – and controversial – figures in California history.

Born just outside of Los Angeles while California was ruled by Spain, Pico became three different nationalities throughout his lifetime – without ever moving beyond present-day Southern California.

Over the course of his 93 years, his story was one of “rags-to-riches”—and back to rags—from establishing a cattle empire to holding the highest political office in California under Mexican rule and succeeding as one of the wealthiest men of his time.

He solidified his financial security by selling beef and cowhides to the Gold Rush miners—and then became a political revolutionary, seizing the office of governor of Alta California.

But as meteoric as his rise to the top was—thanks to a healthy dose of ambition and fearless risk-taking—Pico’s fall was just as dramatic.

The most accessible, historically preserved and culturally rich resource to learn about Pío Pico’s life is “El Ranchito,” his former ranch on a parcel of the former Rancho Paso de Bartolo Viejo, once part of San Gabriel Mission’s massive landholdings.

Pico purchased the property in 1848, the year after the nearby Battle of Rio San Gabriel of the Mexican-American War.

During Pico’s time, El Camino Real passed directly in front of the park—marked today by a reproduction bell.

Now known as Pío Pico State Historic Park, this is where you’ll find the country home where Pico escaped city life and government in an adobe mansion he built in 1853.

"El Ranchito" narrowly escaped dismantling—its adobe bricks to be used as roadfill—when a preservation effort saved it and allowed it to be deeded to the State of California. In 1927, it became one of California's first state historic parks.

In the restored and rebuilt rooms, hardwood floors have replaced the original packed dirt.

The main entrance has been moved from the side patio to the front porch and balcony.

Some rooms show unrestored sections to expose the handmade adobe bricks that were once whitewashed with limestone plaster.

Evidence of historical upgrades include layers of paint on top of original wallpaper, lowered floors, moved walls and even a “hidden” wall.

Many original items owned by Pico and his family are displayed.

On the grounds, you can walk through grapevines planted by Pico himself...

...and the former “kitchen garden” and orchards...

...where you’ll still find prickly pear, quince, and pomegranate ripe for the picking.

There's also the preserved “horno” oven where bread was once baked...

...and the dovecote where pigeons once roosted.

These are just some of the artifacts that remain after Pico was evicted from "El Ranchito" in 1892, the victim of loan sharks who took advantage of his English illiteracy and had him sign a deed of sale he thought was a loan agreement.

The Afro-Mexican politician, land baron, and entrepreneur died two years later, a pauper.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Pico House Ghost Hunt
Photo Essay: A Historic Oasis in the Valley of the Oaks