Calhoun Park attracts astronomers

GRANTSVILLE – Quiet, serene and far-removed from the lights of cities and urban centers, Calhoun County has become a gathering spot for astronomers far and wide.

Calhoun Park off West Virginia 16 outside Grantsville is a perfect location for astronomers, they say.

Shirley Ball, a member of the Calhoun Park board, said aside from Spruce Knob, Calhoun Park is the second darkest spot east of the Mississippi River.

“A lot of the stargazers like to come to our park instead of Spruce Knob due to access,” she said.

Brian Ottum, an amateur astronomer from Michigan, made the trek from his home in Saline to Calhoun Park in 2010. Ottum said West Virginia – particularly Calhoun Park – is an island of darkness in a sea lights.

The nearly 300-acre park used to be a golf course. Now it’s a campground with fishing ponds, hiking and biking trails.

“There’s no light. It’s totally dark,” Ball said. “No industry or nothing here. No light that shines in the sky, so there’s nothing to disturb the view of the stars.”

Ball said that’s one of the reasons she moved to Calhoun.

“I have never seen so many stars in my life.”

Ottum said he spent a lot of time in West Virginia stargazing when he lived in Cincinnati. Based on satellite photos of the country, West Virginia is one of the best locations in the east to view the sky.

“You see all those (satellite) pictures of the bright lights of the cities. We are looking at the holes between the cities.” He said. Ottum said Calhoun Park meets the criteria to be a good park for astronomers.

“It’s dark. It’s a public park with open space, without a lot of trees at the top of the hill. And it has camping.”

Ottum spent several days at the park in 2010 and thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality.

“A great place with great people, very generous and hospitable,” he said.

Ottum said he had visitors night and day interested in his equipment. And they brought gifts.

“I was overwhelmed,” he said.

While West Virginia is home to one of the best sites, Ottum is concerned the park’s appeal to stargazers is fading. He said light is appearing from oil and gas operations from neighboring Marcellus shale pads.

Ottum said recent satellite photos show an area of North Dakota is as lit up as Chicago, due to the lighting of the rigs.

“The night sky light pollution is horrific from the those drilling rigs,” he said.

Ottum’s visit to the park was featured in the Calhoun newspapers. He also discussed it on astronomy websites and messageboards, as well as his personal website. Officials said hundreds of astronomers have visited the park over the years.

“People from all over the world know about our park,” Ball said.

Ball said stargazers have been coming to the park for more than 10 years. As word has gotten out, the park draws more people each year. Ball said the park draws 75 to 100 stargazers a year. They come year-round to camp, stay in the barn or bring campers.

Astronomy clubs from Ohio, the Columbus-Akron area often visit the park. Ottum said on dark moon weekends there is most likely going to be someone in the park peering

Ottum said astronomers will also gather at the park Aug. 12 for the annual meteor shower.

“Calhoun Park is a great place for that,” Ottum said.