The Colony Arrives On Observatory Hill
The first building put up on the hill by the European colonists was not an observatory but a windmill. It was built by Irish convict John Davis in 1796 for the purposes of grinding wheat. It quickly gave way to sustenance however and within a few years had been replaced by another windmill to the south. These structures earned the hill its first name: 'Windmill Hill'.
Observatory Hill Prepares For Battle
In 1804, a fort was commissioned on the hill, in part to protect the colony from outside threats, but mostly because of fears of an uprising from within. That same year there had been a major convict rebellion at nearby Castle Hill. The fort was meant to safeguard the colony against similar occurrences in the future.
'Windmill Hill' was chosen because its peak was the highest in the colony and provided good views of the harbour, river and the road to Parramatta, not to mention the town itself.
The fort (Fort Philip) was equiped with four cannons and a gunpowder magazine. It never saw action however. Not one shot was fired across the course of its short history.
Signals At Observatory Hill
In 1825 a flagstaff was added to the fort, as well as a small stone hut. These were used by signalmen who sent messages to ships and signal stations. They earned the hill a new name: 'Flagstaff Hill'.
In 1847-8 a more substantial signal station was built along the fort's eastern rampart. Once this was completed it was decided that the old flagstaff and the rest of the fort with it were surplus to requirement. They were demolished, but the eastern rampart and new signal station remain today.
The Observatory of Observatory Hill
Between 1857-9 an observatory was added to the hill, at last earning it its current name. The building is a mix of Italian Renaissance Palazzo and Italian Villa styles. Its original purpose was to tell ships in the harbour the time of day. At 1 pm daily its 'time ball' would drop and a cannon would be fired, allowing the sailors to work out whether or not they needed to adjust their chronometers.
Over the years the observatory also provided newspapers with daily reports on the movements of the sun, moon and planets. By the 70s however a combination of pollution and the city's bright lights had made astronomical observations very difficult. Finally, in 1982, the building was converted into a museum of astronomy, today's Powerhouse Museum.
Visiting Observatory Hill
Alongside the museum, signal station and the remains of the fort, the park also boasts a rotunda, which was built in 1912 and occasionally hosts weddings; and a Boer War Memorial. It offers panoramic views of the city and harbour and is a lovely place for a walk or a picnic.
It is a short walk from Wynard Station, the Rocks and Circular Quay. Dogs are allowed off leashes. Toilets can be found on Watson Rd, close to the Argyle St entrance; and on Upper Fort St. Outdoor fitness equipment is also available.
*The Powerhouse Museum is currently closed due to maintenance but is due to re-open mid 2023.
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