The Williams Observatory, named in honor of John H. Williams, a prominent Frederick banker, opened its doors to students in January 1925. A lifelong resident of Frederick County, Williams was born in Flat Run, Md., south of Emmitsburg, on April 19, 1814, the son of Captain and Mrs. Henry Williams. His father was a farmer and a prominent Revolutionary War hero and a personal friend of Washington and Lafayette. John Williams attended public schools in Emmitsburg and later graduated from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pa.
Williams married the former Eleanor C. Shriver, the daughter of Judge Abraham Shriver, a Frederick County Circuit Court judge for more than 40 years. The couple, married for 55 years, had two children, Margaret Janie (Jeanette), known as Janet, and Henry Eleanor who died on March 8, 1892.
Williams began his career as a lawyer, coming to Frederick in 1833 to study law with a prominent Frederick County lawyer of the time, William Schley. Schley was one of the most competent and successful barristers and pleaders of his time. He had a reputation for being an excellent judge of character, full of common sense, plain-speaking and logical. In Schley, Williams had an excellent mentor. During the time he practiced law, he acquired a large and influential clientele, representing some of the most prominent interests in the county at the time.
He practiced law until 1846 when he began working at Frederick County National Bank. In 1849 he also became the editor of the Frederick Examiner, the local newspaper. In 1864, while working as a cashier at the bank, the city of Frederick paid a $200,000 ransom to the Confederate Army to save the town. Funds were provided by the city’s five financial institutions. Williams became president of the bank in 1867, a title he held until 1887. He had a reputation for directing the bank with foresight and possessing excellent executive capacity.
Well-represented, he was characterized by those who knew him as a considerate, thoughtful, just and generous gentleman. From his father he inherited the spirit of colonial citizenship. At one time he was the last surviving son in Maryland of a Revolutionary War officer.
The Williams family lived in a mansion on South Market Street in Frederick, and Williams was very family-oriented. His home life was one of affection, culture, refinement and books. He was active in the Presbyterian Church and was known for his support of community causes.
Williams died Nov. 11, 1896 of a stroke after an illness of several years. He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick next to his wife.
Williams Observatory, built in 1924 to honor his memory through a bequest from his daughter, M. Janet Williams, was dedicated in conjunction with the 1925 Commencement.
The building was renovated in 1985 and was used as a laboratory and teaching facility by students enrolled in astronomy. The observatory, the only one available for the study of astronomy in Western Maryland, features an 8-inch telescope built by Alvan Clark and Sons, an observation deck, classrooms and a library. The lens of the telescope was originally made for the Harvard College Observatory in the early 1870s and was used for some of the earliest photographic studies of stellar spectra. The telescope’s objective lens is still in excellent condition and having been designed for visual rather than photographic use, is actually better for elementary astronomy than some modern refractors.
Hood opens the observatory to the community for special events or whenever favorable viewing conditions for planets or other popular sights are present.