|This article needs additional citations for verification. (June 2010)|
August 25, 1796|
Stumpstown (now Fredericksburg) Pennsylvania
|Died||October 1, 1876
San Francisco, California
James Lick (August 25, 1796 – October 1, 1876) was an American carpenter, piano builder, land baron, and patron of the sciences. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest man in California, and left the majority of his estate to social and scientific causes.
James Lick was born in Stumpstown (now Fredericksburg) Pennsylvania on August 25, 1796. Lick's grandfather, William Lick, served during the American Revolutionary War under General George Washington and his son, John Lick, during the American Civil War. The son of a carpenter, Lick began learning the craft at an early age. When he was twenty one, after a failed romance with Barbara Snavely, Lick left Stumpstown for Baltimore, Maryland, where he learned the art of piano making. He quickly mastered the skill, and moved to New York and set up his own shop. In 1821 Lick moved to Argentina, after learning that his pianos were being exported to South America.
South American years
Lick found his time in Buenos Aires to be difficult, due to his ignorance of Spanish and the turbulent political situation in the country. However, his business thrived and in 1825 Lick left Argentina to tour Europe for a year. On his return trip, his ship was captured by the Portuguese, and the passengers and crew were taken to Montevideo as prisoners of war. Lick escaped captivity and returned to Buenos Aires on foot.
In 1832, Lick decided to return to Stumpstown. He failed to reunite with Barbara Snavely and their son and returned to Buenos Aires. He decided the political situation was too unstable and moved to Valparaíso, Chile. After four years, he again moved his business, this time to Lima, Peru.
In 1846, Lick decided to return to North America and, anticipating the Mexican-American War and the future annexation of California, he decided to settle there. However, a backlog of orders for his pianos delayed him an additional 18 months, as the Mexican workers he employed left to return to their homes and join the Mexican Army following the outbreak of war in April of that year; he finished the orders himself.
Lick arrived in San Francisco, California, in January 1848, bringing with him his tools, work bench, $30,000 ($784,700 with inflation to 2012) in gold, and 600 pounds (275 kilograms) of chocolate. The chocolate quickly sold, and Lick convinced his neighbor and friend in Peru, the confectioner Domingo Ghirardelli, to move to San Francisco, where he founded the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
Upon his arrival, Lick began buying real estate in the small village of San Francisco. The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento a few days after Lick's arrival in the future state began the California Gold Rush and created a housing boom in San Francisco, which grew from about one thousand residents in 1848 to over twenty thousand by 1850. Lick himself got a touch of "gold fever" and went out to mine the metal, but after a week he decided his fortune was to be made by owning land, not digging in it. Lick continued buying land in San Francisco, and also began buying farmland in and around San Jose, where he planted orchards and built the largest flour mill in the state to feed the growing population in San Francisco.
In 1861, Lick began construction of a hotel, which became known as Lick House, at the intersection of Montgomery and Sutter Streets in San Francisco. The hotel had a dining room that could seat 400, based on a similar room at the palace of Versailles. Lick House was considered the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River. The hotel was destroyed in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Following the construction, Lick returned to his San Jose orchards. In 1874, Lick suffered a massive stroke in the kitchen of his home in Santa Clara. The following morning, he was found by his employee, Thomas Fraser, and taken to Lick House, where he could be better cared for. At the time of his illness, his estates, outside his considerable area in Santa Clara County and San Francisco, included large holdings around Lake Tahoe, a large ranch in Los Angeles County, and all of Santa Catalina Island, making Lick the richest man in California.
In the next three years, Lick spent his time determining how to dispense with his fortune. He originally wanted to build giant statues of himself and his parents, and erect a pyramid larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in his own honor in downtown San Francisco. However, through the efforts of George Davidson, president of the California Academy of Sciences, Lick was persuaded to leave the greatest portion of his fortune to the establishment of a mountain top observatory, with the largest, most powerful telescope yet built by man.
In 1874 he placed $3,000,000 ($60,034,475 with inflation) at the disposal of seven trustees, by whom the funds were to be applied to specific uses. The principal divisions of the funds were:
- $700,000 to the University of California for the construction of an observatory and the placing therein of a telescope to be more powerful than any other in existence
- $150,000 for the building and maintenance of free public James Lick Baths in San Francisco
- $540,000 to found and endow an institution of San Francisco to be known as the California School of Mechanic Arts
- $100,000 for the erection of three appropriate groups of bronze statuary to represent three periods in Californian history and to be placed before the city hall of San Francisco
- $60,000 to erect in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a memorial to Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Lick had had an interest in astronomy since at least 1860, when he and George Madeira, the founder of the first observatory in California, spent several nights observing. They had also met again in 1873 and Lick said that Madeira's telescopes were the only ones he had ever used. In 1875, Thomas Fraser recommended a site at the summit of Mount Hamilton, near San Jose. Lick approved, on the condition that Santa Clara County build a "first class" road to the site. The county agreed and the hand built road was completed by the fall of 1876.
On October 1, 1876, Lick died in his room in Lick House, San Francisco. In 1887, his body was moved to its final resting place, under the future home of the Great Lick Refracting Telescope. Here James Lick, the miserable-tramp-turned-miserly-millionaire, built the Lick House, the greatest hotel in the world. The dining hall was an exact replica of the Palace of Versailles, while the salon's walls displayed the works of America's greatest muralists, separated by great mirrors in intricately-carved rosewood frames.
Back in 1847, Lick had been the lowest bum in town, having apparently squandered his fortune by buying up a parcel of worthless sand dunes. For years thereafter, the emaciated Lick was to be seen slinking around with a gunny sack on his crooked back, begging bones from butchers. Meanwhile, the Gold Rush had arrived, and Lick's "worthless" dunes became Montgomery Street. With his profits Lick built a mill near San Jose, where he would grind his scavenged bones and use the bone dust to fertilize the orchards he planted.
Before long, he was the richest bum in town -- but still a bum. Lick continued to slink around in his one filthy, reeking suit, friendless and disheveled, despised by everyone. Too cheap even to buy meals, his gaunt frame lent him the appearance of a human skeleton.
This was the man who built Lick House, which single-handedly turned Montgomery Street into the San Francisco version of the Champs Elysees. Still, Lick continued on his miserly path, refusing to dress or comport himself in any other way than that to which he had grown accustomed. Finally, in 1873, Lick called on one of his few acquaintances, George Davidson, President of the California Academy of Sciences, with what seemed to everyone a highly improbable proposition: before he died, Lick said, he would like to give away his entire fortune. With Davidson's assistance, Lick gave away millions: over a million for an observatory on Mount Hamilton that was to be the world's most powerful; a home for the California Academy of Sciences at Fourth and Market Streets; millions more for schools, asylums, and even the S.P.C.A. In his weirdest gift, Lick spent a large portion of his fortune funding the Lick Baths, where the poor could bathe free of charge. "Tell them to wash and be clean," said the filthy, rich philanthropist in what would ironically become his best-remembered utterance.
- Lick's will stipulated that all of his fortune should be used for the public good, including $700,000 for the building of the observatory.
- In 1888, Lick Observatory was completed and given to the University of California as the Lick Astronomical Department. The Observatory was the first permanently staffed mountain top observatory in the world and housed the largest refracting telescope in the world at that time.
- The body of James Lick lies beneath the refractor telescope he funded, and his will stipulates that fresh flowers be on his grave — always.
- In 1887 Lick's body was buried under the future site of the telescope, with a brass tablet bearing the inscription “Here lies the body of James Lick.”
- James Lick Mansion in Santa Clara is a nationally registered historical landmark, and is leased at very low rates to non-profit organizations. As of 2003[update] the mansion is occupied by the S.A.F.E. Place.
- In 1884, the Lick Old Ladies' Home, later renamed the University Mound Ladies Home, was established in San Francisco with a grant from the Lick estate.
- The Conservatory of Flowers and the statue of Francis Scott Key in Golden Gate Park were donated to San Francisco by Lick.
- The Pioneer Monument in front of San Francisco's City Hall was donated by Lick to the city.
- James Lick High School in San Jose and James Lick Middle School, Lick-Wilmerding High School, and the James Lick Freeway, all in San Francisco, are named in his honor.
- The Southern Pacific Railroad named a Control Point after Lick (CP Lick) on their Coast Line route in San Jose, California. At the same location there was also once a Lick Station and Lick Branch rail line that went into San Jose's Almaden Valley but was abandoned in the early 1980s.
- The crater Lick on the Moon and the asteroid 1951 Lick are named after him.
- Lickdale, Pennsylvania, a village approximately 3 miles west of Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania (formerly Stumpstown), was named for James Lick. Lickdale was a prominent 19th century canal port along a branch of the Union Canal and contained a large commercial ice house.
- A large monument to James Lick was erected by the local citizens in the community cemetery in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania.
The history of the great observatory on Mt. Hamilton, containing the largest telescope in the world, and biography of its founder must necessarily be both interesting and important. James Lick was of a quiet, uncommunicative disposition, and left but little from which to write his life story. The prominence which he achieved by his princely gift to science has caused people from all sections of the country to recall incidents of his life, and these fragments have been gathered together and woven into a connected narrative by the San Jose Mercury, from which we compile the following: --
James Lick was born at Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, August 25, 1796. His ancestors were of German extraction and spelled the family name “Luk.” His grandfather had come to America early in the century and had served in the army of Washington during the War of the Rebellion. Nothing is known of the life of James Lick, until at the age of twenty-one years he entered himself as an apprentice to an organ-maker at Hanover, Pennsylvania. He worked here for a short time, and in 1819 took a position in the employ of Joseph Hiskey, a prominent piano manufacturer of Baltimore, Maryland. An incident of his experience here has been recalled.
On day a penniless youth, named Conrad Meyer, applied at the factory for employment. He attracted the fancy of young Lick, who took the stranger in charge, provided him with food and proper clothing, and secured him a place in the establishment. The friendship thus formed lasted through life. The preference of James Lick for the youth was justified by his later life. In 1854 the pianos of Conrad Meyer took the first prize in the London International Exhibition, their maker possessing an immense manufactory in Philadelphia and ranking as one of the most eminent piano-makers in the United States.
In 1820 James Lick left the employment of Joseph Hiskey and went to New York, expecting to start in business on his own account. This venture was restricted by his want of capital, and, if attempted at all, was brief, for in the following year he left the United States for Buenos Ayres, South America, with the intention of devoting himself there to his trade. He found the Buenos Ayreans of that period a singularly handsome and refined race of almost purely Spanish extraction, and attaining, by their mode of life in the fine climate of that region, a remarkable physical and social development. By careful attention to business he prospered among them, accumulating a considerable competence during his first ten years of South American experience. “In 1832,” writes his friend Conrad Meyer, in the Philadelphia Bulletin, “I was in business on my own account on Fifth Street near Prune, Philadelphia, when I was suddenly surprised one day at seeing James Lick walk in. He had just arrived from South America, and had brought with him hides and nutria skins to the amount of $40,000, which he was then disposing of. Nutria skins are obtained from a species of otter found along the River La Plata. He stated that he intended settling in Philadelphia, and to this end he some days later rented a house on Eighth Street, near Arch, with the intention of manufacturing pianos, paying $400 as rental for one year in advance. In a few days he left for New York and Boston, and, writing me from the latter city, announced that he had given up the idea of remaining permanently in Philadelphia, and requested that I should call on the house agent and make the best settlement I could with him. I did so, and receiving from him $300 out of the $400, I returned the key.” The sudden change of purpose which led James Lick to abandon his design of remaining in Philadelphia and return to South America seems to indicate a whimsical temper. It may be, however, that during his ten years’ stay in Buenos Ayres he cherished, as many men do, an ideal of his youth, and dreamed out a business career in his native land which, when he returned to it, he saw to be impracticable. He went back to Buenos Ayres, filled certain piano orders he had taken, settled his affairs there, and sailed for Valparaiso, Chili, where for four years he followed his vocation. Occasionally his friend, Conrad Meyer, heard from him, the correspondence being limited to orders for pianos to be shipped to him, with drafts for their payment; but outside of these indications that Mr. Lick was engaged in trade, little is known of his life in Valparaiso or the business ventures he engaged in outside of his trade. At the end of four years he quitted Valparaiso, and went to Callao, Peru.
He lived in Peru for eleven years, occupying himself in manufacturing pianos, with occasional investments in commercial enterprises. That he was successful is shown by the statement, made by himself, that in 1845 he was worth $59,000. At this time he began to think seriously of coming to California. His friend, Mr. Foster, of the house of Alsop & Co., of Lima, urged him to remain in Peru. He told Lick that the United States would not acquire California; that the inhabitants were a set of cut-throats who would murder him for his money, and that it would be folly for him to abandon a lucrative business to go to a new country that had so bad a reputation. To all these arguments Mr. Lick replied that he knew the character of the American Government; that it was not of a nature to let go of a country it had once acquired, and as for being assassinated, he had confidence in his own ability to protect himself. He determined to go, but before he could go he had to fill orders for several pianos he had contracted for. This would not have been a difficult matter had it not been for the fact that, at this juncture, all his workmen left him to go to Mexico. As he could not replace them, he went to work himself, and after two years of hard labor finished the last of the pianos. He determined that there should be no further delay in his departure.
His stock, which his inventory showed him was worth $59,000, he sacrificed for $30,000. This money, which was in Spanish doubloons, he secured in a large iron safe, which he brought with him to California. Among the odd articles which James Lick brought to California from Peru was the work-bench which he had there used in his trade. It was not an elaborate affair, and the object of its deportation to this land of timber hardly appears, unless Mr. Lick had acquired an affection for this companion of his daily labors. He retained this bench through all his California experience, and it now stands in the hall of the Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton.
Mr. Lick arrived in San Francisco late in 1847. At that time there was little to indicate the future prosperity of the metropolis of the Pacific Coast. California Street was its southern boundary, while Sansome Street was on the water front. Sand dunes stretched out to the southern and western horizon, with occasionally a rough shanty to break the monotony of the landscape. Mr. Lick quietly invested his money in these sand hills, paying dollars for lots that were not considered, by the inhabitants, as worth cents. He came to Santa Clara County and purchased the property north of San Jose, on the Guadaloupe, which afterwards became famous as the Lick Mills property. He also bought the tract of land just inside the present southern city limits, and which was afterwards known as the Lick Homestead. All these lands were vacant and unimproved; at this time the agricultural lands were not considered of any value. Even as prominent and intelligent a man as John B. Weller said he “would not give six bits for all the agricultural lands in California.” It is a question with some people as to whether these purchases by Mr. Lick were the result of luck or foresight. Although considered eccentric, Mr. Lick’s business sagacity has never been doubted, and it is fair to suppose that he foresaw the commercial importance of San Francisco, and the future agricultural importance of the fields of the Santa Clara Valley.
During seven years after his arrival Mr. Lick engaged in no particular business other than to invest his Spanish doubloons as above stated. The first improvement on his property made by Mr. Lick was done upon that portion of his Santa Clara County lands known as the “Lick Mill Tract.” An old flour mill had stood upon the property when he purchased it in 1852, and this fact may have moved his mind toward the erection at that point of his own mill. In 1853 he began to lay the plans and gather the material he intended to employ in its construction. In 1855 work was begun, and to those who saw the structure rise, it was the wonder of the time. The wood of which its interior finish was composed, was of the finest mahogany, finished and inlaid in the most solid, elegant, and expensive style. The machinery imported for its works was also of a quality never before sent to the Pacific Coast. The entire cost of the mill was estimated by Mr. Lick himself, at $200,000. It became known by the name of the “Mahogany Mill,” or perhaps more commonly as “Lick’s Folly.” When put in operation it turned out the finest brand of flour on the Pacific Coast. It will always be a matter of doubt whether this mill was erected by Mr. Lick as a whim of his eccentric nature or as a protest against the flimsy, cheap, and temporary style of building then common to the new State.
There is a romantic legend preserved in the memory of the old acquaintances of Mr. Lick which goes to explain the origin of the famous mill. The tale runs that when Lick was a boy he was apprenticed to a miller, who, besides the possession of a competency and a flourishing business, had also an exceedingly pretty daughter. Strange as the assertion may seem to those who were acquainted only with the unlovely old age of this strange character, James Lick was a comely young man, and upon him the miller’s daughter cast approving eyes. Lick met her more than halfway, and a warm attachment sprang up between the apprentice and the heiress. The ancient miller, however, soon saw the drift of matters, and interposed his parental authority to break the peaceful current of true love. Young Lick declared that he loved the girl and wished to marry her, with her father’s consent. Thereupon Hans became indignant, and, pointing to his mill, exclaimed: “Out, you beggar! Dare you cast your eyes upon my daughter, who will inherit my riches? Have you a mill like this? Have you a single penny in your purse?” To this tirade Lick replied that he had nothing as yet, but one day he would have a mill beside which this one would be a pig-sty!
Lick at once departed, and at length drifted to California, seeking the fortune which in one minute he had determined to possess, and which determination never afterward for a moment left him. Nor did he forget his last words to the miller. When he was a rich man he built this mill, and when it was finished there had been nothing left undone which could have added to the perfection of its appointments. Its machinery was perfect, and its walls and floors and ceilings of polished, costly woods. Not being able to bring the miller to view the realization of his boyish declaration, Lick caused the mill to be photographed within and without, and, although his old sweetheart had long since been married, he sent her father the pictures and recalled to him the day he boasted of his mill.
Although the Mahogany Mill gratified Mr. Lick’s pride in its construction and in the brand of its product, and although it may have satisfied the ancient grudge against the traditional miller, it was not a financial success. The periodical floods of the Guadaloupe River inundated the lands about it, destroyed his orchards and roads, and interfered with the operation of the mill. In the year 1873 he surprised everybody with the gift of the whole property to the Thomas Paine Memorial Association of Boston. For some years he had been a close student and great admirer of the writings of Paine, and he took this means of proving the faith that was in him. On January 16, 1873, he made a formal transfer of the property to certain named trustees of the association, imposing upon these the trust to sell the same and donate one-half of the proceeds to the building of a memorial hall in Boston, and so invest the other half that a lecture course could be maintained out of its increase. The association sent an agent out to California to look over the acquisition, with power to deal with it. Without consulting Mr. Lick, he sold the property for about $18,000 and returned home, at which proceeding the donor was so completely disgusted that he lost all his past interest in the advancement of the theories of Thomas Paine!
The next scheme of improvement to which Mr. Lick turned his attention after the completion of his mill was the erection of the Lick Hotel in San Francisco. He had bought the property upon which it stands for an ounce of gold-dust, soon after his arrival in California, and until 1861 it had lain idle and unimproved. The lot originally extended the entire length of the block, on Montgomery Street, from Sutter to Post, and the hotel would have covered this space had not Mr. Lick sold the Post Street corner to the Masonic order. The story goes that Alexander G. Abell, on behalf of the Masons, approached Mr. Lick with an offer to buy the property. The owner, in accordance with his seldom violated custom, refused to part with the property, until Mr. Abell frankly explained that the Masons had been all over the city looking for a site and could find none that answered their requirements like this, when Mr. Lick gave way and sold them the corner. The hotel is a familiar object to all who visit San Francisco. At the time of its construction it was the finest hostelry on the Pacific Coast, and it still ranks well up among first-class family hotels. Its internal finish was, in the main, designed by Mr. Lick himself, who took a special pride in the selection of fine materials and in their combination in artistic and effective forms. The dining-room floor of the hotel is a marvel of beautiful wood-work, made out of many thousand pieces of different wood, and all polished like a table. It was probably the early devotion of Mr. Lick to the trade of a piano-maker which caused him to take this keen delight in the use of fine woods, which manifested itself both in his Mahogany Mill and in the Lick Hotel.
That part of the life story of James Lick which lies between the years 1861 and 1873 is full of interest to those who would form a correct estimate of the man. The course of affairs had amply justified his early judgment of the future values of California real estate. His sand-hill lots, bought for a song in 1848, grew to be golden islands of wealth amid the rising rivers of metropolis trade. The investments made in Santa Clara County lands all proved profitable and yielded rich returns. By the very bull-dog tenacity with which he hung to his acquisitions, he became, during the ‘60’s, one of the wealthiest men on the Pacific Coast. His reputation, too, was Statewide, made so not only by his wealth, but by the rumor of his eccentricities. He had already passed the age of sixty years, when most men begin to “glide into the lean and slippered pantaloon.” He even attained and overstepped the prophetic boundary of three-score years and ten. Yet he still maintained the positive, energetic, self-possessed individuality of his earlier years.
It is very probable that the advancing age of James Lick acted upon his nature in developing into active eccentricities the natural peculiarities of his disposition. Most of the pioneers who remember him during the first decade of his California career, describe him as a close, careful, self-contained man, cold and sometimes crabbed of disposition, going his own lonely way in business and in life. Those who knew him between ’61 and ’73 intensify these characteristics and declare him to have been miserly, irascible, selfish, solitary, who cherished little affection for his race or kin, and whose chief delight appeared to lie in the indulgence of the whims of a thorny and unfragrant old age. It is probable that this later estimate of Mr. Lick presents his character with too much of a shadow, and that, as our narrative develops, and combines the incidents and traditions of this period of his life, and lays them alongside the grand conceptions of his closing years, his real self will be revealed in outlines less repulsive and more consistent with the achievements of his completed career. In fact, from these few men who held the confidence and shared in all the plans of Mr. Lick, has ever gone out the denial that he was miserly or selfish or forgetful of his duties to mankind, and the claim that beneath the ice of his outward nature flowed the warm currents of a philanthropic heart.
The traditions of Mr. Lick’s eccentric career during these years are numerous and amusing. Most of his time after the completion of his hotel was spent in Santa Clara County. He lived upon his Lick Mill property and gave a great deal of attention to its improvement. Upon it he began early to set out trees of various kinds, both for fruit and ornament. He held some curious theories of tree-planting, and believed in the efficiency of a bone deposit about the roots of every young tree. Many are the stories told by old residents of James Lick going along the highway in an old rattle-trap, rope-tied wagon, with a bear-skin robe for a seat cushion, and stopping every now and then to gather in the bones of some dead beast. People used to think him crazy until they saw him among his beloved trees, planting some new and rare variety, and carefully mingling about its young roots the finest of loams with the bones he had gathered during his lonely rides. There is a story extant, and probably well founded, which illustrates the odd means he employed to secure hired help at once trustworthy and obedient. One day while he was planting his orchard a man applied to him for work. Mr. Lick directed him to take the trees he indicated to a certain part of the grounds and there to plant them with the tops in the earth and the roots in the air. The man obeyed the directions to the letter, and reported in the evening for further orders. Mr. Lick went out, viewed his work with apparent satisfaction, and then ordered him to plant the tree the proper way and thereafter to continue in his employ!
Another story similar to this is handed down and is entirely authentic. Mr. Lick was at one time the owner of what is now the Knox Block corner, in San Jose. A fire having destroyed its buildings, much debris of burned brick remained scattered over the lot. One day, while Mr. Lick was walking about viewing his property, a young stranger applied to him for work, and was instructed to collect a certain quantity of these brick and pile them neatly in a corner. This he did and reported, when he was told to take the same brick and pile them neatly in another corner. Without a word he executed the singular order, and was at once employed and long retained by the eccentric man, who had thus put his obedience to the test.
Mr. Lick was as fond of flowers as of trees, and took great pains in the cultivation of rare and beautiful plants. He was very susceptible to praise of his garden, and equally sensitive to its criticism. One day a party of ladies visited his Mahogany Mill, and were invited to view his flowers. They were profuse in their compliments, and he was all-courteous until one of the party remarked that she had lately seen in San Francisco much finer specimens of some of his plants. His demeanor changed at once, and telling the company he had yet another flower garden to show them, he led them by a tortuous trail out into the midst of a field of blossoming mustard, which grew like a rank forest upon part of his property, and then slipped away and left them to criticize his “other garden,” and extricate themselves as best they could.
After Mr. Lick had, with almost infinite exertion, improved his mill property, he found the investment an unsatisfactory and unprofitable one. The annual floods of the Guadaloupe invaded his orchard, destroyed his garden, and covered his land with a deposit of sediment and debris. And so he resolved at last to transfer his care to the tract of land lying just south of San Jose, and now known as the Lick Homestead Addition. Presently the people of Santa Clara County witnessed a strange spectacle. Day after day long trains of carts and wagons passed slowly through San Jose, carrying tall trees and full-grown shrubbery, from the old to the new location. Winter and summer alike the work went on, the old man superintending it all in his rattle-trap wagon and bear-skin robe. His plans for this new improvement were made regardless of expense. Tradition tells us that he had imported from Australia rare trees, and, in order to insure their growth, had brought with them whole ship-loads of their native earth. He conceived the idea of building conservatories superior to any on the Pacific Coast, and for that purpose had imported from England the materials for two large conservatories after the model of those in the Kew Gardens in London. His death occurred before he could have these constructed, and they remained on the hands of his trustees until a body of San Francisco gentlemen contributed funds for their purchase and donation to the use of the public in Golden Gate Park, where they now stand as the wonder and delight of all who visit that beautiful resort.
It was in the year 1873, when James Lick was seventy-seven years old, that he began to make those donations, of the then vast estate he possessed, which culminated in his famous deeds of trust. How long he had given to secret thought upon the subject no one can tell, but that his gifts were the outcome of mature deliberation, seems beyond a doubt. For years preceding his bequests he had been a wide reader upon many subjects. He held a peculiar belief, or rather want of belief, regarding the future existence, and deemed an earthly immortality of remembrance all that there was of eternal life. He studied everything written about Thomas Paine, and made his works the text of his own opinions. It is related that, while he was engaged in the improvement of the Lick Homestead property, he became involved in an argument on day with Adolph Pfister over some religious subject, when the latter suggested that he put to practical proof the merits of Paineism as contrasted with other moral agencies, by the erection of a grand college on his property for the education of young men in his favorite doctrine, and for their equipment as teachers and missionaries of Paine. The old man appeared attracted with the idea, and gave it considerable thought, and it is not improbable that it found form in his gift of the Lick Mill property to the Paine Memorial Association of Boston, which was the first in time of his donations.
It was, as we have already noted, on January 16, 1873, that Mr. Lick made his donation of the Lick Mill property to the Thomas Paine Association. On February 15, 1873, he executed two other gift deeds, one to the California Academy of Science, and the other to the Society of California Pioneers. To the former he granted a lot of forty feet frontage on Market Street near Fourth, San Francisco, and to the latter society a lot of like dimensions on Fourth Street near Market. These gifts he clogged with certain conditions as to the kind of buildings to be erected, etc., which were deemed irksome by the donees. Negotiations began between Mr. Lick and the societies, which continued during most of the year 1873, when Mr. Lick finally offered to relieve his gift from all burdensome conditions. This purpose was yet unaccomplished at the time of his death, but after some little difficulty was arranged satisfactorily to all concerned by his trustees. Upon the valuable properties thus generously disposed of, now stand the beautiful buildings of the two societies which received his benefactions.
The first trust deed by which Mr. Lick gave all his immense estate to charitable and educational objects was dated June 2, 1874. Among the several provisions of this instrument was one giving to San Jose $25,000 for the purpose of establishing an orphan asylum, and one appropriating $700,000 for establishing an observatory on land belonging to Mr. Lick near Lake Tahoe, in Placer County. An investigation of the appropriateness of this site was at once set on foot. It was soon ascertained that the severity of the climate about the chosen location would seriously interfere both with the effective operation of the telescope and with the comfort of the visiting public. Mr. Lick then determined upon a change of site to some spot nearer civilization, and looked towards Mount St. Helena, in Napa County, as the proper point. He visited St. Helena and ascended part way to its summit, but before he had pursued his inquiries far enough to arrive at a conclusion, other circumstances conspired to change his mind and direct his eyes to Santa Clara County in search of a favorable site for his observatory.
Although, out of the large amount of property distributed by Mr. Lick, San Jose received but $25,000, the people of that city were very grateful and acknowledged their gratitude in a well-worded series of resolutions prepared by Judge Belden, adopted by the mayor and common council, beautifully engrossed and officially transmitted to Mr. Lick and San Francisco. Other recipients of Mr. Lick’s benefactions had either responded coldly, or had made no response at all, and the action of the people of San Jose presented a strong contrast which attracted Mr. Lick’s attention and caused him to think that perhaps he had not done as much as he should for the county which had so long been his home. The resolutions reached him at the time he was in doubt as to the location of his observatory, and he consulted his then confidential agent, Mr. Thos. E. Fraser, as to the availability of the mountain summits surrounding the Santa Clara Valley for the home of the telescope. His attention was first called to Mount Bache, which rises to the height of about four thousand feet on the southwest in the Santa Cruz Range; but it was found that frequent sea fogs would interfere with the vision on that elevation. Mr. Fraser then referred Mr. Lick to Mount Hamilton, and was by him instructed to ascend to its top and investigate its qualifications for the purpose in hand. In August, 1875, Mr. Fraser, accompanied by Hon. B. D. Murphy, then mayor of the city of San Jose, went upon the mountain, found it free from fog, equable of climate, easy of access, and generally suitable for the location of the great observatory. Mr. Lick then addressed a communication to the Board of Supervisors of Santa Clara County, offering to locate the observatory on Mount Hamilton, if the county would construct a road to the summit. The matters relating to this branch of the subject will be found fully related in our chapter on “Roads and Highways.”
In the meantime Mr. Lick had found that his deed of trust did not express his intentions as he desired. He found, among other things, that the strict construction of its terms would postpone the carrying into effect of his benefactions until after his death. He wanted the work to be pushed forward during his life-time. After duly considering these matters he addressed a communication to his trustees, setting forth his conclusions and intentions, and revoking the deed and asking them to resign the trust. The trustees consulted a lawyer, and upon his advice declined to resign, for the alleged reason that they had already converted about a million of dollars of the real estate into money and could not be absolved from responsibility by Mr. Lick’s will alone. This involved Mr. Lick in a controversy with his trustees which, at first, threatened disaster to the beneficiaries. Jno. B. Felton was Mr. Lick’s attorney, and instead of precipitating his client into a lawsuit, he used the columns of the newspapers so vigorously that the trustees became disgusted and made up an agreed case, by which the courts relieved them of responsibility and annulled the deed.
On September 21, 1875, a new and final deed was executed by Mr. Lick, with Richard S. Floyd, Bernard D. Murphy, Foxan D. Atherton, John H. Lick, and John Nightingale as trustees. The clause in the deed in reference to the observatory is as follows: --
“Third – To expend the sum of seven hundred thousand dollars ($700,000) for the purpose of purchasing land, and constructing and putting up on such land as shall be designed by the party of the first part, a powerful telescope, superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made, with all the machinery appertaining thereto and appropriately connected therewith, or that is necessary and convenient to the most powerful telescope now in use, or suited to one more powerful than any yet constructed; and also a suitable observatory connected therewith. The parties of the second part hereto, and their successors, shall, as soon as said telescope and observatory are constructed, convey the land whereupon the same may be situated, and the telescope and the observatory, and all machinery and apparatus connected therewith, to the corporation known as ‘Regents of the University of California;’ and if, after the construction of said telescope and observatory, there shall remain of said seven hundred thousand dollars in gold coin any surplus, the said parties of the second part shall turn over such surplus to said corporation, to be invested by it in bonds of the United States, or of the city and county of San Francisco, or other good and safe interest-bearing bonds, and the income thereof shall be devoted to the maintenance of said telescope and the observatory connected therewith, and shall be made useful in promoting science; and the said telescope and observatory are to be known as the ‘Lick Astronomical Department of the University of California.’”
On making of the new deed Mr. Lick selected Mount Hamilton as the site for the University, and the trustees, acting with the regents of the State University, secured an act of Congress setting apart the public land at the summit for this purpose. This tract contains about five hundred acres, and is so situated as to prevent settlement in the immediate vicinity of the observatory, or the inauguration of any enterprise in the immediate neighborhood that would be inimical to the interests of the institution.
John B. Felton charged $100,000 for his services in annulling the first deed, and presented the bill to the new trustees. They refused to allow the claim unless Mr. Lick would sign a written authorization. Mr. Felton, with Mr. Murphy, one of the trustees, called on Mr. Lick for this purpose.
“Mr. Felton,” said the old philanthropist, “when we made the contract upon which that claim is based, we supposed that to cancel my first trust deed would be an exceedingly arduous matter, involving much expense, a long delay and years of the most elaborate and annoying litigation. The whole entanglement, however, has been adjusted in a few months without any difficulty, but little outlay, and with only a formal litigation; I think, under the changed circumstances, you ought to diminish the amount of your fee.”
“Your proposition, Mr. Lick,” responded Felton, “reminds me of a story I once heard about a countryman who had a bad toothache and went to a rustic dentist to have the offender extracted. The dentist produced a rusty set of instruments, seated him in a rickety chair, and went to work. After some hours of hard labor to himself, and the most extreme agony to the countryman, the tooth was extracted, and he charged him a dollar. A few months later the same countryman had another attack of toothache, and this time thought best to procure a metropolitan dentist. He went to the city, found the best dentist in it, and offered his swollen jaw for operation. The expert dentist passed his hand soothingly over his face, located the tooth with painless delicacy, produced a splendid set of instruments, and before the countryman knew it, had the tooth out. His charge was five dollars. ‘Five dollars!’ said the countryman, ‘why, when Jones, down at the village, pulled my last tooth it took him three hours, during which he broke his chair, broke my jaw, broke his tools, and mopped the whole floor with me several times, and he only charged me a dollar. You ought to diminish your bill!’”
Mr. Lick signed the authorization and Mr. Felton received his money.
In 1876 Mr. Lick had trouble with his trustees. One of the duties Mr. Lick wished first performed was the erection of his family monument in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania. It was during the arrangement for this work that the causes attending the retirement of the second Board arose, and in this wise. [sentence ended] It will be noticed that among the members of this Board of Trustees was John H. Lick. Although James Lick is reputed to have never been married, this man was his son. He was born in Pennsylvania on June 30, 1818, just about the time, it will be noticed, of James Lick’s somewhat hurried departure for New York, and thence to South America. Who was the mother of this boy does not appear, unless, perhaps, it was the miller’s comely daughter. Long after Mr. Lick came to California he sent for his son, then grown to manhood, and kept him for some years at work in the Mahogany Mill. Here he remained until August, 1871, when he returned to his Eastern home. When Mr. Lick made his first deed of trust, he directed the payment to his son of $3,000. With this pittance John H. Lick was naturally dissatisfied, and hence in the second deed he was given the sum of $150,000, and made one of the trustees of the rest. To him, as trustee, the power was delegated to contract for the Fredericksburg monument, but for some reason he failed or refused to sign the contract. When this fact was made known to James Lick, in the summer of 1876, he became very much incensed against John H. Lick, and began to suspect that he had still further designs upon his property, and in the weakness of his old age he included the whole Board in his ill-humor, and suddenly required the resignation of the whole body. In this the trustees, except John H. Lick, concurred, and a new Board was appointed by Mr. Lick. Captain Floyd having been in Europe during this last entanglement, was not included in the old man’s wrath, but was re-appointed on the new Board.
Mr. Lick died October 1, 1876, and before the new Board was fully organized. He was eighty years of age. His body lay in state at Pioneer Hall, San Francisco, and was followed by an immense procession to Long Mountain Cemetery, there to rest until a more fitting resting place might be ready for its reception. Some months before his death, in a conversation with B. D. Murphy upon the subject of the probability of his death, Mr. Lick expressed the desire that he might be buried on Mount Hamilton, either within or to one side of the proposed observatory, after the manner of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s cathedral, who was buried in the crypt in 1723.
Immediately on the death of his father, John H. Lick returned from the East and secured letters of administration upon the estate. This was understood to be the beginning of an attempt to nullify the trust deed; after testing several points in the courts, the trustees finally effected a compromise by which they were to pay Lick $535,000 in full of all claims against the estate. The Society of Pioneers and the Academy of Sciences had been made residuary legatees by the deed, and they insisted that this payment to John Lick should be made pro rata from each of the bequests. The Academy of Sciences was particularly active in the courts to compel the payment to be made in this manner. After nearly a year of litigation, the courts decided that the special bequests could not be disturbed, and the compromise money must come from the share of the residuary legatees.
As soon as possible after the completion of the road to the summit, work was commenced on the buildings. About two million six hundred thousand bricks were used, all of which were manufactured in the immediate vicinity. Early in 1887, the work had progressed sufficiently to permit the request of Mr. Lick in regard to his burial-place to be complied with, and on the ninth day of January his remains were brought to San Jose, whence, followed by a large procession of officials and prominent citizens, they were conveyed to the mountain. A tomb had been prepared in the foundation of the pier, which was to support the great telescope, and in this, with imposing ceremonies, were the remains deposited. The following document, signed by the trustees and representatives of the State University, the Academy of Sciences, Pioneers, and the mayor of San Jose, was sealed up with the casket:
“This is the body of James Lick, who was born in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, August 25, 1796, and who died in San Francisco, California, October 1 1876.
“It has been identified by us, and in our presence has been sealed up and deposited in this foundation pier of the great equatorial telescope, this ninth day of January, 1887.
“In the year 1875 he executed a deed of trust of his entire estate, by which he provided for the comfort and culture of the citizens of California, for the advancement of handcraft and rede-draft among the youth of San Francisco and of the State; for the development of scientific research and the diffusion of knowledge among men, and for founding in the State of California an astronomical observatory, to surpass all others existing in the world at this epoch.
“This observatory has been erected by the trustees of his estate, and has been named the Lick Astronomical Department of the University of California, in memory of the founder.
“This refracting telescope is the largest which has ever been constructed, and the astronomers who have tested it declare that its performance surpasses that of all other telescopes.
“The two disks of glass for the objective were cast by Ch. Feil, of France, and were brought to a true figure by Alvan Clark & Sons, of Massachusetts.
“Their diameter is thirty-six inches, and their focal length is fifty-six feet two inches.
“Upon the completion of this structure the regents of the University of California became the trustees of this astronomical observatory.”
The contract for the great lens was made with Alvan Clark & Sons, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, for $51,000. They employed M. Feil & Sons, of Paris, to cast the glass. The contract was made in 1880. In 1882 the flint-glass was cast and sent to Messrs. Clark, but it was not until 1885 that a perfect crown-glass could be obtained. The Clarks succeeded in obtaining a true figure in 1886, and on the twenty-ninth of December, of that year, the great lens reached Mount Hamilton. The mounting of the instrument and other details of construction occupied eighteen months’ more time, and in June, 1888, the whole work was completed. The transfer of the observatory from the trustees to the regents of the university took place June 1, 1888, being fourteen years from the date of Mr. Lick’s first deed.
Pen Pictures From The Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated. - Edited by H. S. Foote.- Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1888. p. 126-133
Transcribed by Kathy Sedler
James Lick, the "Generous Miser" James Lick He was an honest, industrious man, of much common sense, though noted for many eccentricities and whims and in his later years, of irritable and thoroughly disagreeable temperament....His great and well merited fame rests on the final disposition of his millions, which after provision for his relatives, were devoted to various scientific, charitable, and educational enterprises for the benefit of the donor's adopted state. Hubert H. Bancroft in Rosemary Lick's The Generous Miser "A telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made ... and also a suitable observatory connected therewith ..." from James Lick's deed of trust, 1874 The Story of Lick Observatory begins at a time of rapid change in the American West. The new transcontinental railroad had only recently linked the young state of California to the established centers of science and commerce in the East. The Gold Rush had left a profoundly changed economy in its wake. Fortunes had been made, and among those who had reaped the wealth was a thrifty Pennsylvania Dutchman who had found gold not in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, but in the booming real estate market fueled by California's unprecedented growth.
Even as he lay dying in the sumptuous San Francisco hotel he had built, James Lick was issuing final orders for the disposition of his fortune. His largest single bequest would be for construction of the astronomical observatory that bears his name. The telescope he envisioned - part high- visibility scientific enterprise, part monument to himself - was to be second to none. But first, Lick's own extraordinary story, from Pennsylvania woodworker to California millionaire, bears telling.
Some day, I will own a mill that will make yours look like a pigsty! James Lick was born in Stumpstown (now Fredericksburg), Pennsylvania, on August 25th, 1796, the eldest of seven children. His father was a skilled woodworker and on his thirteenth birthday James became his apprentice, learning carpentry and cabinetmaking under the master's stern and demanding tutelage. He was a quiet and obedient pupil who, despite any inward resentment he may have harbored against his father's severity, strove to achieve the excellence that was expected of him. In time, his skill became equal to that of his teacher's.
James might have settled into an unremarkable existence in Stumpstown, working the family farm and building fine cedar chests for the local trade, but, at the age of 21, an ill-starred romance changed the course of his life. Rosemary Lick tells the story in The Generous Miser, her biography of her great-granduncle:
"He had been keeping company with a girl named Barbara Snavely for some time. She was the daughter of a local miller and farmer. James was very much in love with Barbara. One day, she confided to him that she was pregnant. He became very concerned and planned to do the right thing by marrying her immediately. However, when he talked to her father the next day, and asked his permission to marry Barbara, Henry Snavely was indignant at the very idea of a young apprentice joiner having the temerity to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage.
'Have you a penny in your purse?' he asked James. Without even waiting for an answer, he went on. 'When you own a mill as large and costly as mine, you can have my daughter's hand, but not before.'
An angry James strode from the house, but before he left, he shot back at the haughty miller, 'Some day, I will own a mill that will make yours look like a pigsty!'"
Following his disappointment, Lick left Stumpstown. He found work in Baltimore where he learned the art of piano making, and before long set up his own shop in New York. In 1821, after learning that his pianos were being exported to South America, Lick packed his tools, his workbench, and his few belongings, and sailed for Argentina, reasoning that by taking himself to the market he could more quickly build the fortune he needed to win the hand of his beloved Barbara.
South American Years view of ninetheenth century Buenes Aires Nineteenth century Buenes Aires. Lick's South American years - nearly thirty in all - were prosperous and colorful ones. He established his first workshop in Buenos Aires where his honesty and fine craftsmanship soon placed him in high regard. The business prospered despite chronic - and often violent - political turmoil.
At first Lick found his new life difficult. He was frequently ill and was handicapped by his lack of Spanish. He had arrived during a particularly unstable period and was unhappy witness to bloody uprisings in the city. In 1825, even with his business thriving and command of the language attained, Lick wrote to his father that he was "one minute in the clouds of heaven and the next in the depths of the sea and death always before my eyes in ten thousand forms. This is far from peaceful living", he continued, "and I would not wish it on my worst enemy."
That same year, leaving his business in the hands of a trusted man, Lick left for a year's tour of Europe, hoping to regain health and peace of mind. On the return voyage, his ship, after nearly sinking in a fearsome storm, was captured by a Portuguese Man-o-War as it approached Buenos Aires. Passengers and crew were taken to Montevideo (in present-day Uruguay) as prisoners of war. Lick's daring escape on foot finally brought him home, where he found his business much in need of attention.
Lick immediately set about reestablishing his fortune. He soon restored his piano business to its former prosperity, and began a lucrative trade in furs. By 1832 he felt that he had accumulated enough money to make the long hoped-for trip back to Stumpstown, to at last claim the bride he expected to find waiting. However, despite the $40,000 he carried, Lick saw neither his would-be bride nor his son. On hearing of her old lover's imminent return, Barbara, who had married another man only two years after Lick's departure, had taken their son John and left Stumpstown. Though James had corresponded with his family, he had apparently not communicated his intention to return for Barbara, and no one had informed him of her marriage.
The brig Lady Adams The brig Lady Adams. Disheartened, Lick returned to Buenos Aires, but with revolution threatening, soon moved to Valparaiso, Chile. Four years later, again to escape the clouds of war, he moved to his third and last South American home: Lima, Peru. As before, his high standards established his good reputation and his services were soon in great demand.
Lick spent a prosperous decade in Lima, but by 1846 he had made up his mind to return to North America. Always an avid reader of newspapers and observer of the political scene, he had watched the dispute between Mexico and the United States over Texan sovereignty arise, and had concluded that war was inevitable. Lick fully expected a U.S. victory and with it the annexation of California, a territory rich with opportunity for a man with vision - and capital to back it.
Once having made up his mind, Lick was anxious to leave, but his mostly Mexican workers had quit to fight in the war which had broken out in April of 1846, leaving him with a dozen unfilled orders. In characteristic fashion, Lick remained in Lima another eighteen months, finishing the pianos with his own hands. Finally, his obligations discharged, he sailed for California on the brig Lady Adams in November, 1847.
A New Life in California view of early San Francisco San Francisco at about the time of Lick's arrival. Lick arrived in San Francisco in January, 1848, less than a month before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California to the United States. He brought his tools, his workbench, and an iron-clad chest containing $30,000 in Peruvian gold. (Lick's baggage also included 600 pounds of chocolate purchased from his confectioner neighbor in Lima. The chocolate sold quickly, and, on Lick's advice, the confectioner - Domingo Ghirardelli - moved to San Francisco, where his name is synonymous with the city to this day!)
Lick looked at the hills and mudflats of the little shanty town with its thousand inhabitants and fine natural harbor, and saw in it a thriving city and a center of commerce. He at once began to turn his cash into land. He bought shrewdly and without hesitation, acquiring thirty-seven lots by mid-March.
Lick's unprecedented buying spree was the talk of San Francisco, and surely many locals, thinking him a bit touched, must have been only too glad to take his money. What Lick and his fellow San Franciscans could not have foreseen was an event which would change the course of California history and completely reshape her economy. The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, only seventeen days after Lick's arrival, would soon give rise to a boom which catapulted San Francisco's population to twenty thousand in the next two years.
San Francisco about 1850.
Even the conservative Lick was infected with gold fever, but a week in the mud of the gold fields convinced him that his future lay not in the glittering metal beneath the soil but in the land itself. By prompt and judicious investment he was able to purchase sizeable real estate holdings at a time when many residents were anxious to sell in order to seek treasure in the gold-laden foothills. This "buyer's market" allowed Lick to purchase more land than he might otherwise have done. While luck certainly played a role in creating these circumstances, Lick possessed the intelligence, courage, and capital to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Now in his mid-fifties, tall, vigorous, and stern, his strong face framed with a severe beard and a head of thick dark hair, Lick was an imposing figure. As his wealth and holdings increased, his interest turned more and more to the land. He left the management of his San Francisco properties to an agent, and focused his attention on a large tract of land he owned near San Jose. He gave rein to his gift for horticulture, transforming his orchards into some of the finest in the state and selling produce to the hungry residents of San Francisco.
Eccentric Millionaire Lick mill Lick mill, Santa Clara, CA. Though 37 years had passed since Lick's angry confrontation with Henry Snavely, Lick had not forgotten his bitter promise to the miller. Along the banks of the Guadalupe river, he built the mill that would make Snavely's "look like a pigsty." Lick did much of the work himself on the lavish $200,000 project, which came to be known, for its extravagant use of the most costly machinery and the finest woods, as "the Mahogany Mill" and "Lick's Folly."
When the mill was finally completed in 1855, Lick had it photographed and copies sent to Stumpstown. Though in all likelihood Henry Snavely was dead by that time, this did not stop the proud Lick from making good on his promise of thirty-five years before.
That same year Lick sent for his son John, who, at thirty- seven, had never met his father. He brought with him the news that his mother, Barbara, had died four years before. John remained with his father for eight years, but the relationship was not an easy one. Though Lick made his son manager of the mill, he thought him irresponsible and without ambition.
At first, Lick and his son shared a small cabin. In hopes of improving their relationship, Lick built a colonial mansion with a marble fireplace in each of its 24 rooms, but, to his great disappointment, John preferred the simplicity of the cabin. Soon Lick himself lost interest in the project. He never furnished the grand house, sleeping instead on an old door propped between two nail kegs, and drying fruit from his orchards on newspapers spread in the empty rooms. In 1863, John went back to Pennsylvania, returning only when his father was on his deathbed.
Though known - and sometimes criticized - for his austere personal habits, Lick was capable of vision on a grand scale. Late in 1861 he began work on a hotel in San Francisco that came to be regarded as the finest west of the Mississippi. The dining room, with its seating for 400, was modeled after one which Lick had seen 35 years before in the palace at Versailles. Lick meticulously cut and placed much of the exquisite wood inlay in the dining room with his own hands. The magnificent hotel, known as Lick House, was destroyed in the great San Francisco fire which followed the earthquake of 1906.
Lick House dining room The dining room at Lick House Another of his grand enterprises - a replica of the iron and glass conservatory in London's Kew Gardens which he had ordered from an East Coast firm - was intended as a gift to the city of San Jose, but when Lick read an article in a local newspaper criticizing his characteristically shabby dress, he withdrew the gift, never opening the crates in which it had arrived. After Lick's death, the impressive structure was purchased by a group of San Franciscans who assembled it in Golden Gate Park where it still stands as the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers.
Lick was widely known for his eccentricity. He showed little interest in his own comfort or appearance. He was laconic and taciturn and rarely felt the need to explain himself to those around him. He was known to test the obedience of his workers by assigning such tasks as planting trees upside-down. He enjoyed showing off his orchards and flowers to visitors, but once, overhearing one of a group of young ladies remark that she had seen prettier violas in San Francisco, he stranded them in a field, leaving them to find their own way home.
He could be both generous and miserly, thoughtful and inflexible. Though he had invited his son to share his life and fortune, he later all but cut him from his will, citing John's neglect of his pet parrot. He is said to have offered a 60-acre field to a stranger for the cost of the fence, but when the man took a day to decide, Lick told him that because he had wavered he could no longer have the land at any price.
Generous Miser Despite his eccentricities, Lick is best remembered for his strong will and determination, his ambition and drive, his honesty and generosity. Yet there lingers about the edges of these harder qualities, a shade of resignation, even fatality. Once, while carrying an ox-yoke on his shoulders, he was overtaken by a friend with a horse and wagon who offered him a ride. Lick thanked the man but declined. His friend then asked if he wouldn't at least put the heavy yoke in the wagon. "So far in life", he replied, "I have born my yoke patiently, and I will not shirk my duty now".
One evening in his 77th year, alone in the kitchen of his Santa Clara homestead, Lick collapsed from a severe stroke. In the morning he was found, alive but helpless, by his foreman, Thomas Fraser, a man who, years before, had earned a job by unquestioningly following Lick's orders to stack and restack a pile of bricks in the rubble of a burnt house. Lick lived another three years, but never completely regained his health.
His estates now included, in addition to many properties in San Francisco and the Santa Clara Valley, holdings on the shores of Lake Tahoe, a huge ranch in Los Angeles County, and all of Santa Catalina Island off the southern California shore. He was among the richest men in a state noted for its riches.
Lick's infirmity forced him to move to a room in his San Francisco hotel, where he could be more easily cared for. It was there that he turned his attention to the disposition of his fortune, formulating a variety of bequests ranging from public baths to a home for aging widows, from a generous donation to an orphanage to one for the prevention of cruelty to animals, from the foundation of a vocational school to monuments honoring his parents and grandfather.
Never far from his mind, however, was the monument he wished to leave to his own memory. At first, Lick wanted to set aside a million dollars to erect enormous statues of himself and his parents, so tall as to be visible far out to sea. This plan was abandoned when a friend pointed out that the monumental statues would make vulnerable targets in the event of a naval bombardment. The scheme was replaced by an even grander one: a pyramid, larger than the Great Pyramid in Egypt, to be built in downtown San Francisco upon a block which he entirely owned! But, to the lasting benefit of science - if not to the San Francisco tourist trade - Lick's thoughts were turned from pyramids to telescopes.
Several persons have been credited with sparking Lick's interest in the stars and steering him in the direction of building an observatory. According to legend, in 1860, Lick had met a student of astronomy and itinerant lecturer named George Madeira who had talked to him of the heavens and impressed him with views through his small telescope. Madeira is reputed to have told Lick that "If I had your wealth ... I would construct the largest telescope possible to construct". Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who had met Lick in 1871, also claimed to have guided him towards a major scientific bequest by holding up the example of his institution's benefactor, John Smithson.
But the single person most responsible for Lick's eventual decision to build an observatory was his friend George Davidson: astronomer, geographer, and President of the California Academy of Sciences. Davidson often visited the ailing millionaire in his room at Lick House, and in the course of their conversations, gently led him to the idea of his greatest monument.
They discussed science, astronomy, the planets, the rings of Saturn, and the mountains on the moon. Their talks soon veered to telescopes, and before long Lick decided to forego his pyramid and instead give his fortune for a telescope 'superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made.' (from Eye on the Sky, Osterbrock, Gustafson, and Unruh).
[graphic] Santa Clara County California's Historic Silicon Valley Header
[graphic] Link to S C Home [graphic] link to List of Sites [graphic] Link to Maps [graphic] link to Essays [graphic] link to Learn More [graphic] link to Itineraries Home [graphic] link to NR Home
[graphic] Previous Site [image] James Lick Mill[graphic] Next Site Site
[photo] Views of the James Lick Mansion, Superintendent's Cottage and the Granary Photograph by Judith Silva, courtesy of the City of Santa Clara The James Lick Mill a complex of buildings reflecting the varied uses of the property over its history. The major historical constructions are a brick granary and millpond from the original mill built by James Lick around 1855, the large house built by Lick around 1858 and a late Victorian-era office building. James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796. He came to San Francisco in 1848 after a successful career as a piano builder in South America. From San Francisco Lick went to Santa Clara County. Lick built this Italianate mansion between 1858 and 1860 next to his flour mill. The mansion is constructed of native redwood featuring marvelous woodwork and imported marble fireplaces in each of its 24 rooms. This property was once part of the RanchoUlistac grant, a square league reaching from the Alviso shoreline southward and encompassing all the land between the Guadalupe and Saratoga Creeks. His farm background helped him realize the potential of the site for agricultural production. Around the mansion and mill, Lick developed a highly successful orchard operation and pioneered the introduction of new fruits and horticultural techniques. Imported specimens include the impressive cork oaks on the property planted by Lick himself.
[photo] One of the large oak trees planted by Lick Photograph by Judith Silva, courtesy of the City of Santa Clara Shrewd real estate investments at the time of the gold rush made Lick the richest man in California by 1873. When he died in 1876, James Lick left an estate of over three million dollars for various public projects, a major part of which went to establish Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton where he is buried. Lick generously gave his estate to benefit charitable and scientific organizations. The Home of Benevolence, San Jose's orphanage for many years, was founded through one of Lick's grants and was later known as Eastfield Children's Home. It is now part of EMQ Children and Family Services. An 1882 fire destroyed the mill and in 1902 the Lick Mill complex was converted to the manufacture of alcohol. A series of owners, including Union Distilling, Western Grain and Sugar Products, Western Carbonic Gas, American Salt and Chemical, and Commercial Solvents and Chemical, manufactured a wide variety of products at this location. In the 1970s, the site was sold to a developer. The Lick Mansion and grounds were preserved and today the public can visit
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to James Lick.|
- University of California Observatory, biography of James Lick
- University Mound Ladies Home, a nonprofit assisted living residence for San Francisco women, founded with a bequest from James Lick