Who is James Lick?

On the weekends, my boyfriend and I like to go on exploring adventures. Sometimes we go by foot, or we take our convertible Mini Cooper (which we refer to as mini adventures), OR we take our motorcycles. On this particular adventure, we took our motorcycles (Triumph Bonneville for him, Harley Sportster for me).

Mount Hamilton road

Our destination: Mt Hamilton

The journey: lots of curvy, scenic roads!


We had an enjoyable ride up to the top of Mt Hamilton, winding around 20 mph curves interspersed with scenic overlooks and forest paths. As we got close to the top, we started to see signs that indicated we should be quiet for day sleepers (uhh…vampires?).

At the top of the mountain, there was a series of white-domed buildings… an observatory! The day sleepers are the scientists who stay up to observe the night sky. We parked our bikes and walked into the observatory which was set up like a museum. Luckily we were just in time for the start of a tour of the James Lick telescope.James Lick Telescope

We walked into a circular room with a massive 57 foot refracting telescope that was built in 1888. The tour guide (who we later found out lives there because she is the daughter of the maintenance man) told us about the mechanics and facts of the telescope and the story of James Lick.


James Lick was not an astronomer or scientist by any means. In his early life, he made his living making pianos. He was born in Pennsylvania, mastered his craft in New York, but then moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina when he heard that piano exports were going to South America. He then went on to live in Valparaiso, Chile (one of my favorite places in the world, second only to San Francisco), and then Lima, Peru. In Lima, his neighbor was a chocolate-maker named Domingo Ghiradelli.

Lick decided to move to San Francisco and took some of Ghiradelli’s chocolate with him. The chocolate was very well received so he convinced Ghiradelli to move to San Francisco to sell his chocolates. Meanwhile Lick was buying up land in and around San Francisco just before the gold rush. As property values rose, Lick became the richest man in California.

This is when Lick’s story becomes a bit sad. In 1874, he survived a stroke which became a wake up call that he had this fortune without a care or cause to use it for. He had a few ideas. One idea was to sponsor a pyramid structure in San Francisco that would rival the Pyramids of Giza. Another consideration was to erect huge statues of his parents in the bay. San Francisco said no to both of these proposals.

He finally landed on the idea of making all of his fortune available for the public good, including the building of the observatory and telescope on Mount Hamilton. This included the construction of the road up to the top. Construction of the Lick Observatory was completed in 1888. Unfortunately James Lick died in October of 1887. His body is buried beneath the telescope at the Lick Observatory.

James Lick left his legacy through the numerous discoveries that came from the James Lick Telescope and other exploration from the Lick Observatory.

But I can’t help but wonder if his contribution was merely an afterthought as he realized he was reaching the end of his life. What could he have done if he had discovered a passion or deeper purpose earlier in life and applied his intentions and resources to that? From pianos to chocolate to real estate, the pattern seemed to be financial opportunity. James Lick jumped from opportunity to opportunity in his life, but did he ever find his north star?


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