Born on August 25, 1796 the eldest of seven children in what is now known as Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania, James Lick became a carpenter under his father. At the age of 21, James was seeing a young woman by the name of Barbara Snavely who confided in him that she was pregnant. James realized the right thing to do would be marrying her immediately though her father scoffed at the thought of an apprentice joiner marrying his daughter.
'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!'"
(from The Generous Miser, Rosemary Lick)

From there and seeking to make his fortune, James went to work in Baltimore where he learned to make pianos. Many of these pianos were exported to South America and so, in 1821 James left for South America with his tools.

James Lick spent many years in South America, established a workshop in Buenos Aires where his craftsmanship placed him in high regard. Through political (and bloody) turmoil, Lick prospered. At one point, Lick left for a year long tour of Europe to regain some peace of mind. Upon his return voyage (after a nasty storm) the ship was captured by a Portuguese Man-o'-War as it approached the harbor. All aboard were taken to Montevideo (Uruguay) as prisoners of war. James Lick was able to make an escape and returned to Buenos Aires to a business that was much in need of attention.

By 1832 James felt that he had enough to claim his bride. Upon his return to Pennsylvania he found that Barbara had married another after he had been gone for two years and had left town upon hearing of James' visit with his son John.

James returned to Buenos Aires but soon moved to Chile to avoid a war. Four years later he moved again (another war) to Lima, Peru. In 1846 he decided to return to North America. During his stay in South America, James stayed on top of news of the states and was aware of the Mexican American War and the likely annexation of California.

In 1848 James Lick arrived in San Francisco a month before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. With him, James Lick had his tools, his workbench, a chest containing $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate. The chocolate sold quickly and gave rise to Ghirardelli Chocolate that lives on to this day. Within a week of Lick's arrival gold was discovered in Sutter's Mill - the gold rush.

James Lick gave prospecting a try (as did most Californians) though quickly returned back to San Francisco realizing that money was not to be made in prospecting but in real estate.

Along the Guadalupe river, Lick built a mill spending a exorbitant $200,000. This mill became known as the "Mahogany Mill" (it was built with the finest woods) and "Lick's Folly". When it was completed photographs were sent back to his home town - 37 years after he had made his promise to the miller. The Lick Mill still stands today off of Montague Expressway in Santa Clara (thanks Ereneta).

James lick created many other buildings throughout the San Francisco area. Amoung these:

  • The Lick House - a hotel that was known as the best hotel west of the Mississippi that had a dining room to seat 400, modeled after one seen in the palace at Versailles. This hotel was destroyed in the fire following the earthquake of 1906.
  • Conservatory of Flowers - a replica of London's Kew Gardens intended as a gift to San Jose though never built until after his death (and then, in San Francisco) after being criticized by the local newspaper for his "shabby dress"

At the age of 77 Lick collapsed from a severe stroke. Realizing that he did not have much longer, Lick started giving away his fortune in the form of public baths to a home for aging widows and donations to charities. However, James Lick wanted a monument and set aside a million dollars. His first idea was to make giant statues of himself and his parents visible from sea - which was later scrapped when it was realized that these would be primary targets from naval bombardment. His second idea was to build a giant pyramid (larger than those in Egypt) in downtown San Francisco (just off Market Street). However, a friend of his suggested he build an observatory - with the largest telescope in the world.

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 in the Sky, Osterbrock, Gustafson, and Unruh).

James Lick died on Oct 1, 1876 - twelve years before the observatory was completed. In January 1887 James Lick was brought to the summit of Mt. Hamilton, home of the Lick Observatory. His tomb lies under the floor of the telescope with the simple plaque:

Here Lies the Body of James Lick.
At the time of its building, the telescope was the largest one in the world. Today, the 36 inch Lick refractor remains the second largest refracting telescope in the world second to that of the University of Chicago.

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