James Lick was one of those persons who, through hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and sometimes just good luck, managed to accomplish more than seems possible in one lifetime. I find that many of these people seem to have lived during the Victorian Age, when opportunities were ripe, and a good dose of gumption could result in a dramatically improved situation.
James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 into fairly unexceptional circumstances; his father was a carpenter and young James followed suit. He eventually learned the piano-making trade and after tuning his skills in New York, he shipped out to Buenos Aires which seemed to be a good market for pianos.
Unfortunately, Lick’s success was initially hampered by his inability to speak Spanish, as well as sporadic South American political unrest. He bounced around the continent for almost 30 years, his business becoming prosperous. Eventually, he tired of the social upheavals, leaving South America completely and ending up in San Francisco with his piano-making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate to sell for a friend. The chocolate sold quickly, prompting Lick to send a letter back to his friend Domingo Ghirardelli advising him to move his chocolate business up to California.
Shortly after Lick’s arrival in California in 1848, he gave up piano-making and began buying up real estate in the small port of San Francisco. As luck would have it a few days afterwards, gold was discovered in California. Hordes of would-be miners began arriving in San Francisco, and Lick’s real estate holdings suddenly became much more valuable. He continued acquiring property, and eventually becoming one of the richest men in California. His land holdings (besides San Francisco) stretched from Lake Tahoe and Virginia City, Nevada to large portions of Los Angeles and the entire island of Catalina. He also bought vast agricultural lands in the Santa Clara Valley, south of San Francisco. At his estate in San Jose, Lick built the largest flour mill in California.
Despite his riches, Lick seems to have had a curmudgeonly and penny-pinching personality, and was frequently seen inspecting his San Francisco properties wearing an old rumbled suit and battered stovepipe hat. He never married, nor even employed a housekeeper at his San Jose mansion. He slept in one of the back rooms at his luxurious Lick House hotel in San Francisco.
Lick suffered a stroke in 1874 and perhaps sensing his impending death, he seems to have had a change of heart. He spent time contemplating how to disperse his fortune for the public good. His first concept was to erect giant statues of his parents and himself, along with a gigantic pyramid in downtown San Francisco in his honor. Happily, he was convinced to put his money to more practical uses, including building the largest refracting telescope of its time, the Great Lick Refractor, atop Mt. Hamilton outside of San Jose. Lick Observatory was the first mountain-top telescope, taking advantage of the calm air above the valley below. Its 36-in diameter lens enabled the telescope to make many astronomical discoveries, including spotting Amalthea, the first moon of Jupiter detected since Galileo. And fittingly, James Lick, who died in 1876, is buried under the pier of the telescope, his grave continuously covered with flowers as per his will.
Another, perhaps inadvertent, donation by Lick to the public good is the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A likely story is that Lick bought the conservatory from an East Coast firm as a kit to be assembled at his estate in San Jose (although even the conservatory’s website admits the facts are hazy). In any case, after Lick’s death, the unassembled kit, including 33 tons of glass, ended up in San Francisco. Fortunately, the kit came with instructions, and construction of the conservatory, which resembles the one in London’s Kew Gardens, was eventually completed in 1879. The Victorian-styled conservatory comprises a central dome with long wings to either side. The various areas of the conservatory feature plants from different ecosystems throughout the world, including aquatic and tropical plants in high-humidity rooms.
Through his generosity, James Lick enabled two different scientific organizations to continue his name, and no gigantic pyramids to aggrandize it. (Also let’s not forget Ghirardelli Chocolate albeit indirectly…) Surely enough accomplishments for one lifetime.
To visit Lick Observatory, one has to drive from East San Jose on Route 130, a very twisty road up to the 4200 foot summit of Mount Hamilton. The trip takes about a hour. Covid-permitting the observatory has tours during the day, and on special evenings at night (special tickets are available for night programs.) As of 24 June 2021, the observatory visitor center is closed because of both covid concerns and fire damage from the 2020 wildfire that burned very close to the observatory. Driving up to the top of Mt. Hamilton is still possible. (Unless it’s snow-covered in the winter.) Check this link for up-to-date information.
Visiting the Conservatory of Flowers is easier, since it is situated in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Its address is 100 JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park. As of July 2021, there are no Covid restrictions. Hours are 10 am to 4:30 pm and there is an admission fee. Parking is always an issue in Golden Gate Park. If you don’t luck out and nab a street spot, the closest parking is a 10-minute walk away at the Music Concourse Garage.