James Lick was born in 1796 in Stumpstown, Pennsylvania. The son of a carpenter, he was pulled into that trade, eventually making the transition to piano building. After establishing a successful piano manufacturing business in New York he moved to Argentina in 1821 in order to develop the market for his products in South America. He traveled around in South America, ran his business from various South American capitals, was captured by Portuguese pirates, escaped, and eventually decided to move back to the United States.
From here on, James Lick's personal history in one of either unbelievable luck or incredible business sense. He returned to the United States in July of 1848. His personal belongings when he landed in San Francisco included his tools, a workbench, $30,000 in gold, and 600 pounds of chocolate. In a long-reaching decision, Lick then convinced his former neighbor from Peru, Domingo Ghirardelli, to move to San Francisco where he founded the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. Lick's first act in his new home of San Francisco was to begin buying land in and around the city. His timing couldn't have been better since the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill coincided almost exactly with his arrival in the Bay Area. The California Gold Rush, and the resulting housing boom, meant that real estate was an incredibly lucrative investment. Though he flirted with going out and mining for gold himself, Lick decided that his fortune would be better served by continuing to buy and develop real estate in San Francisco, and around San Jose.
The long and short of this is that by 1874, when Lick was recovering from a massive stroke and thinking about how to dispense with his enormous fortune, he was the richest man in California. The last three years of his life were spent trying to find a use for his money and his land that would ensure his legacy in the collective memory of Californians. In what was a completely logical and non-egotistical decision, his first impetus was to use his entire fortune to build giant statues of himself and his parents, and commission a pyramid bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza that would dominate downtown San Francisco. He was eventually talked out of this and decided to leave the majority of his fortune to the California Academy of Sciences so that they could establish an observatory on top of Mount Hamilton. The Lick Observatory housed the Great Lick Refractor, the largest refracting telescope in the world at the time.
James Lick died in 1876 and his body was eventually buried under the future site of the Great Lick Refractor on top of Mount Hamilton.
Fun Lick Facts...
- James Lick was the first purchaser of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, or at least the giant greenhouse that would become the Conservatory. The greenhouse was purchased complete and was intended as a gift to the city of San Jose. However, following the delivery of the crates, Lick read a newspaper article in San Jose that criticized his sloppy dress and generally taciturn attitude. In a fit of spite he withheld the gift and never opened the crates. When he passed away the greenhouse was purchased by a group of San Francisco businessmen who donated it to the city of San Francisco.
- The Lick Mill, James Lick's great complex of buildings near San Jose, was built almost purely out of spite. As a young man he had been refused the hand of Elizabeth Snavely, a young woman that he had been courting. The woman's father, Henry Snavely, who was well off and owned a local mill near Stumpstown, Pennsylvania, was indignant that a young and poor apprentice would ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. Refusing the proposal, Henry told the young James Lick that "When you own a mill as large and costly as mine, you can have my daughter's hand, but not before". James, who was never known for a smooth and gentle temperament, replied, "Someday I will own a mill that will make yous look like a pigsty!" The Lick Mill, James' attempt to make good on this promise, cost $200,000, used the most advanced and expensive equipment and machinery of its time, and was finished in mahogany and other expensive materials. Though Henry Snavely had been dead for years James Lick still commissioned news articles and pictures of the Lick Mill to be sent back to his hometown of Stumpstown, Pennsylvania to show his home town that he was now worthy of the hand of Elizabeth Snavely. The "Mahogany Mill" was destroyed by a fire in 1882.
- Though one of the wealthiest men in California, Lick was a notorious miser and eccentric. He built a 24 room mansion near the Lick Mill, but found that he appreciated the austere comforts of the small cabin that he had originally built for himself. He never furnished the house and slept on a spare door laid across two nail kegs. He used the large and empty rooms to dry fruit from the orchards surrounding his property. Other local residents noted him for his shabby clothes, and his habit of driving a cart from restaurant to restaurant in order to collect bones from their trash so he could grind them into fertilizer for his orchards.
- James Lick built the Lick House in San Francisco which became regarded as the finest hotel west of the Mississippi. Its dining room could seat 400 people and was modeled after a hall that Lick had seen at Versailles when he had traveled through Europe. He cut and installed most of the intricate woodwork and cabinetry himself.
- The fruit of Lick's generosity to the California Academy of Sciences was the Great Lick Refractor,a large telescope that was installed on top of Mt. Hamilton outside of San Jose. It is still the third largest refracting telescope in the world and was the largest at the time of its construction. It took eighteen attempts to cast the huge glass lenses needed for the telescope. When they were finally cast, safely transported across the country, and installed in the telescope the anxious scientists sighted the star Aldabaran and found that the focal length of the telescope was incorrect and it could not be focused. Feverish calculations occurred, a hacksaw was procured, and the world's largest refracting telescope, the fruit of years of labor and design efforts, was rather unceremoniously cut down to the proper size.