Starry Eyed – James Lick’s Legacy

by T-Knox
Black and white photo of the Lick Observatory taken in 1900.

The Lick Observatory, shown in 1900, was completed in 1888 is still in use to today. It is the final resting place of James Lick, the man who built the observatory.

“A telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made; and also a suitable observatory connected therewith.” – Removed from James Lick’s deed of trust, 1874.

On his deathbed, James Lick a woodworker turned millionaire had nothing but the best in mind for his legacy. His one wish was to have an observatory built in his name. He planned to have the observatory boast the largest telescope in the world to be used partly for research and also as a monument to himself and stipulated in his will that $700,000 be used to build the observatory.

Lick came from Pennsylvania, where he was a woodworker. On the chance that San Francisco, California was sitting on a goldmine, Lick picked up and moved west in search of his fortune. The untapped gold deposits made Lick into a rich man. With his new affluence he built a mill from only the finest wood and tools. In later years the $200,000 project became known as the “Mahogany Mill” and “Lick’s Folly.” Other projects were the “Lick House” a 24 room mansion that was never furnished or lived in by Lick. He would rather live in his small cabin since the estate was not his style.

Lick became one of California’s wealthiest businessmen, and the construction of an observatory on a mountaintop was not out of question in his eyes despite the doubts from others like Captain Floyd.

“The possibility that a complete astronomical establishment might one day be planted on the summit seemed more fairytale than a sober fact.” said Captain Richard Floyd on the building of the observatory.

There was a Board of Trust instructed to handle Lick’s estate upon his death. The president of the trust was Captain Richard Floyd. The Captain first met Lick in the mid-1870s and a working relationship was established. Lick was impressed by the Captain’s life experiences and the background he brought to the table. Captain Floyd was a navy veteran, had been a prisoner of war, and sea captain all by the time he was 31 years old. He was a practical man with expertise in mathematics and a love of art. This made him an ideal candidate for leading construction of the observatory. Floyd brought Thomas Fraser to the project, as the superintendent of construction. Together they could build Lick’s vision. Yet, neither Floyd or Fraser had any knowledge of how to go about building observatory. They brought Simon Newcomb to the project, as a scientific advisor. Newcomb was a renowned astronomer across the country and a member of the U.S. Naval Observatory. Newcomb had his reservations about the project. In all honesty, he was uncertain how someone with no astronomical training or education could take on the project successfully.

Meanwhile, the Board of Trust began hunting for a location for the observatory in question. Unlike today, observatories were typically built in city centers, whereas now we picture them on hillsides and mountaintops. At first it was discussed that the observatory would be built in San Francisco. Over time it was realized that light pollution emitted from the city scape is less than ideal for star gazing. The board looked to the hills for a spot, although building on a mountain would have its obstacles. Many sights were considered, including Lake Tahoe, but in the winter months the observatory would not be accessible. Fraser suggested Mount Hamilton following a horseback ride up the mountain and it was settled. There was no path or trail up the mountain at the time, therefore a road was made for construction crews to access the site.

The 36-inch refractor inside the Lick Observatory which is the final resting place of James Lick

James Lick stipulated that he be buried under the Lick Observatory telescope and that fresh flowers always be laid at the site.

Lick passed away in 1876, and his funeral could have been mistaken for a state funeral. Flags around the city of San Francisco flew at half staff for three days and thousands of people came to pay their respects. The hearse was drawn by four black horses and went through the city. Abiding by Lick’s will, he was laid to rest atop Mt. Hamilton in early January of 1887. Once the base of the telescope was complete, Lick’s final resting place was beneath the floor of the large telescope. “Here Lies the body of James Lick” on a plaque is the only tip-off that the observatory is in fact a final resting place of grand proportions. He also requested that fresh flowers always be on his grave.

Once completed in 1888, the telescope and Floyd, who headed the project, were criticized by the press. Due to the bad publicity he willingly handed over the observatory to the University of California.

The 36-inch refractor observatory is still in use today. In Chicago the Xerxes refractor is slightly larger, with a 40 inch diameter.¬†Today the Lick Observatory remains part of the University of California. It has grown from one campus to ten campuses with more than 180,000 students. Lick’s legacy remains part of California’s history and above all a monumental contribution to astronomers everywhere.


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