Lick : LUSENET : San Francisco History : One Thread

I would appreciate a short bio of Mr. Lick of 'Lick Observatory'.

-- Jay Archibald (, December 28, 2003


James Lick is a very prominent person in San Francisco made so mostly because of his telescope observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton somewhere near the inland San Jose area. At least that is where I remember it when I drove up there once on that one lane deadly road more than 40 years ago. It's a miracle no one was ever killed on that road. Actually, come to think of it, I now recall that there were some people who were killed on that road.

You can surely find biographical information about Lick in encyclopedias but what I'm going to tell you doesn't come from any encyclopedia. It comes from people who knew people who knew him. Lick was a carpenter specializing in cabinets and pianos. He was born in Pennyslavania and searching for opportunity worked on ships and eventually started a business in Chile, I think it was in the city of Lima which a lot of the old San Franciscans did business before coming here. In Lick's years in the growing city of Lima, Lick had noticed how the prices of real estate had boomed from in some cases $20 to thousands in a very short time. He also had read about the US Mexican war and predicted that the US would take California. He felt that San Francisco would eventually become a booming city once it was free of Mexican rule. Little did he even realize how much so. He proceeded singlemindedly to buy properties in San Francisco which he believed would be worth significantly more once people started flowing in to the city. It was as though he was predicting the future.

He bought every property on Montgomery Street and the heart of the city as he could get his hands on, many of which were selling for as little as $10 per lot. On some days he would buy as many as 10 lots per day. It was as though he was in a race to buy as much property as he could. Everyone thought he was crazy. Never in the history of San Francisco did anyone buy so much property so fast.

Lick arrived in San Francisco just weeks after Marshall had discovered Gold but that discovery was kept a secret for several more months until April. Did Lick know something no one else knew? Had he heard rumors of a gold discovery and bought real estate on the speculation that people would eventually come rushing in? Or did he have some greater unexplained intuitive sense of what was about to happen? Or did he just think that some kind of growth and rush to the west coast was inevitable? No one really knows. But the reason for the speed and timing at which he bought this real estate is still a great mystery today.

Three years later, Lick was known as the wealthiest man living in San Francisco. And he continued to dable in real estate for the rest of his life. At one time he bought the entire Santa Catalina Island for $23,000 and sold it a few years later for $200,000. Needless to say with the Gold Rush and the population booming every year in San Francisco, Lick's investments turned into an incredible fortune. By the 1860s, he had accumulated more money than he ever knew what to do with. He gave money away to charities and decided to invest in a fancy of his, the largest most powerful telescope in the entire world.

I have to tell you gentlemen and ladies, I know such people today. They can write a check for $100,000 for something crazy and not even blink an eye. My stomach turns upside down and I actually get a little faint when I see that as I did on two occasions just recently, one for $20,000 and another for $100,000. Even if I had the money, I don't think I could do that without severe pain. Maybe they would consider paying my medical bills from the pain or heart attack they cause me watching that. It is really something.

-- Harry Murphy (harrymurphy1*, December 28, 2003.

Highway 101 was called the James Lick Freeway in San francisco when I was a youngster (it may still be the official name). Also to make a slight correction "Lima" is in Peru, not Chile. I have been up to the observatory which when it was built in the 1890s was the largest telescope in the world. You can see the Sierras from the top on a clear day. They have a picture taken through the telescope of the Yosemite Valley, you can see Half Dome looking right up the valley from 150 miles away.

-- Mike Murphy (, January 27, 2004.

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