Gary Reyes/ Bay Area News Group Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton
Let’s get this straight: San Jose pioneer James Lick is not turning over in his grave. He’s well-ensconced, covered by a 5,000-pound stone beneath the Lick Observatory telescope on Mt. Hamilton.
Though he was an irritable and eccentric man, the early California millionaire might be honored to know that his legacy has an impact on a San Jose City Council decision this week.
A hard-working native of Fredericksburg, Pa — then called Stumpstown — Lick amassed a fortune and changed the California landscape before he died at the age of 80, bequeathing $700,000 — approximately $15 million in today’s dollars — to build the observatory.
James Lick UCSC
In one of history’s strange links, you can draw a line between a debate over street lamps in San Jose today and the plight of a young man who got his girlfriend pregnant some 200 years ago.
If you’ve ever wondered why San Jose has the much-reviled yellow-sodium street lamps, you should know the story of Lick, piano-maker, horticulturalist and real estate investor.
Born in on Aug. 25, 1796, Lick was the son of a demanding carpenter and the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, William Lük (the family spelling then), who survived Valley Forge and imbued young Lick with a love of the pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
The incident that changed the trajectory of Lick’s life occurred when he was almost 21: He had fallen in love with Barbara Snavely, the daughter of a local miller.
When Barbara became pregnant, the young Lick approached the miller, Henry Snavely, and asked to marry his daughter. Snavely scorned him, pointing out that he was only an apprentice.
“When you own a mill as large and costly as mine, you can have my daughter’s hand,’’ he said.
According to the book, “The Generous Miser,’’ by his great-grandniece, Rosemary Lick, Lick shot back, “Someday, I will own a mill that will make yours look like a pigsty!’’
That launched Lick on a nearly three-decade odyssey that took him to Baltimore, where he learned to make pianos, and on to Argentina, Chile and Peru.
In every place, he showed not just a talent for fine workmanship, but an instinct for political timing. He once escaped from Portuguese military authorities who had intercepted his ship and taken the passengers to Montevideo, Uruguay.
On January 7, 1848, just before the news that gold had been found in California, the-then 51-year-old Lick landed in San Francisco with his workbench and $30,000 in Peruvian gold. He immediately began buying up plots of land in the then-dusty village.
So promising was business in San Francisco that Lick wrote to a Lima friend and candy maker to tell him to sail north. That friend was Domingo Ghirardelli, founder of the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.
Lick’s real estate interests propelled him south to Santa Clara County, where he bought land next to the Guadalupe River, about three miles from the-then port city of Alviso.
The Lick Mansion was built on land now in Santa Clara
Here he constructed — at a cost of some $200,000, or $5.7 million now — an elaborate mill made out of fine mahogany and cedar, as well as a 24-room mansion that still stands today in poor condition.
(Lick family lore has it that Lick ordered photos of the mill to be taken and sent back to Stumpstown to prove Henry Snavely wrong. Barbara, who married another man, died in 1851.)
Lick came to know his son, John H. Lick, who arrived in California in 1855 and stayed for eight years. But the two men did not get along. The elder Lick did not forgive his son for neglecting a request to care for James’ parrot.
As he grew older, Lick burnished his reputation as a recluse and an eccentric, a man who wandered around town in a shabby suit, clutching a red kerchief.
To test the compliance of job-seekers with his demands, he ordered them to plant trees upside down. Though he built a mansion, he lived in a shack nearby.
He ordered a kit to build a flower conservatory — a greenhouse — that he intended to give to the City of San Jose. Then, when San Jose newspaper editor J.J. Owen wrote an unflattering piece about Lick, the prominent landowner revoked the gift.
The Lick Mansion Scott Herhold
After Lick died in 1876 at the Lick House, the hotel he built in San Francisco, his conservatory kit went north, where it stands still as the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Lick’s legacy can also be seen in the eucalyptus trees he imported from Australia.
And what about those low-pressure yellow sodium lights that everyone dislikes? Back in the 1980s, when they were first installed, city leaders explained that they were dull because the city did not want to interfere with Mt. Hamilton’s telescope.
Now the city is thinking of replacing them with LED lights, which can be dimmed at key moments. The technology is challenging, and civil liberties advocates have raised questions about “controllers’’ that could also be used for surveillance.
For all his eccentricities, Lick would have wanted to be in the debate: In 1875, before he died, several of his agents traveled to the top of Mt. Hamilton to test the site for an observatory.
They promised the people of San Jose that they would light a bonfire atop the mountain at 7:30 at night. When it was visible from the valley floor, the crowd in the streets erupted in cheers.