Cemetery of the Week #118: the Lick Observatory

Vintage postcard of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton.

Vintage postcard of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton.

The Lick Observatory
7281 Mount Hamilton Road
Mount Hamilton, California 95140
Telephone:(408) 274-5061
Founded: 1887
Number of interments: one
Please note: The telescope is not open at night, when it continues to be used by scientists. The light from your car’s headlights will impede their work.
Open: From Labor Day to Memorial Day, the observatory is open Thursday to Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Check the weather before you visit, as the road sometimes snows closed. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the observatory is open every day from noon to 5 p.m.

Philanthropist James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796. He moved to Buenos Aires and then on to Lima, where he amassed a fortune building pianos. When the Mexican-American War began, he sailed to San Francisco, where he arrived in 1847 with an iron safe full of gold Spanish doubloons and 600 pounds of chocolate. The chocolate was such a hit that he persuaded his friend Domingo Ghiradelli to leave Peru and move to the new boomtown to set up a chocolate factory. The building stands at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf to this day.

Lick increased his fortune by buying up “sand lots” in San Francisco: bits of dune so far outside the village limits that no one else guessed they would someday be valuable real estate. This was one year before the discovery of gold in California, which makes Lick one of the luckiest men in San Francisco’s history. Among his contributions to San Francisco were lots on Market Street for the original California Academy of Sciences and the Society of California Pioneers, the Masonic Temple near his hotel on Montgomery and Sutter Streets, and the Conservatory of Flowers building, which he had imported from England, although he died before it was constructed. He also bought land in San Jose from which he could see the mountain that would one day house his greatest monument.

As he neared the end of his lonely life, Lick considered building himself a memorial pyramid in the heart of San Francisco a century before the Transamerica Pyramid was a gleam in its architect’s eye. Lick was a freethinker fascinated by “the ancient Sciences of Egypt,” according to the book Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape. The tomb would have been “more massive than the royal tomb at Giza.” Unfortunately, San Francisco’s city fathers weren’t enthusiastic about the pyramid plan.

In consequence, Lick set aside a bequest of $700,000 for an observatory to house a telescope “superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made.” Originally he had wanted the observatory to be placed in the heart of San Francisco, but even then people were beginning to understand that, between the lights and the pollution, cities weren’t the best location for star-gazing. Several mountaintops were proposed and discarded, due to their inaccessibility. Finally, a 4209-foot peak twenty miles south of San Jose called Mount Hamilton was chosen. It had been named for a Methodist minister, but that didn’t dissuade Lick. He bought five hundred acres — both the mountain and enough of the surrounding land to protect it from light encroachment — but left it to Santa Clara County to build the road to the top of the peak.

When Lick died on October 1, 1876, all of San Francisco flew their flags at half staff for three days. Thousands viewed his body where it lay in state Pioneer Hall. (This was the second Pioneer Hall Lick had funded for the Society of California Pioneers. Both were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.) Lick’s funeral “had been as grand as that for any head of state,” according to The Lick Observatory Historical Collections Project. A procession of hundreds followed the hearse, drawn by four black horses, to the Masonic Cemetery, where he was buried temporarily in a vault.

Vintage postcard of the moon rising over the Lick Observatory.

Vintage postcard of the moon rising over the Lick Observatory.

Before his death, Lick “expressed the desire that he might be buried on Mount Hamilton, either within or to one side of the proposed observatory, after the manner of Sir Christopher Wren, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who was buried in the crypt in 1723,” as reported in Pen Pictures from the Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated.

On January 9, 1887, Lick was disinterred from his Masonic vault and moved down to his namesake observatory. It was his first visit to the mountain’s summit. “Followed by a large procession of officials and prominent citizens,” Pen Pictures reported, he was reburied at the base of the telescope’s pier, hidden from sight beneath the floor. A plaque that reads, “Here Lies the Body of James Lick” marks the spot. According to Visionary State, the Lick Observatory is the only such institution in the world to bury its primary benefactor beneath its telescope.

Over a decade after his death, the Lick Observatory finally opened in 1887. Because of its isolation, the Lick Observatory became the first continuously occupied mountain-top observatory in the world. Its thirty-six-inch refractor lens was ten inches larger than the biggest telescope at the time.

Visitors can visit the Lick Observatory’s small museum and see the enormous telescope under which Lick is buried.

Useful links:

Information for visiting the Lick Observatory

About the building of the observatory

Lick’s contributions to the Society of California Pioneers

Pen Pictures from the Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated, edited by H.S. Foote. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1888, p. 126-133.

Santa Clara Genealogy essay about Lick

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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8 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #118: the Lick Observatory

  1. rachaelhanel says:

    Interesting! If I ever get back to San Francisco I would like to visit this site!

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      I’ve been researching a book about the historic graveyards of the San Francisco Bay Area and turning up fascinating stories everywhere. If you come back this way, get in touch. We should go poke around cemeteries together!

  2. Wonderful! It reminds us of Greenwich, UK where, of course Wren built the Observatory in the late 1600s. Interesting the Wren reference as well. Even the paths in the picture leading up to it are similar to Greenwich – spooky.

  3. coastalcrone says:

    California history is fascinating with so many characters! What a story – thanks for sharing. Would like to visit on my next trip to SF.

  4. VioletSky says:

    What a fascinating story!

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