Lick arrived in San Francisco, California, in January 1848, bringing with him his tools, work bench, $30,000 in gold, and 600 pounds (275 kilograms) of chocolate. The chocolate quickly sold, and Lick convinced his neighbor and friend in Peru, the confectioner Domingo Ghirardelli, to move to San Francisco, where he founded the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company.
Upon his arrival, Lick began buying real estate in the small village of San Francisco. The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento a few days after Lick's arrival in the future state began the California Gold Rush and created a housing boom in San Francisco, which grew from about one thousand residents in 1848 to over twenty thousand by 1850. Lick himself got a touch of "gold fever" and went out to mine the metal, but after a week he decided his fortune was to be made by owning land, not digging in it. Lick continued buying land in San Francisco, and also began buying farmland in and around San Jose, where he planted orchards and built the largest flour mill in the state to feed the growing population in San Francisco.
In 1861, Lick began construction of a hotel, which became known as Lick House, at the intersection of Montgomery and Sutter Streets in San Francisco. The hotel had a dining room that could seat 400, based on a similar room at the palace of Versailles. Lick House was considered the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River. The hotel was destroyed in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Following the construction, Lick returned to his San Jose orchards. In 1874, Lick suffered a massive stroke in the kitchen of his home in Santa Clara. The following morning, he was found by his employee, Thomas Fraser, and taken to Lick House, where he could be better cared for. At the time of his illness, his estates, outside his considerable area in Santa Clara County and San Francisco, included large holdings around Lake Tahoe, a large ranch in Los Angeles County, and all of Santa Catalina Island. James Lick was the richest man in California.
In the next three years, Lick spent his time determining how to dispense with his fortune. He originally wanted to build giant statues of himself and his parents, and erect a pyramid larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in his own honor in downtown San Francisco. However, through the efforts of George Davidson, president of the California Academy of Sciences, Lick was persuaded to leave the greatest portion of his fortune to the establishment of a mountain top observatory, with the largest, most powerful telescope yet built by man.
In 1874 he placed $3,000,000 at the disposal of seven trustees, by whom the funds were to be applied to specific uses. The principal divisions of the funds were:
- $700,000 to the University of California for the construction of an observatory and the placing therein of a telescope to be more powerful than any other in existence
- $150,000 for the building and maintenance of free public baths in San Francisco
- $540,000 to found and endow an institution of San Francisco to be known as the California School of Mechanic Arts
- $100,000 for the erection of three appropriate groups of bronze statuary to represent three periods in Californian history and to be placed before the city hall of San Francisco
- $60,000 to erect in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, a memorial to Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Lick had had an interest in astronomy since at least 1860, when he and George Madeira, the founder of the first observatory in California, spent several nights observing. They had also met again in 1873 and Lick said that Madeira's telescopes were the only ones he had ever used. In 1875, Thomas Fraser recommended a site at the summit of Mount Hamilton, near San Jose. Lick approved, on the condition that Santa Clara County build a "first class" road to the site. The county agreed and the hand built road was completed by the fall of 1876.
On October 1, 1876, Lick died in his room in Lick House, San Francisco. In 1887, his body was moved to its final resting place, under the future home of the Great Lick Refracting Telescope.
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