Lick lives on
Except for the past few decades, when the smoggiest days now
obliterate the view, residents of the South Valley have regularly
gazed north with admiration at the splendid white-domed
observatories perched atop Mt. Hamilton. Lick Observatory, for over
a century the oldest and most imposing, sits full front and center,
thanks to the $700,000 left by the estate of James Lick for its
Lick lives on
Except for the past few decades, when the smoggiest days now obliterate the view, residents of the South Valley have regularly gazed north with admiration at the splendid white-domed observatories perched atop Mt. Hamilton. Lick Observatory, for over a century the oldest and most imposing, sits full front and center, thanks to the $700,000 left by the estate of James Lick for its construction.
The observatory named remains, 126 years after his death, a scientific marvel and the most lasting memorial of his life. Still housed in its original domed enclosure, the 36-inch refracting telescope attracts visitors just as curious and awe-filled today as the crowds who came when the facility first opened in 1888.
Although much more sophisticated astronomical equipment now occupies adjacent structures added over the years, the Lick Observatory is still the main attraction. Part of the appeal is the sheer size of the telescope itself, combined with its striking white dome, poised to reflect the sun, its landmark prominently visible for miles around.
The historic telescope’s ability to resolve celestial observations in fine detail was remarkable in its own time. Even today, study and discovery of stars is still carried on inside the original observatory, part of a larger system administered by the University of California.
Construction, which began in 1880, took eight years to complete. Besides the observatory, other buildings on the site supported and housed a small working community of astronomers, employees and graduate students. Before building could begin, crews had to dig and blast the winding road leading to the 4,200 summit at Mt. Hamilton. Then 30 feet was blasted off the top of the peak for the necessary building space.
In that pre-automobile era, an estimated 70,000 tons of rubble were carted down – and all the astronomical measuring equipment hauled up – by horse and wagon. The same road still brings scientists, researchers, and curious visitors to the facility today. Three million bricks used in construction were made and fired on the site from clay located on the summit.
Plans for the imposing new edifice called for two domes connected by a long corridor. At one end, the great 36-inch refractor would sit inside its large dome, while down at the far end the much smaller observatory, completed in 1881, housed a 12-inch telescope. Along the connecting corridor a series of doors opened into offices, a library and laboratories.
When Lick Observatory opened on June 1, 1888, its incredible site commanded stunning and far-ranging views. They stretched then, as they do today, west across the Santa Clara Valley to the now-defunct Almaden Quicksilver mines. To the north, the southern finger of San Francisco Bay still looms from the mist, while south lie fields and farms of Morgan Hill and Gilroy. East, the tips of snow-peaked Sierra repose in splendid silence. Far below Mt. Hamilton, and dead center, sits San Jose.
In the 1880s, the Santa Clara county seat, affectionately called the Garden City, was a mere cluster of streets and buildings huddled against each other. Today the metropolis spreads across and dominates the valley floor, where acres of verdant orchards once fanned out in all directions.
James Lick, a Pennsylvanian, arrived in Mexican California on the heels of the Gold Rush in 1848, and soon gained his riches through San Francisco and Bay Area real estate investment. When he died at age 80 in 1876, he left his $3 million estate to fund worthy causes. The largest, however, was to be a monument to himself, the site atop Mt. Hamilton, where, his bequest stated, was to be built “a telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made…and also a suitable observatory connected therewith.”
At 36 inches, the refracting telescope, not installed until 12 years after Lick’s death, did hold that honor. But within the decade, a similar, 40-inch refractor was constructed at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, reducing Lick’s marvel to second place.
An 1896 Santa Clara County promotional book extolled the institution’s astronomical discoveries, claiming “…ten new comets, a great number of
double stars, and Jupiter’s fifth satellite were discovered here.” Photographs of the moon’s surface, taken through the telescope, showed lunar mountains and craters with clarity. The early astronomical photographs are still considered some of the best of their type.
Although Lick died at the beginning of the project, when only the site
had been chosen, his body lies buried at the base of the telescope, inside the observatory which was named in his honor.
Elizabeth Barratt can be reached via email at [email protected]