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Supporting Civil Rights for Atheists and the Separation of Church and State
James Lick was born on August 25th, 1796 at Fredericksburg (Lebanon County). Pennsylvania. His grandfather had been an emigrant from Germany who served in the War of Independence, especially at Valley Forge, and who lived to be 104 years old.
James Lick obtained an ordinary eduction in the schools of his day. He then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked several years as a carpenter and at organ making. He soon wanted to try his hand at his own business, which he attempted in New York in 1820, with limited capital. This pianoforte venture failed and he decided to go to Buenos Ayres (sic). South America, where he remained in the pianoforte and piano-making business for ten years. When he returned to New York he brought with him $40,000 (some sources say $10,000) worth of hides and other merchandise. Selling this stock of goods proved to be profitable and he used the funds for a stock of pianos which he shipped to Buenos Ayres. He followed the shipment south, but continued on to Peru. Lick lived there for eleven years manufacturing and selling pianos. In 1847, at age 51, he closed out his business for $30,000 doubloons and set sail for San Francisco. The city could boast of scarcely one thousand inhabitants. It had just emerged from the Mexican town, Yerba Buena, and was becoming — under American rule — a valuable sea port. The gold rush was to make it mushroom in 1849. James Lick carefully surveyed the city and then decided to put his money into land where he thought the city would grow. Most of his purchases were made in 1848 just before the rush.
Among his other enterprises was the building of a fine flour mill near San Jose, on property purchased in 1852. The entire wood work of the mill was mahogany so that its total cost was $200,000. At first it was called \Lick's Folly\ but it turned out the finest flour in California and Lick's brand was everywhere considered the best. Around the mill he, himself, planted a splendid orchard of fruit trees.
He also erected a fine hotel in San Francisco, on Montgomery Street, which was known as \Lick House.\ It covered one entire square, with the exception of a corner which he sold for a Masonic temple. The dining room was famous for its finish and its proportions, the floor being composed of many thousand pieces of inlaid wood and polished like a table.
The rapid and great increase in the value of his property and his skillful business enterprises made him a very wealthy man. From this income he became distinguished for his munificent donations to both the city and the state. Unmarried, with no children, he tried to wisely supervise the distribution of his wealth.
In 1872 he made a gift of the mill to the Trustees of the Paine Memorial Hall in Boston, Massachusetts. By this time he was a thorough materialist — an Atheist. He directed that half of the money was to be used for the building of Paine Hall itself and half was to be given to a Lecturer's Fund to aid in sustaining lectures in the field of Freethought. The mill and the land were sold for $60.000 (some reports say $20,000.) It was then only twenty years old and should not have devaluated to such a great extent, for the building originally cost $200,000. The cornerstone for the Atheist (Thomas Paine Memorial Hall) building was laid on July 12, 1889. The initial sale for such a small sum and the money's use greatly displeased Lick and it was thought by some critics that had this venture succeeded more money would have been forthcoming for Atheism.
One incident is told to reaffirm that he was \a firm and constant unbeliever in the dogmas of Christianity.\ A woman named Addie Ballou painted a picture of Thomas Paine and offered it to the Centennial Celebration Committee to be carried in the parade in which there were to be other representations of the Revolutionary fathers. The Committee rejected the Paine picture and Ms. Ballou went to see James Lick to tell him of the insult. He was then living in his hotel and his immediate reaction was, \Well, if they will not march with Paine, they shall march under him.\ He caused a line to be put from his window to a window across the street and hung the painting on it. The procession marched underneath.
In 1874 and 1875 Lick decided to cede immense property to seven trustees for the benefit of California for scientific purposes. In a curious footnote, with one Atheist historian, it was noted that in 1888 the trustees still had not carried out the bequest purposes and that they still had $1,650,000 which needed to be put to work. He had given them $3 million.
Of this, he had designated that the University of California was to receive $700,000 for \a telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made . . . and also a suitable observatory. . . to be made useful in promoting science.\
Under the provisions of this deed a site was selected in 1876, on Mt. Hamilton, 26 miles from San Jose. About 3000 acres were granted at various times by the United States and the state of California. The observatory was one of the first in the world located on a site specially chosen for its adaptation to astronomical work. A steady atmosphere and a transparent one were both required, at that time, for astronomical observations of precision and delicacy.
The construction was carried on from 1874 to 1879, with the County of Santa Clara building a mountain road to the summit in 1876. To obtain a level platform 70,000 tons of rock were blasted from the summit. It was an enormous undertaking.
The largest telescope in the world was then a 30\ one, so a 36\ was ordered. The finished object had a focal length of 56' 2\. Besides the visual objective, there was a third lens of 33\ aperture.
The entire observatory cost, including the telescope, was $610,000. The observatory now constitutes the Lick Astronomical Department of the University of California and the observatory itself is known as Lick Observatory. In 1895 an Englishman presented to the observatory his 36\ reflector as an auxiliary to the great refractor. The telescope has been in constant use since its erection. The principal objects of research were, at first, the visual and photographic observation of planets and satellites. The fifth satellite of Jupiter was discovered here by Barnard in 1892. A systematic search for comets was also kept, and fourteen were discovered, 3 by Barnard, 9 by Perrine and 1 by Coddington. The important photographs of the Milky Way were also made here. A complete set of seisemometers were installed in 1888 and the history of all recorded shocks on the Pacific coast are here compiled.
The balance of the $3 million was designated in part to be used as follows: $150,000 was given for free public baths to be built and maintained in San Francisco;
$540,000 was to be used to found and endow an institution to be known as the California School of Mechanical Art;
$ 100,000 was designated for 3 groups of bronze statuary, to represent three periods of California history, to be placed before the City Hall of San Francisco;
$60,000 was for a memorial to Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, to be erected in Golden Gate Park.
The above, with the $700,000 directed for the telescope and observatory, totalled $1,550,000. As indicated, by 1888 the balance had not as yet been spent. Among his other requests had been that a Pioneer Hall should be erected as well as a home for aged women. Nothing is known of the result of these requests.
Lick died on October 1st, 1877 (some reports show 1876) still affirming his materialism and Atheism.