The amazing adventures of James Lick

I love the story of James Lick. He’s largely forgotten except for a two mile stretch of The Bayshore Freeway in San Francisco which was named the James Lick Freeway in the 1950s (though no one seems to remember why). James was not a well-liked man in his day and nearly forgotten by the 1950s. This is his shot at redemption.

“Screw the skyline we need to get to the strip clubs in North Beach!”
The James Lick Freeway was to wrap the entire waterfront until they tore it down after the ’89 earthquake.

Jimmy was born in Stumpstown, Pennsylvania and there he learned to build pianos (every boy’s dream). Presumably, he built these pianos out of the trees that resulted in the stumps. As sometimes happens, he got a girl in the family-way and did the honorable thing by going to her father, a prominent mill owner, and asked for her hand in marriage. After a severe trashing with a pick handle and a threat of worse, Jim thought that a change of atmosphere, and even hemisphere, would be a good idea.

Jim knew that many of the pianos were being shipped to Argentina so, despite the lure of cosmopolitan Stumpstown, off he went in 1821 to Buenos Aires where he discovered to his dismay that they didn’t speak English. Amazingly, he made a pretty good living building spinets and took a trip to Europe to celebrate. Coming back he was captured by Portuguese pirates and became a prisoner of war even though the U.S. wasn’t at war with Portugal but Argentina was. He escaped and had the good sense to hightail it to Chile where the political climate allowed for construction of pianos in peace. Chile had a vibrant economy rivaling that of America at the time but they still spoke Spanish to Jim’s continual chagrin. Once again the political scene devolved and he was forced to flee—this time to Peru. He set up shop once again and still managed to produce and sell pianos which were wildly profitable. Pianos were the iPhones of the era and Jim cleaned up.

As the Mexican-American War was heating up in 1846, he lost his Mexican workers in Peru to military conscription so he decided to try a town further up the coast called Yerba Buena because he heard that a few folks there spoke English. Yerba Buena was a city of perhaps 600 people in 1846. It soon changed its name to San Francisco. Lick brought his piano making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate consigned to him by an associate in Peru. The chocolate sold well so he informed his friend, an Italian by way of Lima, Domingo Ghirardelli, that he should come north and go into the candy business. Dom did and made a great success of it.

Jim tried his hand at gold mining for a few days but decided that owning land was a better deal than digging in it. He bought 49 parcels in his first 60 days, and then gold was discovered and the greatest rush in world history began. And they all headed for San Francisco. But buying and selling land in San Francisco was problematic because the land laws still followed the Spanish procedures in 1848-49 (California was in a twilight period between the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 and statehood in 1850) so getting clear title to land was nearly impossible. These laws didn’t pertain to lots that were underwater however. So in a scheme still celebrated to this day, Jim bought lots that were drawn out into the bay then he filled them in and sold the lots for thousands of times what he had paid for them. This is the Financial District today. Later he amassed a nifty portfolio of premiere properties such as Lake Tahoe, what is now Hollywood and Catalina. He also held sizable tracts of land in San Jose and much of the property south of Market in San Francisco.

Always a spare meal to be had in the beard

In Santa Clara he built the grandest gristmill in the west using exotic woods from all over the world as well as marble and brass making it look more like a bank than a mill.

The lobby of the grist mill

Having made something of himself, he sent for the mill owner’s daughter. In your face old man! “Gee, Jim it was 25 years ago,” she wrote back. She had long since married and raised a family. This is said to have broken his heart and at that point he became that weird millionaire in rumpled old clothes driving a tumble down carriage with a wheezy bag of bones of a horse. He lived in the Palace Hotel (which he owned) and his bed was said to be a wood slab supported by four nail barrels. Sounds fishy.

One of his few pals was the kooky Sarah Winchester, the famous recluse in San Jose with the mystery house. I guess there were no sparks there, as they both remained single.

In spite of his strange behavior Jim was amazingly civic minded, and in an attempt to give back, he proposed to build three 80-foot statues of himself and his parents as a gift to the city on a promontory in North Beach. The city fathers were taken aback, but then someone suggested to Jim that they would make convenient targets should the Russians invade. This was a diminishingly remote possibility, but it did cool him to the project.

His penultimate scheme was his proposal to erect a stone pyramid as his tomb where Moscone Center is today. This was to be bigger than the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was no casual fancy as he owned a sizable quarry, the real estate on which to build, and he had the money. What a terrific idea! It would have been quite a sight during the ‘06 earthquake to see the blocks tumbling down from 500 feet.

Citizens were horrified by the idea of having a gigantic tomb in the middle of the city, but his plans to build the pyramid were moving forward when an astronomer suggested that a better legacy would be to construct the world’s first major astronomical observatory which would make a terrific tomb. Jim then built the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton near San Jose and he is buried under the great telescope.

Now all we have in San Francisco is the tepid Transamerica Pyramid; a faint echo of what could have been.

Lick endowed a great many civic projects including several high schools, an orphanage, statues and still it was reported that he didn’t like people very much. From his arrival in San Francisco until his death in 1876 he was the richest person in the West, and there were a lot of wealthy people in California. So how much was his fortune? Three million or about 45 million in 2021. Today 45 million in the Bay Area is considered comfortable.    

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6 Comments

  • I agree with Richard B…. how can you not love a great Lick story…. really, the guy was a fascinating one man conflict between utter humility and outrageous aggrandizement, kind of like Gandhi meets Randolph Hearst!

  • Well they say
    “If you can’t lick em”
    That is a great story. Had no idea of him or the history

    Aye captain another good one

    Thanx

    Hope all is well

  • It’s fortunate James made his way north when he did as he made such an impact with his philanthropy. And most importantly, talking Domingo into bringing his chocolatier skills to the area. Nice of you to help him get some redemption and remembrance with this article.

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