Lake County History, Chapter 103: The Stargazer

James Lick and his associates, John Fraser and Richard Floyd, helped create the Lick observatory. They were amazing men. Two things stand out; Lick’s drive to know more about our universe and Captain Floyd’s role as a Confederate pirate in the Civil War. 

Carole Braebrook, a Lake County resident and a friend, supplied this writer with information about John Fraser. Carole is related on her mother’s side John Fraser.

Three events occurred in 1843. When they came together, they gave the world a window on the Cosmos. The first was a comet. It flared across the sky that year, and people believed it was a sign of the end of the world. The second was Richard Floyd’s birth, the future captain of the Florida, a Confederate killer ship. The third event was James Lick himself. Lick was a Pennsylvania Dutchman living in Lima, Peru, who spent most of his life and fortune seeing his dream become a reality; the James Lick Observatory

As one man described James Lick, ‘He was a lean-faced man with sharp blue eyes, thin features, and a tufted beard that lined his jaw. James Lick walked or rode about the streets of San Francisco with ill-sorted clothes flung carelessly on him, as if time spent in dressing was time wasted. His horse was old and weary, his buggy covered with dust, dilapidated and broken. It was held together with baling wire and contained only a roll of blankets. Yet, although poorly dressed and had the appearance of an aesthete, there was no look of the pauper about him. His was a look of a man satisfied and self-possessed, and, as he alighted from his buggy, nearly always there were a dozen men to greet him and shake his hand.

Wealthy beyond Croesus, James Lick had a dream. He saw the future. He wanted to add to the understanding of our universe. A friend told of one day when Lick and he were walking down Montgomery Street.

Lick suddenly said to his friend, “There will be a day when men will go to the Moon and return.”

 His friend thought he was crazy… but said nothing.

On a day in 1873, Lick collapsed to the floor of his home. His Foreman, John Fraser found him and took Lick to the doctor. From that day on Lick relied on John Fraser’s advice. From his biography, published in the Banning Herald, it was written, ‘Until the day of his death no man was closer to Lick than Captain Fraser.’ Thus began his friendship with Fraser and, ultimately, his association with Captain Richard Floyd.

Captain Floyd was from Georgia and settled in Lake County. He captained the frigate which sent thirty-five Union ships, either to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, or enlisted other Union ships with Confederate crews to the Southern cause. Floyd was also the man who guided the building of the Lick Observatory thirty years later, the star-searching wonder on Mt. Hamilton.

John Fraser was important to James Lick for many reasons; he knew the area and the mountains better than most citizens of Lake county. Lick wanted his observatory on a high mountain top with clear visibility most of the nights. Mt. Hamilton became the choice.

John Fraser was a goer. He built and worked the first steam dredge in Lake County. Fraser’s work with the dredge in the Clear Lake Borax Mine lasted two years until he left to work in the San Francisco silver mines. In 1870, he returned to Lake County to mine and refine sulfur at Sulfur Bank. A year later, he went to San Francisco to build a boat for Richard Floyd, which Captain Floyd named, The Hallie, after his daughter.

As a boat builder, John Fraser had a reputation equaled by few men. The City of Lakeport, which John Fraser also built for Captain Floyd, was in her day the fastest boat of her class in the world; eighteen knots.

Both men, close friends for eighteen years, shared several skills and interests. Richard Floyd was a Cabinet maker and also a boat maker. Floyd was also a trustee of the Lick Observatory project and supervised the building of the telescope.

Floyd and Fraser were in some ways two peas in a pod. Both were strong men, with a tough pioneering spirit. When Fraser introduced Floyd to Lick, Floyd was already well versed in astronomy. He had traveled around Lake County for many years and he captivated Lick for his willingness to help in Lick’s project to build a large telescope Observatory. They hit it off immediately.

“I like that young man Floyd,” James Lick told his trusted friend, John Fraser.

Eventually, Floyd was given the job of managing the building of the Lick Observatory and completed in 1888. The Lick Observatory, the work of three men, was first of its kind and a tribute to the people of Lake County.

When he died, James Lick, their leader, was buried beneath the pier for the Observatory foundation. On the bronze tablet at the base of the pier is only this simple inscription: HERE LIES THE BODY OF JAMES LICK

Next episode; The Chinese Pioneers


To enjoy and learn more about Author Gene Paleno’s books

visit Gene’s website; http://genepaleno.com/

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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