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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Mount Hammy

By Eric A. Carlson

"Para subir al cielo
Se necesita una escalera grande
Una escalera grande y otra chiquita."

--La Bamba

AFTER RIDING to the wind-swept summit of Mt. Hamilton on a recent Saturday morning on a motorcycle, I waxed curious as to who Hamilton was. And I waxed a bit curious about James Lick, too. The Lick Observatory is perched at the summit of Mt. Hamilton and is visible to every man jack and woman jack in the valley below--Santa Clara Valley, that is. Not Silicon Valley. (Silicon Valley is not on the map; it is a mythical El Dorado famous for producing electronic hand-held devices and, sometimes, nothing.) A peek into Clyde Arbuckle's magnum opus, A History of San Jose, and some spurious data gathered from the web, revealed all concerning Hamilton and Lick.

Mt. Hamilton was named 15 years before a road to the summit was carved out. In 1861, the Rev. Laurentine Hamilton accompanied his buddy, William H. Brewer, on a U.S. Geological Survey party to the top of the mountain--the first recorded ascent. Brewer named the 4,200-foot peak "Mt. Hamilton," in honor of his friend. Laurentine Hamilton was in the right place at the right time. And there would be more to come.

Just before he died, in 1876, James Lick decided on Mt. Hamilton as a suitable site for a mountaintop observatory--endowed with his name. In December 1876, a road from San Jose to the summit was completed--named Lick Avenue. The name didn't stick. Mt. Hamilton Road was the preferred moniker by most people, and that name did stick. More glory for Laurentine Hamilton, who now had a road to go along with his mountain. Legend has it that Mt. Hamilton Road has 365 hairpin turns--one for each day of the year. Clyde Arbuckle describes the drive as "ticklish driving conditions." I found myself bearing down mightily at every corner to avoid flying off the mountain in a blur. I arrived at the Lick Observatory visitor's parking lot and was struck by the most amazing sound: complete silence. A clear and quiet panorama of the valley lay below, at least until the Classic Japanese Motorcycle Club buzzed into the lot on 200 cc (or less) Hondas. (Randy Adams made it up on an 80 cc Honda XL, which is true bang for the buck.)

In 1888, the Mt. Hamilton Stage company ferried tourists up the mountain for three bucks, a practice that would continue for decades. Horses and stages would be replaced with Maxwell automobiles in 1910. The stagecoach trip took 5 1/2 hours to reach the top, and three hours and 45 minutes downhill. A Maxwell driver once boasted of making the trip in an hour. Continuing over the mountain, Mt. Hamilton Road changes name to San Antonio Valley Road and forks into Mines Road on the left and Del Puerto Canyon Road on the right. I chose Del Puerto Canyon Road and was rewarded with beatific scenes of Texas longhorn cattle grazing on golden grass, and meadows shimmering in gold-green. Not to mention cow grates on the road every mile or so--added road texture. Skip Desrochers and an old cowboy I talked to at the Blue Max lounge in Sunnyvale claim that tarantula spiders are prone to sunning on Mines and Del Puerto Canyon roads. And, of course, there is the Junction Restaurant, in the middle of damn nowhere, which is the junction of San Antonio, Mines and Del Puerto Canyon roads. I don't reckon your cell phone will work in those parts.

On his deathbed at the Lick House hotel in San Francisco, James Lick was contemplating a significant memorial--for himself. He considered giant statues of himself and his parents that everyone sailing into San Francisco would be blessed with observing in awe. After consulting with a close friend--and astronomers--he opted for the first mountaintop observatory in the world. Good choice.

James was rich as Croesus, but it was by dint of hard work. He started out as a cabinetmaker's apprentice and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, up finally to the top of Mt. Hamilton. His story includes pianos and chocolate in South America and a mahogany flour mill adjacent to Alviso. A tale for another column.

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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