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Stellar Tourism

August 16, 2015

When Lick Observatory opened near San Jose in 1887, a few local businessmen saw an opportunity. They figured the new facility would attract visitors from across California and beyond. So they decided to build a grand hotel to house them all.

The 150-room, $250,000 Hotel Vendome opened in 1888, and it featured Lick in its ads, postcards, and other materials.

An 1890s postcard promotes the new Lick ObservatoryAn 1890s postcard promotes the new Lick ObservatoryGetting to the observatory wasn’t easy, though. It was only about 20 miles from the hotel, but the road to the top of Mount Hamilton climbed several thousand feet, and it featured 365 turns.

So another business was formed to get all those overnight guests up the mountain: the Mount Hamilton Stage Company. For a few dollars, passengers got a three-hour ride to the observatory in an open coach, lunch at a small hotel along the way, and a three-hour ride back to San Jose. They were encouraged to wear a handkerchief around their necks in case travel conditions were dusty, which they often were. The coaches left at 7:30 in the morning and got back by about 6 in the afternoon. Coaches also made the trip on Saturday evening, when Lick offered public viewing through its big new 36-inch telescope.

Other businesses got involved as well. The Southern Pacific Railroad offered special package deals from San Francisco, for example. They helped turn Lick Observatory into a major tourist spot — setting an example for other observatories to follow in the decades ahead.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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