Pictou County man reaches for the stars


Published on July 20, 2014

Thomas Fraser poses next to the Lick Observatory controls.


A Pictou County man was in charge of building the world’s first mountain observatory. At the time this building was called a “marvel of construction ingenuity” and is still in operation to this day.

A young Thomas E. Fraser left his native Pictou County in 1866. He and his brother’s John and Howard headed out to Western United States to seek work. They traveled around a few of the states, securing jobs wherever they could. Thomas Edward had been a ship’s cabinetmaker back in his native county and was described as “a skilled carpenter and a fine artisan.” These talents learned in Nova Scotia would carry him on to a wonderful, but short career.

Thomas eventually ended up in Southern California around the city of San Francisco as a building contractor. Thomas himself was described as “a hardy Scot, tall and swarthy, he sported a mustache and spoke with a trace of Scottish burr. He had the Nova Scotian’s ability to do anything with his hands; he hated idleness and well abated by native thinking for the hardships of pioneer life.”

Fraser established a well-respected and hard-working company while in the San Jose area. So much so, that a California millionaire took extreme interest in his work ethic.

Affluent James Lick was described as a “cold and eccentric millionaire with few friends” and the “meanest man in California,” but for some reason, he took to Fraser. Mr. Lick liked “Fraser’s quick intelligence, prompt obedience and business wisdom.” The rich James Lick gave him many different and challenging jobs. In 1873 the millionaire asked Thomas to be his “confidential agent and foreman at his Santa Clara estate. He became a warm and personal friend of the pioneer philanthropist.”

The next year James Lick suffered a massive stroke and was saved by Fraser. While recovering at his Santa Clara home, Mr. Lick decided to divvy up his fortune and the money was dispersed to many good causes throughout California. He was also convinced to build “a mountain top observatory, with the largest most powerful telescope yet built by man.” Pictou County’s Fraser was the man to suggest the site atop Mt. Hamilton, very near San Jose. He was also appointed superintendent for the entire project.

Construction of the Lick Observatory began in 1876. James Lick would not even get a chance to watch his celestial gift grow. he passed away on Oct. 1, 1876. However he would always heavenly look upwards, they buried his body under the “Great Lick Refracting Telescope” where it resides to this day. The building of the observatory took 12 years to completion and on Jan. 3, 1888, James Lick’s astronomical donation was opened and turned over to the University of California. That same year Pictou County’s Thomas Fraser and his wife Floretta retired to small rural community near Los Angeles, called Banning. They purchased a ranch and acquired considerable amount of town property including the Banning Hotel. Thomas took a keen interest in fruit crops and planted over 100 acres.

Unfortunately, “superintending their care in the extreme heat” caused the death of Fraser. He passed away on Oct. 6, 1891 and was buried in San Jose.

His building legacy lives on in California and if one were to visit the Lick Observatory near San Jose, realize that a Pictou County man was in charge of the construction of this world renowned science structure.



John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.