Nabobs in Broadcloth

The Comstock was to produce a multitude of great names, some of them of world consequence, others that blazed brightly on a national scale. There was Adolph Sutro, the tunnel builder who was to become one of the most celebrated of San Francisco’s mayors and whose name adorns many municipal institutions surviving to this day. There was George Hearst who was to become a California senator in Washington and whose fortune was one day to finance the most important chain of newspapers and magazines ever to be published in the United States. There was Mark Twain who served his literary apprenticeship on the staff of the Territorial Enterprise and David Belasco who, as a youth, was stage manager at Piper’s Opera. And there was Henry B. Yerington, one of the greatest of Western railroad operators, and Wells Drury, a journalist in the spacious tradition of the nineteenth century newspaper world.

But the names that most fascinated their own generation were those of the Silver Kings, the Lords of Creation, the Big Four of the Comstock Lode, Flood, Fair, Mackay and O’Brien and the other princely seekers and finders of fortune who came to Virginia City with an Ames shovel over their shoulders and departed for palaces on Nob Bill or in the Rue Tilsit.

One of the most arrestingly picturesque of them was William M. Steward, graduate of Yale Law School a graduate too, of the Mother Lode camps of the early fifties and later a Nevada senator and greatest expert on mining litigation in the West. Steward, who was accustomed to try cases involving dangerous characters fully armed with a brace of Navy Colts under the skirts of his frock coat, was the first real law on the Comstock. His interpretation of justice was invariable in favor of whoever might have retained him, but his courage and tenacity were monumental in a generation when both of these qualities were in great requisition. Stewart went on to bigger things in Washington and lived a long and wealthy life in the later Nevada bonanzas, but until his dying day he was a bad man to cross, and the world, or most of it, knew that under his patriarchal beard there was apt to be a shoulder holster and that Stewart’s law was not to be held lightly.

Another of the nabobs of note was John Percival Jones, hero of the great Crown Point fire at the time he was superintendent. Jones also became a Nevada senator and was the driving force behind the now almost forgotten Panamint excitement across the California line in the Death Valley region. Historians remember Panamint as one of the most alluring, deceptive and geographically improbable bonanzas high in the Panamint Mountains where, at Jones’ command, an entire civilization once flourished briefly, sold a blizzard of worthless securities and finally disappeared forever when a cloudburst destroyed the diggings at Panamint city almost without a trace.

Graduates of the Virginia City school of experience enlivened the known world for two full generations.

But hard head and broad shoulder above all the silk hatted rout of Comstock millionaires, king of the bonanza kings and a favorite of fortune whose name was destined to rank with those of Morgans, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Mellons and Whitneys, John Mackay was one of the very few, who, when greatness claimed him, never forgot its origins and never altogether deserted the Comstock.

Mackay was one of those who toiled up Six Mile with an Ames shovel on his shoulder. Among the first arrivals from the abandoned riffles and Long Toms of the California Sierra, he went to work in the first shallow diggings on the slopes of Sun Mountain and within two decades was to be known throughout the civilized world as the quintessential American success story. It was his good fortune and that of his associates, more often than not backed by resources of intelligence and determination not always credited in the record, that made the Comstock what Oscar Lewis has called “the nation’s most satisfactory wishing well.”

Like Adolph Sutro, Mackay found the early operations on the Comstock so wasteful and unsophisticated as to be positively repellent, but he was to live to see the management in his own mines regarded by experts as the pinnacle of deep mining technique and the most economical of his generation.

After holding down a variety of jobs in the mines which by this time were appearing along the Lode in florid abundance and observing shrewdly into the conduct, or more often misconduct of their fortunes, Mackay went to work in the Kentuck Mine, taking his pay not in cash to be converted into Saturday night whiskey and Sunday remorse, but in shares in the company. In 1863 the owners of the Kentuck sought to incorporate but found they were powerless to do so without possession of a number of “feet” (all shares were calculated not in dollars but in running footage of the property) owned by one of the original discoverers. The shareholder was reported to be among the Confederate armies fighting in the campaigns of western Tennessee and a fat bonus was posted for the recovery of his proxy.

That was enough for Mackay. The Comstock knew him not for four long months although he reported to have been a passenger on one of Ben Holladay’s overland stages heading for the Mississippi. When he reappeared it was with the missing block of feet and a bill of sale to show his ownership. Mackay never revealed how he secured them but the legend insists he dogged his man into the front lines before Chattanooga and wrangled over the price while Parrott rifles boomed and Minié balls ripped overhead. Now Kentuck could be incorporated and Mackay was for the first time an active capitalist on the basis of his share in the property.

Kentuck turned out to be a bonanza of modest proportions – over a period of years it produced about $5,000,000 – but his share was enough to put behind Mackay forever his days as a $4 pick-and-shovel man or later $6 as timber worker. Once in his Mother Lode days Mackay had remarked that when he made $200,000 he was going to retire and that the man who wanted more was a fool, but success was now in his veins and with the profits from Kentuck he joined forces with James G. Fair, an alliance which was eventually to lead to the Big Bonanza and the emergence of the kings of the Comstock.

The story of the Big Bonanza is told in more detail elsewhere in this volume, but its discovery made Mackay and his associates, Fair, Flood and O’Brien, the one-time San Francisco saloon proprietors, into men of incredible consequence. Of the four, Mackay proved the most capable of bearing the almost intolerable burden of fantastic wealth.

Mackay was married in Virginia City in the parlor of Slippery Jim Fair’s cottage to Marie Bryant, widow of a Downie-barber, in 1866. It was the beginning of a saga of social dazzlements and unparalleled displays of wealth which were to astound even blasé Paris and London in a blasé age, and whose echoes were reawakened in the world press of the 1920’s when Mackay’s granddaughter Ellen was married to Irving Berlin over the aristocratic protest of the existing Mackay family. To this day Mrs. Berlin is a frequent pilgrim to the Comstock to revisit the scene of her might grandfather’s mightiest triumphs. Mrs. Mackay, now armed with formidable financial resources and a naïve determination to display them, removed herself permanently from the United States and set out to conquer formal society in the Old World while Mackay himself, glad to be quit of frivolities, footed her bills on condition that he should be omitted from her campaigns and conquests.

Now without a sense of the ridiculous, Mackay made it a point, upon the occasion of his infrequent visits to his wife’s palaces in Paris and London, to affect the uncouth American millionaire as foreigners expected him. He resolutely refused to learn French, thereby forcing his dinner partners to converse in English to their notable disadvantage. Instead of the rare clarets and noble champagnes served by Mrs. Mackay’s wine stewards and major-domos he insisted on a shot of straight Bourbon with the pheasant. He took a mildly malicious pleasure in recalling his boyhood days in Dublin and insisted that his family’s pig shared the parlor in the best shanty Irish tradition. He was, in a word, a trial while among the dignitaries, so that his wife was glad to see him depart as soon as possible for San Francisco or his beloved Comstock. In actuality Mackay was an extremely well read, urbane and polished man of the world in which he lived.

The whole tally of Mackay’s charities will never be known to anyone. Almost in their entirety, and that was in the millions, they were contributed to causes he considered worthy on the condition that they should be absolutely anonymous. Such institutional benevolences as the Church of St. Mary’s in the Mountains in Virginia City and the Mackay School of Mines at Reno could not well be hidden, but there was quite literally loans to oldtime friends on the Comstock and donations to worthy beneficiaries running into the millions. It was because of this patrician disregard for expenditures in what he considered to be commendable channels that at Mackay’s death in 1902 his business manager was able to tell the reporters: “I don’t suppose he knew within twenty millions what he was worth.”

Mackay was the greatest example of the Comstock’s incalculable power for good. The wealth he wrested from the California and Con Virginia mines was translated into continental railroads and trans-Atlantic cables, telegraph systems, sugar refineries, copper mills and productive real estate. Perhaps, indeed, probably he derived pleasure from the power and authority his great fortune gave him, but the Comstock nearly half a century after his death, remembers him for a disillusioned remark he made one night in the Washoe Club at a time when his income was close to a million dollars a year, a sum the equivalent in purchasing power of four or five times as much today.

“I don’t care whether I win or lose,” he told Dan De Quille. “And when you can’t enjoy winning at poker, there’s no fun left in anything.”

Perhaps that will serve as John Mackay’s epitaph until a better one comes along.


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