In the 150th year of the city of Reno, it’s essential to take the time to honor John Mackay, our very own titan of industry from the Gilded Age of American history. His statue on the quad at the University of Nevada, Reno portrays a humble miner in the Gold Rush before he struck gold and silver in the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. He amassed riches likened to those of his contemporaries John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, but he isn’t as well known.
“That’s because he never lost his good name as a businessman and a mine owner,” said Gregory Crouch, author of the new biography The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West. “He never chiseled on his workers’ wages, and he did what he could do to improve working conditions. That is totally unlike the capitalists of that era that you know today.”
Crouch’s book follows Mackay from his early years as an Irish immigrant and a ship builder’s apprentice living a poor life in New York City. Many men made it to the California Gold Rush of the 1850s before him, but he eventually found himself panning for gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The story goes that he walked on foot from Downieville, California, to Virginia City at the news of silver ore. He didn’t have a penny to his name. He worked for $4 a day, sometimes three mining jobs at a time.
At age 34, Mackay finally dug into a very rich body of ore. He had been on the verge of defaulting on a loan from a San Francisco moneylender, but he was soon on his way to controlling the Comstock Lode and becoming one of the richest men in the world.
Crouch’s enthusiasm about the era is contagious. He paints a vivid picture of our slice of the American West. Some of the originals of the book’s photos reside in the Special Collections and University Archives at UNR. He credits his factual reporting in part to the digitization of newspaper archives over the last decade. The process was much more laborious in the days of scouring through microfilm.
“It turns out that 19th century newspapers had editorial biases just like 21st century newspapers do,” he said. “So when I looked at what other people had written [on a certain topic], it struck me that what newspaper they had smacked up there on the microfilm had been influencing their take on the story. But that’s not a problem today. With multiple browser windows, I can get the reporting from all of the newspapers about a certain topic at the same time.” He said that even eastern outlets like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune had correspondents assigned to closely covering the news of the mining world, which makes sense, as plenty of that commerce was making its way by railroad into vaults and banks across the nation.
According to Crouch, Virginia City was the Silicon Valley of the 1860s and 1870s. There were volatile booms and busts of mine stocks. In all, over $300 million of silver and gold was dug from an area of Nevada just two and a half miles long and a few hundred feet wide.
“So, although Virginia City looks like this little tiny place today, kind of living off the whiskey-and-gun-smoke nostalgia of the Old West, it was just not that way back in the heyday,” said Crouch. “Everyone in the United States knew about Virginia City and the Comstock Lode.” Ω