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The Silver Kings and the "Big Bonanza"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 30, 2022 3:01 am

The Silver Kings and the "Big Bonanza"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 30, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, John Mackay, James Fair, William O'Brien, and James Flood epitomized the rags-to-riches American dream. Roger McGrath, author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes is here to tell us the story of the richest mineral discovery in American history, the Comstock Lode.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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They're some of our favorites. In the annals of American capitalism, there is probably no crazier, wilder, more chaotic boom to bust and back again phenomenon than the Comstock Lode in the 1860s. The richest couple of square miles on earth. This small section of dirt changed the destiny of the United States. Here to tell this rags to riches frontier tale is Old West historian Roger McGrath.

Here's Roger. If ever there were real life figures who could have been characters in a Horatio Alger novel, it was the Silver Kings. John Mackey, James Fair, William O'Brien, and James Flood epitomized the rags to riches American dream.

John Mackey is the engineering genius of the Silver Kings. Born in Ireland in 1831, he immigrates with his family to New York in 1840. He reaches the California gold fields in 1851. He enjoys hard physical work and mining camp life. He has almost no formal education and had stuttered badly when young, but he is blessed with extraordinary intelligence. James Fair is a mine superintendent without peer and a shrewd financier. Born in Ireland in 1831, he immigrates with his family to Illinois during the early 1840s. He has enormous energy, a trenchant mind, and a natural aptitude for all things mechanical. He joins the gold rush to California in 1849.

William O'Brien is born in Ireland in 1826 and brought to New York as a small child. By the time he joins the gold rush of 49, he has grown into a large man of erect carriage. He will soon have a head of prematurely white hair. His size, posture, and hair give him a dignified appearance. Unlike his partners, he is soft-spoken with an avuncular, kindly quality about him. He is the least forceful of the Silver Kings, but his gregarious and genial nature make him the most popular and ideal for public relations. James Fudd is the only Silver King not to have been born in Ireland. He is born in New York in 1826, shortly after his Irish immigrant parents arrive. He catches the gold fever in 1849 and sails around the horn to California. He has a quick wit, a shrewd mind, a volatile temper, and a powerful drive to succeed.

He is a genius in trading stocks and in finance. Mackey Fair, O'Brien, and Fudd all spend the early 1850s prospecting and mining in California and each has some success. With his earnings from the diggings, O'Brien opens a marine supply store in San Francisco. Fudd, with the money he has made, opens a livery and carriage shop just down the street from O'Brien. Both lose their businesses, though, in the depression of 1855. They then join forces and open a saloon.

O'Brien reasons the only thing that does not go down in the depression is the consumption of alcohol. He's right, and their saloon thrives. Fudd handles the business-ended operation while O'Brien greets customers and serves roast beef sandwiches that come complimentary with a drink. By the early 1860s, Fudd and O'Brien are dabbling in mining stock, buying and selling shares in mines that tap into the Greek Comstock load in Nevada. Fudd has an uncanny ability in stock trading.

Within a few years, he and O'Brien amass a small fortune. In 1868, they open their own stock brokerage office in San Francisco. Mackey and Fair, working separately, also spend the early 1850s prospecting in California.

Here's Comstock load historian Ronald James speaking to us at the location of the great Comstock load strike, which was made in 1859 by two Irishmen, Peter O'Reilly and Patrick McLaughlin. The first miners who came here were after gold. Gold's easy. Gold doesn't combine with many things, so you can actually even pick it out of their washed dirt with tweezers, and you hope for a nugget, but you find little flakes of gold, and that's how you can pull the gold out. The two miners who were coming up here, a couple of Irish immigrants, were just looking for a good place to dam up a natural spring so they could get water, and they were hoping that they could find some water, throw some dirt into their long toms, which were these wooden boxes, and wash the dirt. While they were damming a natural spring they found, which was right up here, they started throwing some of the dirt in there and found immediately that they were uncovering several ounces of gold, and it was a very good day, and it was the first of many good days, in fact 20 years worth of good days. They were complaining for those first few weeks after the strike in June of 1859.

These early miners complained about this blue mud that gummed up their works, because as you wash away the lighter soil it leaves gold behind, but it was also leaving behind this blue mud that was really obnoxiously heavy, and it was hard to separate it from the from the gold. So after several weeks they took an ore sample over to California and said what exactly do we have here, and what they found was that if you had a ton of this stuff it would produce over 800 dollars in gold when gold was selling for 16 dollars an ounce, but what was really surprising that it was that it would produce over three thousand dollars in silver when silver was selling for a dollar 60 an ounce, and so that's really where everyone understood just how wealthy this ore body, or using the Cornish word load, was, and then it became known as the Comstock load. When they learn of the Comstock load strike at Virginia City they head over the Sierras to Nevada. The people who came to the Comstock were an international body of people. Nevada actually had in the 1870 census more foreign-born per capita than any other state in the nation, you know more than the great immigrant states of you think of Massachusetts and Boston and New York and how vibrantly international those places were. Chicago, a lot of Europeans obviously, a large group of Chinese lived here. They came from all over.

They often arrived as single men, and so it was a very masculine community. And when we come back more on the lives of these four risk takers, the Silver Kings. The story of the Comstock load continues here on Our American Stories. Go to and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot, help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Listen to Chasing Sleep on the iHeart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories and the story of John Mackey, James Fair, James Flood, and William O'Brien, the Silver Kings. Let's pick up with Roger McGrath, where we last left off. Mackey works as a pick and shovel miner for four dollars a day, then as a timberman for six. Soon he develops his own business excavating and fortifying tunnels.

Much of his pay is in the form of stock certificates. Now, most of these prove worthless, but if you give him enough money to buy the Kentucky, a mine whose ore has supposedly been exhausted. Mackey sinks a new shaft in the Kentucky and hits a rich deposit. During the next several years, the mine pays over a million dollars in dividends, huge money in the 1860s. Mackey also has said he will retire as soon as he has 25,000 in the bank.

Well, now he has many times that, but his appetite has only been wedded for new adventures and enterprises. While Mackey is working the Kentucky, James Fair becomes superintendent of the Ophir, one of the richest mines on the Comstock. In 1868, he enters into a partnership to develop new mining properties with Mackey. I'm standing at the base of the Ophir pit, and they called it Ophir after Ophir, the gold mine of King Solomon in the Old Testament.

By asserting that this was the Ophir mine, they were claiming that this was a mine of biblical proportions, and they got it right because hundreds of millions of dollars came out of the ground beginning right here. Back in San Francisco, Jim Flood and Biddle O'Brien take notice of these two young upstarts on the Comstock. Soon they are discussing joining forces, and in 1869, the San Francisco stockbrokers and the Comstock miners form a partnership. By the early 1870s, through wise investments and daring gambles, the four Irishmen are challenging William Ralston of the Bank of California for control of the Comstock. In 1872, they buy the consolidated Virginia mine for $100,000 from Ralston's right-hand man in the old town of Man in Virginia City, William Sharon.

Sharon gleefully reports to Ralston the Irishmen have been taken. The consolidated Virginia, says Sharon, is a bankrupt piece of property. Over a million dollars has already been wasted in the mine and fruitless exploration. Mackey and Fair have a hunch if they cut a new tunnel at a deeper level, they will hit a vein of war. For several months they tunnel, pouring $200,000 into the consolidated Virginia, but hoisting up nothing but worthless rock.

William Sharon roars with laughter. Then one day Mackey and Fair, in a delicately thin vein of war, they try to follow it, but it disappears. They find it again, but again it disappears. They find it a third time. This time the vein begins to widen to a foot, to several feet, to a half dozen feet, to 12 feet.

Mackey and Fair send word to Flood and O'Brien in San Francisco. The stockbrokers quickly buy up as much outstanding consolidated Virginia stock as they can. The deeper the new shaft is sunk in the consolidated Virginia, the wider the vein becomes.

At the 1500 foot level, the vein is more than 50 feet wide. The ore is so rich, waste rock has to be added to it to put it through the stamp mill. The Irishmen have discovered the very heart of the Comstock Lode, what is called the Big Bonanza. For the rest of their lives, they are known as the Silver Kings.

Here again is Ronald James. In 1873 they found what was called the Big Bonanza. Here the Comstock Lode, the combination of gold and silver, started expanding as they went underground and at its widest up to 60 feet wide of nearly pure gold and silver.

The problem is you cannot find a log stout enough to span 60 feet, even 20 feet, without snapping because it has to hold up a mountain and mountains want to collapse in on empty space. So they brought in a German immigrant by the name of Philip Deidesheimer who developed the square set timbering method and it was basically a series of cubes that could be in modular fashion added to so that whatever the stope, the empty space left over when you dug out all the gold and silver, whatever that stope was shaped like, you could fill it up with a stout framework of timber and then you would fill it back with waste rock as you dug even deeper inside the mine. So it was a really nice stable way to support a mine as you were pursuing precious metals and that was exported throughout the world. It's only the first of many inventions, flat wire cable, the safety cage. This was the first place where dynamite was experimented with in a big way underground.

It was the first place where air compressed drills were used. So it became one invention after the next that defined international underground mining for the next 50 or 60 years. By 1875 the Silver Kings are fabulously wealthy. The consolidated Virginia is paying dividends of a million dollars a month, something like a hundred million in today's money.

San Francisco is seized by a speculative mania. If the consolidated Virginia has hit the big bonanza, other mines might also. Thousands of shares of mining stock trade daily. People make and lose fortunes overnight. Charwomans buy the hotels they scrub floors in. Act drivers give away the carriages to live on Knob Hill. Chinese gambling dens close because Chinese are gambling in mining stocks instead of Fan Tan. From 1873 to 1882, the consolidated Virginia yields $65 million in gold and silver and pays $43 million in dividends, more than $4 billion in today's dollars.

Here again is Ronald James. The deepest shaft here dropped over 3,000 feet, 3,200 feet. It's over half mile, a straight elevator drop. And keep in mind, this is in 1870, 1880 when most people have never ridden an elevator anywhere. And to imagine these people being dropped down over half mile straight down, it really is something. There was a law on the Nevada books that said it's against the law to talk to a hoist operator. He was the fellow who was running the spool as it lowered the cages down.

And it's illegal to talk to a hoist operator while he's working, because if you distract him and he's off by 10 feet, that could be fatal to the guys in the cage as they drop down. The Silver Kings all live rightlessly well and die with multi-million dollar estates. William O'Brien contributes to charities and supports all his close relatives, especially the McDonough and Coleman families of San Francisco. James, fled by San Francisco real estate, erects numerous buildings, funds new business ventures, and establishes the Nevada bank.

The Nevada bank later merges with Wells Fargo. He donates large sums to charities. He and his wife and their children live on the fabulous 35 acre estate at Menlo Park. James Fehrer is elected to the U.S. Senate from Nevada, but spends most of his time accumulating real estate in San Francisco. He becomes the city's largest taxpayer. He also establishes two banks and a railroad. John Mackey forms a telegraph company, lays a cable across the Atlantic, and breaks the Western Union monopoly. He makes more millions. During his lifetime, he gives away more than 5 million in gifts.

He also tears up IOU notes worth more than 2 million, like forgiving 200 million in today's money. When the great fire of October 1875 destroys a central part of Virginia City, including the town's Catholic church, St. Mary's of the mountains, Mackey donates much of the money to have St. Mary's rebuilt bigger and better than ever. During a slow period on the Comstock, Mackey secretly pays a Virginia City grocer to supply provisions to any miner at work.

He also is the largest contributor to Sisters Hospital, requiring only that his donations be kept confidential. John Mackey, James Fehrer, William O'Bryant, and James Flood demonstrate that her racial alger characters were not confined to novels, but were found for real in America. And there you have it, the story of the Silver Kings. This is Lee Habib, the Silver Kings story, here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-30 19:54:37 / 2022-12-30 20:02:36 / 8

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