John Barrette: ‘The Bonanza King’ captures Mackay

“Cast a cold eye / On Life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” – W. B. Yeats in Under Ben Bulben.

In reading “The Bonanza King” — a biography of rags-to-riches mining mogul John Mackay — you’re reminded good fortune and bad can cut through life like a two-edged sword.

In another sense, you also see good luck resides where preparedness and opportunity meet; bad luck is a horse of a different breed and color that tramples dreams dug from earth and laid to rest in it.

Gregory Crouch — a U.S. Military Academy graduate, a veteran and the biographer — captured Mackay’s 19th century times and, at times, the taciturn man whose name graces the University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Earth Sciences & Engineering.

By all accounts, including Crouch’s, John William Mackay was a miner’s miner whose good fortune was no overnight success. He was born near Dublin in late 1831. Mackay’s life prompted Crouch to write few great men “ever started further down the ladder of success” than this Irish immigrant.

The Mackay family came to New York City in 1840 and the “rough Irish lad” received a smattering of education before going to work as a pre-teen because his father died in 1842. The family lived near the city’s infamous Five Points, which Crouch says then was “the most notorious slum in the United States.”

No doubt the lad was rough but sharp, given he outhustled other toughs hawking newspapers and later caught on with a shipbuilding company. He stayed in New York until after 49ers swarmed into Northern California to pan for gold.

Mackay followed them in 1851, spending several years there panning, learning and sending much of his take back to his mother and sister. Family looms large in this biography, as do the Comstock, mining, San Francisco, as well as speculative mining stock trading.

In the summer of 1859, Mackay and a partner crossed the Sierra Nevada range bound for mountains to the east that would soon be known everywhere for the Comstock Lode. It had the richest of silver- and gold-laced ore deposits ever unearthed, most of it mined over the ensuing quarter century.

Mackay worked as a miner for others at first. Combining a prodigious work ethic, a keen eye and a fine mind, Mackay learned the underground’s secrets and took advantage of opportunities that eventually gave him a foothold in ownership.

By 1867-68, Mackay was in the thick of the race to win control of the bonanza deep below Virginia City and Gold Hill in Storey County. The bonanza paid off for Mackay with riches almost beyond belief.

By 1876, Mackay’s combined cash dividends from two bonanza mines totaled more than $1 million per month, according to Crouch. Suffice to say, by then he also had other interests bringing in more.

“Considered estimates,” according to Crouch, “place the Comstock’s total production during its 20-year heyday at around $306 million – a sum equal in power and impact to $545 billion in the modern economy.”

If such sums are too heady to contemplate, ponder the plunder’s impact this way: Back then, a shot of good liquor cost two bits — one quarter of a dollar – and working miners earned $4 per day each.

So why would an up-from-hardscrabble Irishman worth millions find his good fortune laced with bad? He married the love of his life, a widow named Louise with a girl called Eva. He treated Eva as his own, and the couple soon had two boys nicknamed Willie and Clarrie (John William Jr. and Clarence).

Icing on the millionaire’s cake, you say? You bet. But only until Eva married four-flushing royalty in Europe and his eldest son, Willie, died in a horse-riding accident — another tragedy in Europe of even greater proportions.

As fortunes go, Mackay had it all. He had the good, the bad, the ugly, and the latter two virtually overwhelmed a man whose rendezvous with the good came from preparing himself well and seizing opportunity when it appeared beneath his mountain mining camp.

Crouch deftly, if briefly, captured the horrific nature of a grown child preceding his parents in death. “Neither John nor Louise ever recovered,” he wrote. And to put a finer point on it, Crouch added:

“Nobody who ever knew him ever doubted that John Mackay would have exchanged every one of his millions for the life of his son.”

Immediately after finishing the Mackay biography, I pulled down Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Fooled by Randomness” and read it a second time. It’s about fast-and-loose financial traders and how random events can blow them up, financially speaking, quicker than dynamite in a mine.

Taleb’s slim book had a subtitle: “The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.”

I re-read it because of a remark in “The Bonanza King” attributed to Mackay after days of his brooding over Willie’s bizarre, accidental death: “Oh, God, what have I done to deserve this?”

Mackay, who seems to have done nothing worse than survive long enough to see both upside and down, outlived Willie by some seven years.

The mining mogul died 116 years ago on July 20, 1902 with a worth variously estimated at between $50 million and $100 million (obviously, billions in today’s currency).

“Mackay’s private secretary,” Crouch wrote, “said that Mackay didn’t know how much he was worth within $20 million and probably didn’t care.” Some random events make the counting house irrelevant.


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