When I was a student at the University of Nevada many years ago, one of my favorite hangouts was the museum at the Mackay School of Mines. This museum and the Mackay School of Mines were financed from the fortune of John W. Mackay, who was the most successful of all the silver kings of the Comstock era. Following a major renovation in 1988, the museum was renamed the W.M. Keck Museum.
The Keck museum contains thousands of ore samples from Nevada and other regions as well. In addition to the many mineral specimens and various kinds of ore, there are displays of fossils, precious stones and mining artifacts. This is also the home of several pieces of silver from the fabulous Mackay family silver service.
By 1877, John W. Mackay and his wife, Marie Louise, decided they wanted to use some of the silver from the Big Bonanza to create the largest and most elaborate silver set ever created.
Having become one of the wealthiest men in the country, John Mackay wanted to present his wife with a truly unique gift. He commissioned Tiffany and Company in New York City to design the service. They appointed Edward C. Moore to supervise a team of 200 craftsmen to work exclusively on the project, which took over 1 million man hours to complete.
Mackay shipped approximately 1,000 pounds of silver bullion from his mines to Tiffany in New York City. There the silversmiths created the most elegant and ornate silver service ever made.
In a period of about two years, they converted a half ton of silver bars to a beautiful place setting for 24. In addition to the plates, knives, spoons, forks, cups and saucers for the place settings, the set contained candelabras, soup tureens, vegetable dishes, champagne coolers, oil lamps, wine goblets and many other pieces. In all, the collection had about 1,250 pieces of finely crafted Comstock silver.
Each piece in the Mackay silver service was hand decorated with rich floral designs including Irish shamrocks, Scottish thistles, American gardens and wild flowers. The larger pieces had the Hungerford coat-of-arms in honor of Mrs. Mackay’s family name. They were also engraved with the monogram MLM for Mary Louise Mackay. The elegant pieces in the Mackay service epitomized the sumptuous dining table of Victorian America.
To give an idea of the size of some of these pieces, the punch bowl was 23 inches in diameter and weighed 478 ounces of sterling silver. It was sold at auction in January 1998 for $222,500. One candelabra was 36 inches tall and held 29 candles.
When the silver service was finally completed in 1878, John Mackay purchased the dies that had been used to form the pieces so the service could never be duplicated. The Mackays had mansions in Virginia City, New York, London and Paris. The service was delivered to Mrs. Mackay in Paris packed in nine walnut and mahogany treasure chests, each fitted with a silver plaque listing its contents.
I have written this article to remind people of the great wealth that came from the Comstock mines. Even though many of the early miners who came here to seek their fortune never succeeded, there were a few who did, and when they did, it was on a grand scale.
If you get a chance and want to see a part of Comstock history, visit the Keck Museum in the basement of the Mackay School of Mines on the north end of the quad. This is the building with the famous bronze statue of John Mackay holding a pick in one hand and a handful of Comstock ore in the other. Admission is free, and there’s visitor parking on the north end of the campus.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.