These are the stories of four Irish lads who left home during the Great Famine and came to the United States separately. Who could know that their combined industry, acumen, and luck would eventually help pay the Civil War debts of the Union Army, build downtown San Francisco, move Germany off the silver standard, and lead to the formation of International Telephone and Telegraph?
William Shoney O’Brien was born in Abbeyleix, Ireland, in 1825. He immigrated to New York City in 1845, taking whatever work he could find there. He answered the siren call of the California gold rush in 1849 and worked as a miner for two years. By 1851, he had entered the liquor business in San Francisco.
James Clair Flood, also Irish born, met O’Brien in 1854 and the two men formed a business partnership. The combination of O’Brien’s flair for public relations and Flood’s financial genius resulted in a popular and prosperous saloon located on Washington Street in downtown San Francisco. By 1866, O’Brien and Flood had refocused their resources and efforts entirely on the investment and brokerage businesses.
Fortune would soon bring O’Brien and Flood in contact with another Irish duo that was seeking fortune in the western U.S.
James Graham Fair was born near Belfast on December 3, 1831. His parents brought him to Chicago in 1843. At age 18, he also answered the call of California’s gold fields and became an expert mining engineer in the ensuing eleven years.
John William Mackay was born in Dublin in 1831 and immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1840. He became an apprentice shipbuilder in 1847. When his apprenticeship term was complete in 1851, he also struck out for California’s gold fields, where he became an expert in mining construction.
There’s Silver in Them Thar’ Hills
The plot thickens when all four men answered a second siren call to fortune – in the silver-laden hills of Nevada.
In 1860, O’Brien and Flood used the profits from their saloon, brokerage service, and other investments to begin buying mining claims cheaply as the initial boom of Nevada’s Comstock silver bonanza went bust. Mackay had gone to Nevada in 1859 where he began as a pick-and-shovel miner earning $4 per day. He was soon supervising timber crews, for which he was largely paid in stock in the mines on which he worked. Mackay and Fair met in 1864 and formed a partnership, which consolidated their existing mining claims and speculated on others.
All four men finally met in Nevada in 1865. Their personalities were as disparate as could be. Fair was a canny, inquisitive man who led a gaudy, irregular life. Mackay was a reserved man with simple tastes. Flood’s financial brilliance enabled him to indulge a passion for philanthropy. O’Brien was a both quick study and a long-term thinker.
A Big Risk, a Bigger Payoff
Flood and O’Brien raised the $100,000 needed for the four partners to buy the Virginia Consolidated Mine in 1868. The purchase price reflected the widely held belief that the mine was situated on a “dead” part of the original Comstock strike. Fair and Mackay assiduously applied their mining expertise to the Virginia Consolidated until, in May of 1873, they discovered a high-grade vein of silver ore over 1,200 feet below the surface.
It turned out that our four Irish lads had struck the single largest silver deposit in the history of North America, and had struck it square in the middle. They were soon taking over $1 million per month of profits out of that “dead” mine. Altogether, more than $133 million in precious metals was extracted before operations ceased.
Life in the Fast Lane
How did “overnight” fortune affect their lives? All four of them founded the Bank of Nevada and played prominent roles in the western U.S. power circles thereafter.
James Fair pursued politics and eventually became a U.S. senator for Nevada, serving from 1881-1887. He left a large fortune when he died, but was sadly estranged from his entire family by then.
James Flood pursued a lifelong interest in financial affairs. He greatly enriched both himself and his partners through clever manipulation of mine stocks during boom and bust cycles. He became a philanthropist of note, and served as a director of the Bank of Nevada almost until his death in 1926.
William O’Brien had no way of knowing that he would have less than five years in which to enjoy his newfound wealth. He passed away in San Rafael, California, on May 2, 1878.
John Mackay’s wealth never rested easily on his shoulders. He disliked the distance it placed between him and his former peers, once commenting that, “winning at poker just isn’t fun anymore”. Still, he used his fortune to pursue new business interests. He founded the Commercial Cable Company in 1883, which laid two submarine cables between New York and Europe. He also organized the Postal Telegraph Company (a precursor to ITT) in 1886. He became a great philanthropist and passed away quietly, with his family around him, in 1902.
Such were the life and times of four Irishmen who lived large upon the stage of American history – The Silver Kings of the Comstock.