“No man in Nevada more thoroughly understands the Comstock lode than Mr. Mackay. He has made it his study for years…Mr. Mackay is the “boss” of the big bonanza.” -Dan de Quille (William Wright)
In 1857, the Grosh brothers, Ethan Allen and Hosea came close to making a remarkable discovery in Nevada history. The brothers prospected deposits of gold and silver in the near Six Mile Canon, close to the vein of the famous Comstock Lode. Unfortunately, death came to both brothers before they could continue to explore the area. James Finney and Henry Comstock took the credit a year later, discovering one of the largest silver deposits in America. However, the first years of mining moved slowly. Having bought up large mining claims in Gold Hill and the future Virginia City, a discouraged Comstock made the mistake and sold his interests, hoping to move into the mercantile business. Comstock sold out too early; he ultimately died a poor man in Montana.
However, others took advantage of the Comstock’s wealth. The lode yielded six large finds, called bonanzas, in the first several years of mining. Beginning with the Ophir bonanza, thousands were flocking to the Virginia City and Gold Hill areas to tap into the massive fortune hidden beneath the earth. Among them was John Mackay. Mackay was born in Dublin, Ireland and emigrated to America in 1840 as a young boy. Tragedy struck the family two years after their arrival to the States when Mackay’s father died unexpectedly. At a young age Mackay left school to work, needing to support his mother and sister. Perhaps for this reason, Mackay headed west to the gold fields in California in 1851. Like many miners during the time, Mackay worked in the mines, but did not strike it rich. He eventually arrived in Virginia City in 1859 practically penniless, looking for the opportunity that California had not offered him. Family was his main motivation in striking it rich. Telling his friend Jack O’Brien, “All I want is my $30,000; with that I can make my old mother comfortable.” Little did Mackay know that in the next two decades he would not only receive his $30,000, but would be averaging $300,000 a month.
Mackay started at $4 a day as a placer miner, but quickly worked his way up and become a superintendent in the Caledonia Tunnel Mining Company. With enough money saved, Mackay began investing in several mining companies. This business move changed his career, leading him to a road of riches. Buying up stock alongside James Flood, William S. O’Brien, James Fair, these men soon owned half of the mining shares in Virginia City. The four would be known as the “Bonanza Kings” of the Comstock. Mackay was determined to make it big in Virginia City. While most men in his position preferred the comforts of overseeing in an office space, Mackay frequented the deep mining shafts alongside his men. He offered fair and generous wages to his workers, but also worked them hard. He dug deeper into the lode, gambling on the hope that there was more ore to be discovered. His determination paid off, as his company hit the “big bonanza.” The find yielded $166 million between 1873 to 1878. Mackay became one of the richest men in the world. He offered a life of luxury to his family. He donated to charities, showed patronage to the arts, met foreign figureheads, and traveled the world. Mining finally slowed in the 1880’s, but the legacy of the Comstock lived on in the pockets of men like John Mackay and the Bonanza kings.