Battle Over the Greatest Riches in American West

Goleta Author Explores Life of ‘Bonanza King’ John Mackay

Gregory Crouch

Courtesy Photo

Gregory Crouch

Five years ago, Goleta-raised author Gregory Crouch was looking for a new project. He had two successful narrative nonfiction books to his credit and thought his next might be about San Francisco. As he was researching ideas, Crouch kept coming across connections between the growth of San Francisco in the mid-19th century and the Comstock mines, located just over the Sierra Nevada mountains in Virginia City, in the Nevada Territory. The gold rush and the discovery of the Comstock Lode ​— ​the most concentrated source of precious metals on the planet ​— ​were pivotal to the development of the American West and transformed San Francisco from a trading port into an industrial city.

Probing this history, Crouch discovered John Mackay, a hardworking, fistfighting Irish miner who became one of the richest men in the world. “Mackay is a fascinating figure,” Crouch told the Santa Barbara Independent during a recent interview, “an improbable rags-to-riches story that captures the ethos of the time period.” Mackay, an immigrant whose family had fled the Potato Famine in Ireland, grew up desperately poor ​— ​so poor that the family shared its living space with a pig ​— ​in New York City’s infamous Five Points slum. Like thousands of other young men in the 1840s and ’50s, Mackay struck out for California to chase his fortune in the gold fields.

When Crouch, a graduate of Dos Pueblos High School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on a project, he immerses himself in the geography as much he does primary source material. “Places feel very different,” he said, “and that has a big impact on how I shape a story. I need to experience the physical territory, put my feet on the ground. I honestly think this stems from growing up in Goleta, being outdoors all the time, climbing trees, exploring creeks. My previous book, China’s Wings, was a logistical challenge because it’s about aviation in China and India, and I was only able to experience the locales once.”

In The Bonanza King, Crouch tells a compelling, multifaceted story rich in detail, texture, and history. “There was a manic energy at that time,” Crouch said, “a boom mentality. Men made and lost fortunes in the space of a few days; everybody wanted to strike it rich as quickly as possible. The living conditions in the Nevada Territory were primitive, the competition for claims cutthroat. Work in the mines was hard [and] dangerous, with progress measured by the foot.” Fatal accidents were commonplace in the shafts and galleries below ground; fire, flood, and cave-ins were constant hazards. The engineering involved in hard-rock mining was mind-boggling. By the time the Comstock boom was over, the technological lessons learned had spread all over the world.

While men attacked the hard rock in the mines, speculators bought, sold, and swapped shares, fueling panics and crashes. Mackay steered clear of the rampant speculation and concentrated on what he was good at: getting ore out of the ground. He was a miner to the soles of his boots, at home underground with a pick in his hand. He insisted on safe, tidy, orderly work zones; he treated the men who worked with and for him with respect, and that respect was returned. As Crouch writes, “Although he seldom said more than a few words, men knew where they stood with John Mackay, which they appreciated. Men liked working for him. Around John Mackay, things got done right.”

The Bonanza King is a wonderful contribution to our understanding of the events and characters that reshaped a continent and a nation.