one of america's greatest business leaders - john mackay -- 10/21/19

Today's selection -- from The Bonanza King by Gregory Crouch. Irish immigrant John Mackay (1831-1902) came to America as a child and worked his way up from desperate poverty to become one of the wealthiest and most respected men in the world:

"Although the California observer who classified the Washoe [mining town] popula­tionof late 1861 as either 'dogs' or 'gentlemen' would almost certainly have counted John Mackay among the lode's canine population, those above Mackay in the mining hierarchy began to take notice. They put him in charge of other men. Men recalling his early years on the Com­stock said that as a gang boss, shift leader, and foreman, Mackay grew into a good leader of men, as exacting as a supervisor as he was faithful as an employee, loyal to men above him and devoted to those beneath. His competence went unquestioned underground, for every man knew Mackay could do his job as well as or better than he could do it himself. Mackay had no patience for wasted time and inefficiency and he drove his crews hard, but never harder than he drove himself, and in the haz­ardous environment of underground mining, he never asked a man to do a job he wouldn't do himself. He was a stickler for detail. Underground, he enforced rules with a direct, frank manner, and not always as a beam of 'circulating sunshine.' When he was disobeyed, ignored, or thwarted, Mackay's ruddy color rose into a burst of lrish temper. If pushed -- at all­ -- Mackay enforced his edicts with his fists. 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.

"Believing that tidy conditions made for safer, more efficient opera­tions, Mackay insisted on clean, orderly work zones. He wouldn't allow detritus to accumulate underground, and in an environment where fire posed the greatest hazard, thousands of feet of huge, dry, compressed timber shored the mines, all the work was done by lantern and candle­light, and no smoking was ever allowed, Mackay insisted his men never neglect a candle and never leave behind a 'snuff' -- the pooled remains of candle -- both for fear of a spark smoldering within and because any carelessness offended his sense of the right way of doing things.

"As a leader, Mackay was unpretentious, natural, unaffected. He never 'put on the dog' and lorded it over his underlings. He never made himself out to be something he wasn't. He never pretended to know something he didn't. John William Mackay was simply himself, always. Reflecting on Mackay's early years on the Comstock, iron-eyed California capital­ist and multimillionaire Darius Ogden Mills recalled Mackay's 'truthful­ness' and 'sincerity,' his 'frankness of manner,' and his 'close application to business,' observations rendered more significant by the fact that Mills and Mackay would spend much of the two coming decades as formidable and often bitter rivals. 'Everybody always liked Mackay,' Mills remembered. 'He owed much of his great success to his straightforward manner of dealing with men.'

Irish-born John Mackay came from the ranks of the common miners
to become one of the richest men the world. Hard work and good luck
led him from one bonanza to the next as he worked the Comstock Lode.

"The thing was, Mackay enjoyed it. To him, all work was honorable. He believed in the gospel of hard work. As he himself described, he enjoyed 'the toil, privation, and hardship.' He'd been happy selling newspapers in New York and learning carpentry in the Webb shipyard. He'd been happy shoveling dirt and gravel through rockers, long toms, and sluice boxes around Downieville, and he was happy wielding pick, shovel, and sledge in the Comstock mines, where, in the opinion of a man who worked alongside him, John Mackay had discovered an environment that 'stim­ulated every fiber of his being.' Mackay never talked of his own plans, but quietly, in a way he wouldn't cop to but a few times in his life, he'd begun to nurture a mighty ambition. Not even his closest intimates noticed Mackay studying Washoe's most successful men. Mackay measured himself against the superintendents, shift bosses, foremen, engineers, owners, and capitalists around him and concluded that he was every inch their equal. He worked as hard as humanly possible, he soaked up prac­tical knowledge, and he saved his money, watching his opportunities. No one on the lode suspected the hardworking, taciturn Irish immigrant su­pervising the shoring of a gallery or the running of a drift had begun to nurture a burning desire 'to win a name as master and manager of the greatest mines in the world.' ...

"At the time of his death, newspapers estimated Mackay's fortune at between $50 and $100 million [in 1902 dollars], making him one of the world's richest men. Nobody seemed to have an exact figure. Mackay's private secretary said that Mackay didn't know how much he was worth within $20 million and probably didn't care. John Mackay was interned in the mausoluem he'd build for his son in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemeter, where he resides among some of history's most distinguished New Yorkers. He'd been a hard, but good man. Money hadn't made him a hypocrite, and it had never stolen his good name.

"In the aftermath of Mackay's death, long, laudatory obituaries filled the columns of most American newspapers -- and many in England and France. Almost all of them garbled the details of Mackay's mining ca­reer, but expressed the basic sentiment that Mackay had 'stormed the strongholds where nature had stored her treasures' and won them 'in fair fight.' (It would fall to later generations to call the mining industry to account for the colossal environmental damage it inflicted on western ecosystems and for the havoc wreaked on Native American cultures.) The Salt Lake City Tribune said that, 'Of all the millionaires of this coun­try, no one was more thoroughly American than Mr. Mackay, and no one among them derived his fortune more legitimately.' Goodwin's Weekly considered Mackay's example 'the highest of all rich men in America.'

"Ironically, therein lay the reason John Mackay would fade from the memory of his countrymen. He died a widely admired man. Although Mackay stood among the leading industrialists and mining magnates in the last decades of the nineteenth century in terms of his wealth, none of the vitriol directed at the 'Robber Barons' of the age had accrued to him. Mackay never chiseled on his employees' wages. Indeed, at Postal Telegraph and Commercial, Mackay kept wages high and incentivized and aided in his employees' purchase of company stock, one of the first business leaders to take such steps. Nor did Mackay ever lose his com­mon touch. He never lorded it over his fellow man. John Mackay was al­ways himself, as at ease among the miners on the Con. Virginia's 'fifteen hundred' as he was among the oldest families of Europe -- and history records no aristocrat fool enough to have asked Mackay who he thought were the better men."


Gregory Crouch


The Bonanza King




Copyright 2018 by Gregory Crouch


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