John Mackay, prince of miners remembered

It was Wednesday, April 10,1912. The time was noon, as 2,234 passengers steamed out of Southampton on the world's largest and most luxurious passenger liner ever built.

On her maiden voyage and thought to be unsinkable, the Titanic proved the experts wrong when just before midnight on April 14, she struck an iceberg, and 1,529 people perished in the incident.

The crew of the Carpathia rescued 705 survivors, taking them to New York.

The White Star Line, owners of the Titanic, moved quickly to recover as many bodies as possible, and hired other companies with vessels large enough for the job. The first call they made was to the Commercial Cable Co. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, owners of the CS (cable ship) Mackay-Bennett. The Mackay-Bennett, built in 1884 and financed by Comstock miner and millionaire John Mackay and New York Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, spent seven days on the scene and recovered 306 bodies.

At the time of the Titanic tragedy, Mackay had been dead for almost 10 years, having died in London on July 20, 1902, at the age of 70 -- 101 years ago today.

Born in Dublin, Ireland on Nov. 28, 1831, Mackay was 9 years old when his family migrated to New York. At age 20 he was in the California gold fields eking out a living in the placers when he heard about the rich silver deposits on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. He was one of many caught up in the "Rush To Washoe" in the spring of 1860.

Starting out as a $ 4-a-day, pick-and-shovel miner in Virginia City, Mackay soon began purchasing mining stocks and properties. In 1868, Mackay, along with James Fair, formed an alliance with San Francisco saloon owners James Flood and William O'Brien in pulling off a stock raid on the Hale & Norcross mine in which they seized control of the property.

With their profits from the Hale & Norcross the quartet added other properties to their portfolio, but it wasn't until 1873 that the entire world would hear of the "Big Bonanza" struck in the Consolidated Virginia.

Along with the California mine, also owned by the four men, the two mines produced $105 million. The four went down in history as the "Bonanza Kings," and Mackay became the richest man in the history of Virginia City.

Mackay, like other moneyed people in Virginia City at the time, made his move to San Francisco when the the Comstock mines started to play out in the late 1870s. Not content to sit on his laurels and wealth, Mackay founded the Nevada Bank of San Francisco with his partners in 1875. They had a branch office in Virginia City for about 10 years.

In 1891, the Nevada Bank was consolidated with Wells Fargo. In 1883, Mackay put up 70 percent of the capital in forming the Commercial Cable Co. with partner James Gordon Bennett. He purchased The Postal Telegraph Co. along with smaller operations in an all-out war to reduce the high telegraph rates of rival Jay Gould's Western Union.

In 1884, the cable ship Mackay-Bennett was launched and began laying cables on the Atlantic floor to make connections outside the U.S. The ship was taken out of service in 1922 and was finally scrapped in 1965, and many people today do not know of the role it played in the Titanic disaster.

Mackay's legacy will always be the benevolence he showed toward his fellow man, not the wealth he accumulated in his lifetime. He never forgot his roots and the tough times he had as a young man before the "Queen of The Comstock" bequeathed him riches she denied many others.

He was liked by rich and poor alike, because he made no class distinction in the men he dealt with, be it miner or millionaire, because he had been both. Perhaps Territorial Enterprise journalist Dan De Quille summed it up best on the dedication page of his book, "The Big Bonanza" -- To John Mackay, Esq. Prince of Miners and 'Boss' of the big bonanza is this book respectfully inscribed."


The "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit" is currently making its Los Angeles debut at the California Science Center, 700 State Park Drive, through Sept. 1. For information log on to: or call (323) 724-3623.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment