Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE BONANZA KING by Gregory Crouch


John Mackay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West

by Gregory Crouch

Pub Date: June 19th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0819-8
Publisher: Scribner

Spirited life of the 19th-century capitalist John Mackay (1831-1902).

Mackay was born in Dublin, moved with his family to the notorious Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan to flee famine at home, and saw his share of human misery. He knew how to get out of it, working endlessly, especially after his father died when he was 11. Though, as Crouch (China’s Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance, and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight, 2012, etc.) writes, his existence years after relocating to the California gold fields “was every bit as hand-to-mouth as it had been when he stepped off the boat in San Francisco.” That would change when, in partnership with other hardworking Irish immigrants, he developed the company that would work the Comstock Lode and eventually strike the biggest gold bonanza of the era, in the bargain funding the Union Army during the Civil War and turning San Francisco into a world center of finance and commerce. Money did not change him, once it came into his hands: Mackay was a “man of few indulgences, and fewer words.” Indeed, he was notably fair to his workers, notably generous, and notably free of scandal even if he did like a good scrap from time to time. “He missed having an enemy,” Crouch writes of the mature, moneyed Mackay. “The one he’d decided to make might have been the most formidable private individual on earth—Jay Gould.” Though formulaic, Crouch’s life of Mackay adds materially to the economic history of California and Nevada. It’s a sturdy work of business history as well, full of useful pointers on how to treat people and build an enduring legacy and fortune. As Crouch notes, when Mackay died, the former tenement dweller was “one of the world’s richest men” even though he probably didn’t have even a ballpark idea of his financial worth.

Admirers of scrupulous entrepreneurship will find much of value in this book.