John William Mackay

John William Mackay (1831-1902), American miner and business leader, controlled the richest ground in the Comstock mining area of Nevada and founded the Postal Telegraph Company.

John William Mackay was born on Nov. 28, 1831, in Dublin, Ireland. In 1840 his family emigrated to New York City. On his father's death 2 years later, Mackay had to leave school and find employment. He worked at temporary jobs in New York and in Louisville, Ky., and for 4 years served as an apprentice to a builder of clipper ships. Caught up in the gold fever then sweeping the nation, Mackay went to California in 1851.

For 8 years Mackay labored in the diggings along the Yuba and American rivers and in the Sierra Nevada foothills. In 1860 he joined the miners going to test their luck in the new mines of the Comstock Lode in Nevada.

Mackay became a mining contractor, accepting shares in mines in exchange for driving tunnels and constructing timber shorings. When the value of these shares soared, Mackay had enough capital to broaden his activities. Realizing that as much money could be made by processing ore as by mining it, he built a profitable mill in the heart of the Gold Hill mining district. In the late 1860s he formed a partnership with James C. Flood, James G. Fair, and William S. O'Brien. Their firm soon gained control of the most valuable properties on the Comstock. Their wisdom in acquiring properties was demonstrated in 1873, when they struck the Big Bonanza, a shelf of ore that produced more than $100 million worth of gold and silver.

Mackay used his Comstock profits to broaden his business ventures. With Flood and Fair he established the Bank of Nevada, thus controlling the finances of the Comstock as well as its mining operations. Mackay also bought mines in Colorado, Idaho, and Alaska and timber lands and ranches in California. He owned part of the Spreckels Sugar Company and part of the Sprague Elevator and Electrical Works, and he served as a director of the Canadian Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads.

By the 1880s the Comstock Lode was near exhaustion. Mackay liquidated his interests. At this time the transatlantic cable was monopolized by Jay Gould. In 1883 Mackay and James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, organized the Commercial Cable Company and soon succeeded in laying a second cable across the Atlantic. The ensuing rate war between the Mackay and Gould interests resulted in a reduction of charges to a third of the established figure. When Gould attempted to cripple the Commercial Cable Company by denying it the right to use Western Union lines in the United States, Mackay consolidated numerous small telegraph companies into a new nationwide organization, the Postal Telegraph Company.

His successes induced Mackay to try to establish service between San Francisco and Manila. While the transpacific cable was being laid, its owner died in London on July 20, 1902. Mackay, ever mindful of his humble beginnings and lack of education, had remained throughout his life an unassuming man and had twice declined a seat in the U.S. Senate.


Further Reading on John William Mackay

A complete biography of Mackay is Ethel H. Manter, Rocket of the Comstock: The Story of John William Mackay (1950). Other pertinent works include Dan De Quille, The Big Bonanza (1876; rev. ed. 1947); Oscar Lewis, Silver Kings: The Lives and Times of Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O'Brien, Lords of the Nevada Comstock Lode (1947); and James W. Hulse, The Nevada Adventure: A History (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Lewis, Oscar, Silver kings: the lives and times of Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O'Brien, lords of the Nevada Comstock lode, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1986.