THE BONANZA KING: JOHN MACKAY AND THE BATTLE OVER THE GREATEST RICHES IN THE AMERICAN WEST

Gregory Couch’s The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West is the first and only biography of John Mackay I’ve ever read so I can’t compare it to any others. But at least once every fortnight for forty-five years, I glanced at a statue of John Mackay (pronounced Mack’-ee) at the north end of the University of Nevada Reno’s “Quad.” Despite my being a historian, I never gave the statue much serious thought. It shows an old miner with high boots, rolled up sleeves, a pickax, and a slightly whimsical gaze.

Crouch has created a narrative arc of Mackay’s life composed of several interwoven strands. It is deeply researched, interestingly written, and contains a number of Mark Twain stories, always entertaining and hilarious no matter how many times one has read Roughing It. (If you’ve never read Roughing It, you are missing out!) Bonanza King also includes a vast amount of backstory about immigrants in NYC, the housing crisis in San Francisco in 1849, Indian wars, the mining stock exchange, banking, the intricacies of placer gold mining, and of course, ladies of the night.

One strand of Mackay’s life that Crouch is careful to identify and document is Mackay’s attitude towards and capacity for work. Crouch’s laudatory descriptions can read a bit like a Horatio Alger story and tend to fall into America’s 19th century “gospel of work” ethic. (Alger’s and Mackay’s life overlapped nearly exactly, c. 1830-1900) Still, one can only be constantly amazed by Mackay’s zest for labor whether selling newspapers as a boy in NYC or unsuccessfully placer mining in the Sierra in 1852. Well into his forties, Mackay was still mucking an ore vein more than 1500 feet below Virginia City’s surface streets. Even after his personal wealth exceeded ten million dollars, he went with his workers down that plunging, dangerous elevator every day for weeks at a time. When asked in later life what made him happiest, after he was fabulously wealthy and famous for mining, banking, and telegraphy, he told a journalist that he was always happy when he was working no matter what he was working at. There appears to be no reason to disbelieve him.

Crouch’s biography is as rich and solid as the ore veins that Mackay excelled at discovering. His writing style is lively, and it is evident that he loves western American history, particularly the Comstock. Mackay comes alive in The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West.

Now when I look at his statue on the Quad, I can imagine him doing an Irish jig around his pickax, still impassioned by the prospect of the next bonanza.   -Neal Ferguson

 Also available by Gregory Crouch: Enduring Patagonia; China’s Wings; Route Finding: Navigating with Map and Compass; Rock & Ice Goldline, Stories of Climbing Adventure & Tradition.

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