John William Mackay
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John William Mackay
John William Mackay
John William Mackay.jpg
Born (1831-11-28)November 28, 1831
Dublin, Ireland
Died July 20, 1902(1902-07-20) (aged 70)
London, UK
Cause of death Heart failure[1]
Resting place Green-Wood Cemetery
Occupation Shipbuilder, prospector, partner in Comstock Lode mines
Organization Consolidated Virginia Mining Company
Bank of Nevada
Known for Being one of the "Bonanza Kings"
Net worth US$30 million at the time of his death (approximately 1/718 of US GNP)[2]
Children Clarence Hungerford Mackay

John William Mackay (November 28, 1831 – July 20, 1902) was an Irish-American industrialist. Mackay was one of the four Bonanza Kings, a partnership which capitalised on the wealth generated by the silver mines at the Comstock Lode.

Life and career

Early years

John William Mackay was born in Dublin to a working class family, they had a dirt floor hovel shared with a pig.[3] In 1840, the family emigrated to the notorious Five Points slum in lower Manhattan; his father dying soon after. As a boy Mackay hawked newspapers such as the New York Herald, and later apprenticed at Webb Shipyard to support his mother and sister.[4]

Gold and silver mining

In 1851, he sailed by clipper around the Horn to California and worked eight years in placer gold mines in Sierra County without much success. In 1859, he went to Virginia City, Nevada, site of the recently discovered Comstock Lode, and there began work at US$6 laboring in a mine by day and working his own small claims in his spare time. He bought small claims or "feet" and used the proceeds of his labor and finds to buy more feet. In 1865 he used his savings to buy into the Kentuck mine and hit big, he was suddenly worth US$1.6 million, more than enough to retire for life.[3] He then began investing in other mines, sometimes risking everything he had. He formed a business partnership with fellow Irishmen James Graham Fair, James C. Flood, and William S. O'Brien, later known as the Bonanza Kings. The four dealt in mining stocks and operated silver mines, and had a success in the Hale & Norcross mine. In 1871, using proceeds from the Hale & Norcross they bought out a number of smaller mine claims under the name of the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company, and later added the nearby California mine. In 1873, the Con Virginia made the greatest ore body ever found in North America, known as the "Big Bonanza". The strike would pay out US$181 billion in current dollars and Mackay took about half of that. The bonanza was in a location previously overlooked and outside where other strikes had been found. The four-way partnership was more commonly known as the "Bonanza firm". With the proceeds, together they established the Bank of Nevada of San Francisco to compete with the Bank of California.[5]:144-161,186-188


In 1866, he married Marie Louise Hungerford, a native New Yorker. Snubbed by New York society, Louise moved to Paris where Mackay purchased a large mansion for her where his wealth enabled her to become a noted society hostess for two decades, entertaining royalty and throwing lavish parties.

Communications companies

In 1884, with James Gordon Bennett, Jr., Mackay formed the Commercial Cable Company, largely to fight Jay Gould and the Western Union Telegraph Company, laid two transatlantic cables, and forced the toll-rate for transatlantic messages down to twenty-five cents a word. In connection with the Commercial Cable Company, he formed in 1886 the Postal Telegraph Company as a domestic wire telegraph company so that Commercial would not need to rely on Western Union to collect and distribute telegraphic messages. Until Mackay and Bennett entered the field, all submarine cable traffic between the United States and Europe went over cables owned by the American financier Jay Gould. A rate war followed that took almost two years to conclude. Jay Gould finally quit trying to run John Mackay out of business. He was quoted as saying in reference to Mackay, "If he needs another million he will go into his silver mines and dig it out".[5]:187-188

Statue of John William Mackay in front of Mackay School of Mines building, by Gutzon Borglum dedicated June 1908

Once Mackay had conquered the Atlantic with the Commercial Cable Company and North America with the Postal Telegraph Company he turned his sights to laying the first cable across the Pacific. He subsequently formed the Commercial Pacific Cable Company in secret partnership with the Great Northern Telegraph Company and the Eastern Telegraph Company. Although he died in 1902 before his vision was completed, his son Clarence Mackay, saw the project through to completion between 1904 and 1906. Commercial Pacific operated a cable line from San Francisco to Manila, Philippines, via Hawaii and Guam, with a subsequent spur that went from Manila to Shanghai, China.

The Mackay System expanded under Clarence H. Mackay's leadership, acquiring several other entities including the Federal Telegraph Company, its radio stations and research laboratories, in 1927. In 1928, the entire system was bought out by Sosthenes Behn's International Telephone and Telegraph. ITT organized the Postal Telegraph & Cable Corporation as a shell to acquire and control the Mackay System on May 18, 1928.[6] Though plagued with financial troubles during the Great Depression, the Mackay System continued to be the chief rival of Western Union until 1943. In March of that year, Congress authorized an amendment (Section 222) to the Communications Act of 1934 permitting the merger of the domestic operations of telegraph companies (clearing the way for Western Union to acquire Postal Telegraph). By May 1943 a merger plan had been put together, which the FCC approved by September, and the merger was completed by October 1943. The international communications (cable and radio) parts of the Mackay System remained with ITT.

Other ventures

In addition to the Bank of Nevada and the communications companies, Mackay held interests in 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 Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad.


Mackay was famous for fair dealings with his employees, and gave generously, especially to the charities of the Roman Catholic Church, and endowed the Catholic orphan asylum in Virginia City, Nevada. In June 1908 the Mackay School of Mines building was presented to the University of Nevada, as a memorial to him, by his widow and his son, Clarence H. Mackay. A statue of John Mackay by Gutzon Borglum stands in front of the Mackay Mines building on the university campus in Reno, Nevada.


Mackay died of heart failure on July 20, 1902, in London. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn; his mausoleum was described in 2018, by Scribner Associate Editor Sarah Goldberg, as "by far the most impressive mausoleum in the cemetery, atop a shady hill".[7] The mausoleum was originally created for Mackay's oldest son, John, Jr., who died in a horse riding accident in 1895. Mackay never fully overcame his grief and was entombed with his son seven years later.



  • Gregory Crouch (2018). The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West. Scribner.
  • Ethel H. Manter (1950). Rocket of the Comstock: The Story of John William Mackay.
  • Dan De Quille (1876). The Big Bonanza. American Publishing Company.
  • Oscar Lewis (1947). Silver Kings: The Lives and Times of Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O'Brien, Lords of the Nevada Comstock Lode.
  • James W. Hulse (1965). The Nevada Adventure: A History.
  • C. B. Glasscock (1931). The Big Bonanza: The Story Of The Comstock Lode. The Bobbs-Merrill Company.


  1. ^ "John W. Mackay dies in London", The New York Times, New York, New York, July 21, 1902
  2. ^ Klepper, Michael; Gunther, Michael (1996), The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates--A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present, Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, p. xii, ISBN 978-0-8065-1800-8, OCLC 33818143
  3. ^ a b Patrick Cooke (July 5, 2018). "'The Bonanza King' Review: The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2018.
  4. ^ Gregory Crouch (2018). The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West. Scribner.
  5. ^ a b Smith, G.H., 1943, The History of the Comstock Lode, 1850-1997, Reno: University of Nevada Press, ISBN 1888035048
  6. ^ Robert Sobel, ITT: The Management of Opportunity (Beard Books, 2000): 59-60.
  7. ^ Gregory Crouch (June 3, 2018). "Final resting place of THE BONANZA KING". website of author Gregory Crouch. Retrieved 2018.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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