Buried Treasure

California author Gregory Crouch digs deep into Wild West history and uncovers the untold story of an immigrant who struck it rich — in more ways than one
John Mackey
John Mackey

There’s still gold in them thar mountains, but author Gregory Crouch doesn’t recommend any one of us go and seek it out. We’re not likely to find the luck — or the loot — featured in Crouch’s new book, “The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle Over the Greatest Riches in the American West.”

“The Bonanza King” is the mostly untold story of Mackay (pronounced Mackie), an Irish immigrant and penniless mine worker who went on to become a titan of industry thanks to his 1873 discovery of the “big bonanza,” a rich ore body buried deep within a surprisingly tiny stretch of gold- and silver-packed Nevada land.

Mackay’s life story is Crouch’s version of the American dream, in which a hard-working immigrant strikes it rich, finds love and dies happy.

“His story is totally unbelievable. It’s like the ultimate American rags-to-riches story, and it has essentially been forgotten,” says Crouch, an author and historian whose previous book “China’s Wings” covered the true story of World War II-era flight between the West and China.

A mining scene in Virginia City, Nev.
A mining scene in Virginia City, Nev.

“The Bonanza King” takes a look at the Wild West’s mining history with new eyes and offers a different perspective than the one Crouch had seen time and time again in recent books about that era.

“The more modern guys are always falling in love with the whiskey and the gun smokeand the hookers with the hearts of gold and stuff like that. And it just strikes me as a humongous load of malarkey, and I thought of approaching it as much more of like a working man’s story,” Crouch says. “I mean, people came west to get rich, right? To work hard and get rich. And they did, to a certain extent. So I sort of wanted to approach it as that, a working man’s story.”

Mackay, who’d found some success after a decade of working the mines, formed a firm with partners (and fellow Irish immigrants) James Graham Fair, James Clair Flood and William S. O’Brien. Their firm bought most of both the Consolidated Virginia Silver Mine and the California Mine along the famed Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nev. When their mine struck upon the “big bonanza,” all four men became immensely wealthy, none more so than Mackay, who owned most of the company.

“It would be like digging up Apple,” Crouch says of the discovery.

That discovery poured serious money into Nevada and San Francisco, where names like Flood and Fair still are known today. But Mackay’s name can’t be found on city street signs or historic buildings. According to Crouch, that’s because, unlike his contemporaries, Mackay didn’t have an image that needed rehabilitation through philanthropy. His generosity was mostly anonymous. He married a young widow, lived a simple, albeit wildly successful, life and never found himself swept up into society shenanigans.

“He was basically a good guy,” Crouch says. “He was much beloved in his lifetime. And when he died in 1902 — he died in London — his death was announced on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle in big black banner headlines, not that much smaller than the ones that announced the Pearl Harbor attack. He was a huge, big deal.”

"The Bonanza King" by Gregory Crouch, Scribner, 2018, 480 pages, $30.
"The Bonanza King" by Gregory Crouch, Scribner, 2018, 480 pages, $30.

Crouch, currently on a book tour for “The Bonanza King,” spent the past four years working on the book, an effort he says was made possible in part by the digitization of centuries-old newspaper reports.

“None of those articles had ever been looked at by anybody, as far as I could tell — , that is, like a serious California historian,” Crouch says. “So all of a sudden, I’m drowning in good data that hasn’t really been gone over before.” 

What has been gone over before is the land beneath Virginia City. According to Crouch, there’s probably still gold and silver buried hundreds of feet in the earth, but the process of turning that rich ore into bullion is cost-prohibitive today. For Crouch, the real treasure is his opportunity to tell the story of John Mackay.

“I’m pretty confident that I’ve done a good job recreating what actually happened and, hopefully, a good job of not being that pedantic about it either,” he says, “’cause it’s a hell of a good story, and it needs to be told well.”

Gregory Crouch appears at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Tuesday, June 19 at 6pm, and at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Wednesday, June 27 at 7pm.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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