A Classification of American Wealth
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  Chronicles of American Wealth / Nr 8 / October 4, 2002 

<<  List of chronicles   

Content :
1 -
Now Online : Chapter 7 – The Mining Bonanza Kings
2 - A profile of William Sharon : King of the Comstock

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NOW ONLINE : The Mining Bonanza Kings

The California Gold Rush started the epic of that state some 153 years ago, after a few nuggets of the heavy yellow metal were found near the saw mill of John August Sutter, a Swiss emigrant and Mexican citizen, who had hoped to establish an agricultural wonderland in the area of present days Sacramento. 500’000 hopefuls followed the call of California’s Mother Lode, traveling be sea and by land to participate in the quest for gold, as placer miners, merchants or suppliers. Some of these men made a fortune, particularly those who converted to merchandising and banking. But the real bonanza, which created the far greater Californian fortunes took place some 20 years later and was based upon a less valuable metal mined in the arid dirt of Western Nevada : on the Comstock Lode.

The silver riches of the Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859, as some astute miners started to question the composition of the heavy bluish dirt that so disturbed them, when washing out gold on the Washoe river, near Mount Davidson. It’s history is characterized by a series of booms and busts, otherwise called “Bonanzas” and “Borrascas”, mirroring the situation of its major mines, in the middle of a rich silver vein or surrounded by barren rock. The first Comstock Bonanza lasted from 1859-64 and supported Nevada’s admission to the Union. During the intermediate years of 1865-73, the Comstock lacked a major find, though it did produce considerable wealth, notably to the principals of the Bank of California, who seized the opportunity of failing enterprises to foreclose their properties and build a monopoly for milling, transportation and supplies. Then came the second and biggest bonanza. James Graham Fair, John William Mackay, James Clair Flood and William S. O’Brien discovered the main silver vein at 1’200 feet below earth on their Consolidated Virginia and California properties. They were multi-millionaires overnight and yet, they could heave easily failed like so many before them …

Read more about the silver kings of Nevada or other wealthy Americans of the past and their families at
 “A Classification of American Wealth”.

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Profile of a Bonanza King : William Sharon

William Sharon ( 1821-1885 ) , Virginia City, Nevada and San Francisco, California

Parents :  William Sharon and  Susanna Kirk
Married :  Maria Malloy (d.1875)
Children :  Clara Adelaide (Sharon) Newlands (1854-1882)
                 
 ‘Lady' Florence Emily (Sharon) Fermor-Hesketh (1858-1924)
                    Frederick William Sharon (1862-1915)

Fortune :   10 000 000    $  1884

Activity  : Banking and Mining / Real Estate
Main property :  Bank of California Branch in Virginia City and associated properties such as
                            Union Mills & Mining Company, Virginia & Truckee Railroad, etc.
                             San Francisco real estate 

Politics and public offices : U.S. Senator of Nevada (1875-81)

William Sharon was the descendant of English Quakers who settled in Pennsylvania in the very beginning of the colony. His father was a prosperous farmer who sent William to Athens College and later enabled him to study law under Edwin Stanton. He was admitted to Bar in St. Louis and later engaged in mercantile activities with his elder brother at Carrolton, Illinois. In 1849, when the California gold fever reached Illinois, William Sharon was affected and left with a group including J. D. Fry, his longtime friend and mentor. The group came to California on the Oregon Trail and incidentally crossed the Sierra in the vicinity of Mount Davidson, where Sharon would years later make his fortune. In California, William Sharon engaged in the mercantile trade and invested into San Francisco real estate. From these activities he made a small fortune of some $150'000, which he mostly lost in 1862, through untimely speculations in Comstock mining properties. Thanks to the intervention of his friend, J. D. Fry, whose daughter had married William C. Ralston, Sharon was hired to head the new branch of the Bank of California in Virginia City. A strong believer in the coming Comstock Bonanza, William Sharon used the ample funds at his disposal to finance as many mining, milling or supply enterprises as he could. He was backed in this bold policy by Ralston, the Bank of California’s active vice president and cashier. Through buyouts and foreclosures, the Ralston-Sharon team and their Bank of California became the dominant factors on the Comstock Lode. They organized the Union Mill & Mining Company, took over the Virginia & Gold Hill Water Company and founded the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. By 1870, William Sharon was the undisputed King of the Comstock. He was dethroned a few years later by the successful group of Virginia City miners and San Francisco stockbrokers known as the Irish Big Four : Mackay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien. After William Chapman Ralston failed and drowned in 1875, Sharon got control of his estate and helped Darius Ogden Mills re-launch the Bank of California. William Sharon took over Ralston’s Palace Hotel and also “Belmont”, his palatial mansion. He then invested his fortune in San Francisco real estate and thereby considerably increased it. William Sharon served a term in the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Nevada. His large fortune was inherited by a son, a daughter and the children of a pre-deceased daughter.

Read more about William Sharon and his role in the silver bonanza of the Comstock Lode at
A Classification of American Wealth” or browse “Encyclopedia of American Wealth” for more
 profiles of wealthy Americans and their families.

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