Unlike the other one-percenters of his age, John Mackay gained his countrymen’s admiration. But in an ironic twist, it means he’s little known today
John Mackay’s was once the most beloved rags-to-riches story in America. A penniless Irish immigrant brought to New York City as a child, he’d risen from the infamous Five Points, the nation’s most notorious slum.
When Mackay sailed from New York en route to California in 1851, he had no name, no money, and not a single influential friend on earth. He’d possessed nothing but strong arms, a clear head, and a legendary capacity for hard work. In the eyes of the times, his road to riches had made no man poorer, and few begrudged him his success.
But in part because of his likability and unsullied reputation, John Mackay is mostly forgotten today. In contrast to titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie or railroad magnate and telegraph cable monopolist Jay Gould, who Mackay would famously defeat, Mackay commanded the admiration of people worldwide.
The headlines he made generally glowed with admiration, he never abused the public’s trust, his personal style remained unostentatious, and he kept his many philanthropic endeavors quiet.
During the California Gold Rush, Mackay mined for eight years without ever making “a raise,” as miners termed a big strike, but he enjoyed the rough, outdoor existence and the companionships of his fellows without the complications and responsibilities of later years. He also worked as hard as humanly possible—in later years, a man who worked alongside him in the diggings said, “Mackay worked like the devil and made me work the same way.”
He didn’t have a nickel to his name when he arrived on what soon became known as the Comstock Lode in what was then the western Utah Territory (present day Nevada), so he did what he’d always done—he pushed up his sleeves and went to work. He started as a common hand in somebody else’s mine at $4 per day.
Over the next several years, he worked his way up from nothing, doing what any other man would have considered two full days of hard labor crammed into every single day, working one full shift for the $4 he needed to survive and another in exchange for “feet,” meaning a share in the mine’s ownership, for each mine was divided up into so-many “feet” on the lode, and each foot represented one share.
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