He left his name to Clark County, and built one of the West’s more important railroads. He won fights with copper bosses and railroad robber barons. It took him perhaps 10 years to build Montana’s largest fortune and not much longer to build one of America’s largest business empires.
Born in a log cabin, he built America’s most extraordinary mansion and gathered an important collection of European paintings.
Yet within a few years of William A. Clark’s death, his empire was dismantled, his mansion razed, and in today’s history, he is remembered most often for buying a seat in the U.S. Senate than for all his successes.
Clark was a gifted public speaker, but privately close-mouthed. Driven apparently by plain greed, Clark had such a Midas touch that gold rubbed off the corners of his operations, enriching people who didn’t even know him.
He was born in Pennsylvania in 1839, the son of Scotch-Irish parents. When he was 17, the family moved to Iowa as homesteaders. A bright student, Clark taught school and went to law school, but never practiced.
Despite roots in Yankee Pennsylvania, Clark served the Confederate side in the Civil War. How he took his leave from an army that shot deserters, he never said. But by 1862 he was out of the South, sinking a mineshaft into the hard rock of Bob Tail Hill, Colo.
Hearing of new claims in Montana, Clark and his partners headed north, and made a small stake in a claim near Bannack.
Most prospectors who struck a little paydirt either blew it on high living or grubstaking another prospecting trip. But Clark recognized that capital, invested in a developing country, could turn a profit as fast, as large, and far more certain than panning for gold.
Journeying to Salt Lake City, he brought a wagonload of groceries back to Virginia City, Mont., and sold out immediately. The highest profits were on eggs.
“I bought case after case,” he said later. “I knew they would be frozen, but they were suitable for making Tom & Jerrys.” The cold-weather beverage was a favorite in Montana bars, and he sold the eggs for $3 a dozen — at a time when miners on Nevada’s Comstock, earning $4 a day, were called the highest-paid working men in America.
When a tobacco shortage loomed, he raced to Salt Lake City for a wagonload of plug-cut and twist and made another killing.
Always, he seized opportunities to provide support services to a mining economy. He became a mail contractor. He opened a mercantile in partnership with a St. Louis merchant.
Gold dust was accepted as currency in Montana, but it was unhandy. So every Sunday morning, when miners were paid, Clark showed up with cash to buy dust at $18 an ounce.
By 1872 Butte was in decline. Dust and nuggets had been panned out. There was plenty of gold left, but it was locked up in quartz ore, and there was no mill to process it. Clark bought quartz claims cheap. Finally, somebody else built a mill, but lost it in foreclosure. Clark got it, and made a fortune milling the ore of others. His own claims became doubly valuable to the man who owned the mill and didn’t charge himself.
There were other men of vision in Montana, and one was Marcus Daly. He partnered with mining magnate George Hearst to buy a silver claim called the Anaconda.
The silver prospects proved unfounded, but miners uncovered a seam of copper 50 feet wide — biggest ever found, and the basis of the great Anaconda Copper Company.
When Daly wanted to build a smelter, he found that Clark had secretly bought all the readily available water rights necessary to operate it.
Thus Clark created an able and unforgiving enemy.
In 1888 Clark sought a territorial seat in Congress on the Democratic ticket. Daly, one of four men who controlled the Democratic Party in Montana, supported a Republican.
In 1893, after Montana became a state, Clark and Daly ran for the U.S. Senate, but neither could achieve a majority in the state Legislature, which elected senators in those days, and Montana simply did without a senator.
In 1898, masked men tried to steal the ballot box in one precinct; two election officials were shot down. One died. Who ordered the raid was never proved, but when the ballots were counted there were 307 for Daly’s candidates and only 17 for Clark’s.
In 1899 Clark simply tried to buy the Legislature. More than one 19th-century senator had done so, including a couple who represented Nevada, but Clark got caught red-handed when a legislator dumped $30,000 before his fellow members and declared it had been advanced to him and three others for their votes. Members called for a grand jury.
Clark was able to explain away even this steaming, stinking evidence, claiming the money had been planted by Daly to discredit him. The men he had bought regained their nerve, if not their ethics, and elected Clark senator.
His closest political adviser, however, was convicted of bribery.
Upon journeying to Washington, Clark realized the Senate would not recognize his election. He made a marvelous speech, graciously resigning from the seat. By doing so, he created a vacancy. The governor of Montana, who didn’t like Clark, was out of the state. The lieutenant governor hastened 800 miles to get within the borders of Montana and appoint Clark.
The furious governor rescinded the appointment and named his own man, but the Senate refused to seat either. And the sordid episode became one of the final straws that led to a constitutional amendment mandating popular election of senators.
Clark won a Senate seat, more or less legitimately, in 1901, with the help of a miners’ union. He promised to legislate an eight-hour day for mines, mills and smelters; a law which would permit a worker to sue a company for damages caused by a co-employee’s negligence; and one permitting employees to shop where they liked instead of being required to patronize over-priced company stores.
These promises he did not keep.
He did surprisingly little with the position.
He did try to maintain the policy allowing timber to be cut from public lands without payment, ostensibly for mining development. Clark and many others built lumber empires this way.
He believed the United States should cede all federal lands to the states.
He also fought for a Nicaraguan canal route instead of one through Panama. He thought the canal could be built more quickly there. He wanted the canal open quickly because new business in the ports of Southern California would affect the success of his new railroad — the railroad that would turn Las Vegas from a ranch into a prosperous little roundhouse town.
Clark had more than one reason for building the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake line. It would shorten the distance between his Montana mines and a seaport by 663 miles. It would open the mineral country of Utah. And Mary Montana Farrell, who wrote a master’s thesis on Clark, believed the project appealed to “his imagination as a means of leaving behind him an imperishable monument to himself as one of the great developers of the west … another ’empire builder.’ ”
Much of the credit for the railroad, however, should go to the senator’s younger brother, J. Ross Clark.
While William Clark financed the railroad, documents donated to UNLV Special Collections in 1979 suggest Ross saw the opportunity first. Certainly he built the railroad, and acted as president of the Las Vegas & Tonopah, one of the main line’s feeder routes. Walter Bracken, who looked after the railroad’s land-development subsidiary after the road was built, reported to him.
J. Ross Clark was rail thin and 6 feet tall, towering over his senatorial brother, who was 11 years his senior. Ross Clark was an able banker and mining man in his own right. Poor health drove him to Los Angeles in 1892. His health improved, and he settled in. In 1896 the two brothers bought thousands of acres in Los Angeles County, planted sugar beets and built a factory to process them, introducing a new industry.
Los Angeles’ major ambition in those days was a railroad to Salt Lake City, but the field was littered with the slain pocketbooks of those who had tried to finance this dream. The Union Pacific had failed twice.
But the Clark brothers, who owned their enterprises personally, from the president’s private car to the janitor’s broom, had the money to do it.
At a banquet thrown in honor of the new venture, J. Ross Clark assured guests “that this has been entered upon as an independent project … It is not the thought, much less the intention of any of the proprietors … that it shall ever become the part of any existing railway.”
It was the first of many Clark denials to widespread reports their railroad would be controlled by the same chummy interests who already overcharged for freight. Particularly feared was E.H. Harriman, who had rebuilt the bankrupt Union Pacific by rapid, ruthless expansion.
After one of the earlier attempts, the Union Pacific abandoned a section of completed grade, and Nevada’s Lincoln County reclaimed it for nonpayment of taxes. Clark bought this grade in 1900 and started construction. However, Harriman tried to reclaim the grade through the Oregon Short Line, which he controlled.
A yellowed news clipping in the J. Ross Clark papers shows what happened next.
“Sunday the Short Line people arrived at … the terminus of their line, with rails, ties, wagons and men, and commenced to lay track on the old grade. Late in the afternoon C.O. Whittemore, chief attorney for the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad, arrived and at once proceeded to the grade in Lincoln County, and put men and teams to work with a view to holding the grade … when (the Short Line workers) attempted to cross the line, Whittemore and his force with uplifted shovels beat the men and teams back.”
A compromise was reached in July 1902, giving each side half the stock in the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, but the Clarks were to retain control.
The final spike was driven home on Jan. 30, 1905, at a point about 4 1/2 miles from Jean.
Harry C. Carr, correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily Times, recorded the event. “Had it not been for the wife of General Manager Wells, it all would have been as devoid of sentiment as buying stale bread. She sent on a tiny spike of gold, not larger than a man’s thumb nail. After (a regular workman) had the last rail whacked into place, Mr. Tilton (the chief engineer) guiltily fished the gold trinket out of his vest pocket, and punched it into the last tie.” Exactly 70 years later, the state of Nevada would place a historic marker on this site.
The Clark railroad purchased land for a townsite from the Las Vegas Ranch. But a surveyor, J.T. McWilliams, obtained about 80 acres of land west of the railroad tracks and laid out his own townsite.
J. Ross Clark warned that all water in the area was controlled by the railroad and would be unavailable to the upstart town. He “deplored the matter, especially when it is taken into consideration that … those who have been induced to purchase lots with visions of a boom belong to a class who cannot afford to throw money away.”
The wording was carefully designed to brand the McWilliams townsite as a future slum.
The Clarks tried to deal fairly when laying out their own townsite for Las Vegas proper. They advertised lots at specific prices, and accepted applications and down payments, implying sales on a first-come, first-served basis.
But at the last moment, with buyers on the scene ready to build, Ross Clark received a telegram from W.H. Bancroft, who represented the Harriman interests in the partnership. Bancroft wished to exploit the unexpected demand by selling the lots at auction, instead of the advertised prices.
Ross Clark wired back that to do so would be impossible, as deposits had been accepted on most lots.
Back to Clark hummed the reply: “Auction or nothing. Bancroft.”
Deposits were returned, and lots sold to the highest bidders.
The Clarks tried to diversify the economy, employing men to prospect for gypsum and other minerals, helping found Home Building & Loan Association in 1905, and First State Bank.
But the biggest economic opportunity was in the freight and passenger business to the emerging mining region of central Nevada and the promising camps of Rhyolite, Beatty, Goldfield and Tonopah.
Francis E. “Borax” Smith realized a spur heading that way would pass near his Death Valley borax claims, liberating him from the 20-mule teams which contributed more romance than profit.
By the time Smith had built his own railroad grade nearly to Corn Creek (near the Lee Canyon turnoff ) the Clarks decided they wanted to control this northbound spur.
“First they started charging Smith high rates to haul roadbuilding materials … contrary to all railroad practice,” said rail historian Art Rader. “If somebody is building a feeder line to your railroad, you give him a big discount.” They also started a motor stage line to Rhyolite, which would compete for passenger business.
Ultimately the Clarks forced Smith out, and began building the feeder line themselves. Borax Smith built a rival railroad from Ludlow, Calif.
The Clarks’ railroad would be called the Las Vegas & Tonopah, but the Tonopah connection was merely implied; the Clarks never quite said they would actually reach Tonopah. They stopped building at Goldfield.
But it was a big day when the railroad arrived in Beatty. Here’s what one journalist reported then:
“The entire population was on hand with dynamite bombs, sky rockets, and hurrahs … The corks popped, men threw their arms round each other and shouted their joy at the final coming of the railway that linked the great little camp to the outside world.”
After that moment, however, the Clark popularity declined. Forced to testify before the Interstate Commerce Commission, J. Ross Clark would admit that neither he nor Sen. Clark made the decisions that really mattered. When it came to deciding which towns got spur lines, or setting freight rates, the notorious Harriman called the shots.
This testimony helped break Harriman’s railroad trust.
Although the Union Pacific bought out the Clarks’ interests in 1921, J. Ross Clark would remain involved in Las Vegas affairs almost until his death in 1927.
William Clark would not concern himself closely with Las Vegas or the railroad. In 1907, Clark essentially quit living in Montana.
He set up headquarters in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York. He tried to build the finest house in America, buying entire quarries and a bronze foundry to assure first-class material. There were more than 100 rooms, excluding servants’ quarters. There were original Gothic tapestries. The main banquet room had a marble fireplace 15 feet across and was roofed with wood from Sherwood Forest; a breakfast room had 200 carved panels, none of the same design.
Clark filled this mansion with paintings gathered in Europe.
The home would remain his castle until he died there on March 2, 1925, at the age of 86.
Clark had married a childhood friend, Katherine Stauffer, in 1869. By 1878 Katherine and their children lived in Europe most of the time, and Clark commuted across the Atlantic every winter. Katherine died in 1893.
Shortly after her death, Clark became the sponsor of a young aspiring actress named Eugenia LaChapelle. She became pregnant in 1901, the year he was elected senator, and again in 1903. In 1904, Clark and LaChapelle announced a “secret” marriage in 1901, antedating the conception of their first child. But no record of this marriage has been found, and most think it was a face-saving fiction.
Clark left her $2.5 million in his will.
His children, by Katherine, would inherit an estate worth $200 million in 1925 dollars. By 1935 they had sold the assets, divided the proceeds and gone separate ways.
His art collection eventually went to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.
The magnificently ostentatious house was razed three years after Clark’s death. The New Republic questioned the loss: “The Clark house was a scandal even more than it was a joke … Decent people were indignant and considered it an affront to the city and to themselves. But time has consecrated its ugliness and it is almost an act of vandalism to tear it down … It should be presented to the city as a permanent curiosity … as a monument to one of the strangest of millionaires, as a crystallization of the pioneer imagination, a reminder of our recent past, a treatise on copper, and a tribute to the state of Montana.”
Part I: The Early Years
Part II: Resort Rising
Part III: A City In Full