Magazine article Financial History

William Andrews Clark and the War of the Copper Kings

Magazine article Financial History

William Andrews Clark and the War of the Copper Kings

Article excerpt

William Andrews Clark and Marcus Daly did not like each other. If they had just been crotchety neighbors, no one would have cared about their feud, but since they were two of the most powerful businessmen in Montana, their disagreements boiled over into the realms of politics and economics and even reached into the halls of the United States Senate. What became known as the "War of the Copper Kings" would eventually bring Montana to the brink of economic disaster and tarnish its political image for decades. Although the original cause of the feud has been lost to history, it may have started innocently enough when Clark enjoyed some barbequed beef on a Friday in the fall of 1888 while he was campaigning to become Montana's territorial delegate to Congress.

Clark was initially attracted to Montana during the gold rush of 1863, when he and a partner leftthe gold fields of Colorado to mine a claim near Bannack, MT. Although a year of mining netted Clark about $1,500, he realized he could spare himself the arduous labor of placer mining and make more money by freighting goods to the mining camps. According to historian Michael Malone, Clark had "an uncanny knack for delivering the right commodities to the right place at the right time."

In 1872, Clark moved to Deer Lodge, MT, and became president of the newly-established First National Bank of Deer Lodge. An important part of the bank's business involved purchasing gold dust from local miners and reselling it in New York. Initially this was a profitable endeavor that netted about $150,000 per year but, more importantly, it introduced Clark to the financial establishment in New York.

Clark got back into mining in the summer of 1872, when he invested in four mines in the Butte area. He then spent the winter of 1872-73 studying metallurgy at the Colombia College of Mines in New York. By then Clark was prepared to offer the nation's young mining industry adequate levels of capital and excellent management. In return, the mines of Montana, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico and especially Arizona would make him one of the richest men in the world.

Meanwhile, a scrappy Irishman by the name of Marcus Daly was tapping financial resources from California in order to invest in what became known as "the richest hill on earth." The Anaconda Hill in the center of the Butte mining district contained enormous amounts of copper and would become the primary asset of Daly's Anaconda Copper Company. At first Butte seemed to be large enough to accommodate two oversized egos. The mining community was unique in Montana because the promise of riches attracted individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. For instance, Daly was an Irish Catholic who preferred to hire his fellow Irish. Clark, on the other hand, was a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian with a penchant for hiring Cornish miners. Occasional tensions erupted between different ethnic groups, but for a mining town everyone got along fairly well - until the political bug bit William Clark.

Clark was hesitant to run for the office of delegate to Congress in 1888, but after winning a unanimous nomination, he thought he would be a shoo-in as a Democrat in a state dominated by Democrats. His Republican opponent, Thomas Carter, was a largely-unknown Helena lawyer whose only asset was his Irish heritage. Although Clark was an astute businessman, his personality was not conducive to politics. A less-than-flattering 1909 description of Clark claimed, "his heart is frozen and his instincts are those of a fox; there is craftin his stereotyped smile and icicles in his handshake. He is about as magnetic as last year's bird's nest."

However, the support of the Democratic Party and Clark's huge personal fortune should have outweighed his flawed personality. But the Irish Democrats voted for Carter, who won the election. An outraged Clark wrote, "The conspiracy was a gigantic one, well-planned and well carried out, even though it did involve the violation of some of the most sacred confidences. …

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