Description

    James Graham Fair and John William Mackay Letterpress Book for the Hale and Norcross Mining Company , located at the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nevada, and dating between 1873 and 1876. This is one of the most important archives of mining letters to come on the market in thirty years. The book contains over 476 manuscript letters with detailed information of one of the most important mining companies in the early 1870s. Many of the letters are multiple pages.

    The first letter in the book was written on July 25, 1873, and the final one on May 21, 1876, all by James G. Fair and John W. Mackay, two of the Big Four Bonanza Kings and owners of the Hale and Norcross Mining Company. When this Letterpress Book begins, Fair and O'Brien, maneuvering around William Sharon and his Bank of California, worked with investors to seize control of the Hale and Norcross Mine, which they developed into a tremendous profit. The same year, while exploring the consolidated Virginia and California Mine, they discovered an astoundingly rich ore body thereafter known as the Big Bonanza. Their letters were generally written every other day concerning a variety of topics. Once a week, Fair sent a detailed report to Joel Lightner, the secretary of the home office on Pine Street in San Francisco. In between those weekly letters, Fair and Mackay wrote to other recipients, sometimes ordering supplies such as dynamite, tumblers, and candles (for lighting the mine shafts). On March 5, 1873, Fair wrote notified his candle supplier that he was choosing another supplier. "I have again tested your candles and the result is again unfavorable. If you should at any time make a candle to compare with such as we are using I can assure you that I will give them a trial - and I would be very happy to send my orders to your house in preference to any others - In a letter written to you a year or more ago I called your attention to certain defects which I find still exist. I regret to be compelled to respond in favor of the Haskness Grant Brands and hope that your Managers will succeed in making a better article which they certainly ought to be able to do." The next month, John Mackay, after performing more comparisons with the candles, wrote the same supplier ("Mr. M. Morganthau" of San Francisco), "I have given this last lot of 100 Boxes a fair trial & think that for ordinary mining purposes your brand of candles is fully equal to any of the articles as imported from the Eastern manufacturers. For hot drifts I think the Haskness candles are much better as the tallow is harder and the wicks firmer [April 20, 1873]."

    Other mining implements were also ordered. According to the letters, rail cars loaded with these implements, as well as timber and other supplies, arrived and were unloaded. Bullion was loaded back onto the cars and taken to be minted in Carson City fifteen miles away. Those bullion shipments are carefully described in the letters. Many of the letters reflect the assays and values of the bullion being shipped.

    Most letters expose the mining company's process of sinking the shafts at various levels. For example, Fair wrote on July 20, 1873, that "100 feet below the 1700 foot level we have cross cut the vein from the east to the west wall, and have found no ore of value. In the south drift on the 1700 foot level no work has been done during the past week on account of insufficient ventilation. . . . On the 11' station level the drift connecting the Engine House with the main incline being timbered and two cross cuts have been started from this drift to the east. Both of these drifts are in hand blasting." On January 24, 1875, Fair notified Lightner that the most of the 2100 foot level showed "no ore of value," but the level was cool and pleasant. At the 11th station we continue to find a good seam of ore as the drift progresses south and is much more favorable than at our last report. On the 5th level the north drift is now much of the shaft 112 in feet. At this point we are making a cut to the wall with the 4th station. This tunnel is good and is passing up through a wide vein of ore 4 foot in width and of fair quality."

    Interestingly, we witness through the letters the shaft getting deeper and deeper as more and more water was pumped out. Fair writes in part to Lightner on April 27, 1873, "Since our last weekly report considerable water has been met with in cross cut No. 3 on the 1700 foot level. Some of the rock now taken out from this drift is softer than has heretofore been encountered but, all of the rock removed requires blasting. Some seams of high quality quartz is likewise to be seen in the rock. The water is so hot that is found in this drift, that extra miners have to be employed." There were other obstacles, too. Fair informs Lightner on February 2, 1873, "In the 12th station on 1700 foot level, we are continuing the north drift without intermission. The rock through which this drift is passing is very hard, all of it requiring to be blasted, this drift is passing along the west wall of the vein which is very regular as yet no water has been cut in this level. . . . The past week some good ore has been encountered in the northern descends." On "the 12th or lowest level," Fair writes on March 30, 1873, the rock was "of the very hardest character, and all of it requires the most judicious blasting to make any progress." That hard work, however, paid off when the miners found an opening that showed ore "of good quality." Other letters show that at times, the work progressed well. Mackay wrote on November 25, 1873, that "The ground lately penetrated is somewhat softer than has latterly existed and is mixed with some seams of quartz, and is much better 'sinking rock' than has heretofore been encountered."

    The Comstock Lode was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States, located under what is today Virginia City, Nevada, on the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, a peak in the Virginia Range. The excitement created was the greatest since the discovery of gold in California, just ten years earlier. Prospectors rushed to the area after the discovery was made public in 1859; mining camps quickly sprang up and fortunes were made, both contributing to the growth of Nevada and San Francisco. Many advances in mining technology were made, as excavations went to depths of more than 3,200 feet. The mines declined after 1874.

    James Fair (1831-1894), who writes most of the letters in this Letterpress Book, was a superintendent of the Hale and Norcross mine. Arriving in California after the 1849 Gold Rush, he earned a reputation as an expert on ore bodies. Fair used this knowledge in Nevada following the discovery of silver there in 1859 to gain positions as managers of various mines. He formed an alliance with the like-minded and successful John Mackay (1831-1902), a hard worker who had grown wealthy by selling his stocks in another mining company. Fair and Mackay were both born in Dublin, but that's where the similarities ended. Mackay had a reputation as a generous man whose character was not ruined by his wealth, but Fair was known as an arrogant, shady character. Together with investors James Flood and William O'Brien, the four - known as the Bonanza Kings and the Silver Kings of the Comstock - obtained control of the Hale and Norcross Mine in Virginia City, Nevada, and made it profitable with their better management. Fair and Mackay combined their expertise to acquire and explore other claims. In 1873, largely through Fair's persistent search in the Consolidated California and Virginia Mine, the partnership discovered the famed Big Bonanza, one of the richest ore bodies in history. The Silver Kings became extremely wealthy. Flood and O'Brien, also from Ireland, were junior partners and had very little to do with the actual operations of the mine in Virginia City. (Fair's share in the venture was 25%; Mackay held 37.5%; and Flood and O'Brien each had 18.75%. This division remained unchanged throughout the entire period which the Bonanza Kings operated together.) While Fair and Mackay did most of the management from Virginia City, Flood and O'Brien handled the partnership's business interests with the San Francisco banks and mining exchanges. Each soon began going his separate way. MacKay pursued a variety of other interests, including the ownership of two telegraph and postal companies. When he left the Comstock in 1895 for the last time, estimates of his wealth were as high as $100,000, making him one or the world's richest men. Four years after writing these letters, Fair, noticing that the huge profits generated on the Comstock were coming to an end, used his vast wealth to secure his election as a U.S. Senator from Nevada in 1880. In 1883, though, his wife divorced him for habitual adultery, which insured that he would lose his reelection bid in 1886.

    All 476 letters are included in the Letterpress Book, which measures 9" x 11". The board covers are worn. A portion of the spine is missing, with minor tape repairs thereat.


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