A Head for Metals

From The Wall Street Journal:

George Hearst was famous for discovering metals—copper, silver, gold—but he liked any mineral he could pull out of the earth. New Year’s Eve 1889 found him far from his San Francisco home, in West Virginia’s coal country. “We found the coal veins all right,” said Hearst’s traveling companion, T.J. Clunie, a young California state senator. “The samples were fine, the price was low, and I expected to see Hearst snap at the offer.” But Hearst was hesitant. “I don’t like to buy a pig in a poke,” he said. “We had better crawl up and see that coal for ourselves before we discuss the price.” That meant scaling a 3,000-foot hill.

At the summit Hearst found a vein of coal, hacked out a chunk, and set it on fire. The flame sputtered and died in seconds. He tossed the lump aside and went looking for another. He found a different vein, hacked out another piece and ignited it. This one burned steadily for 10 minutes, Clunie recalled, while Hearst watched it “as a mother does her first-born.” Hearst scrambled back down the hill and bought the vein. He was 69 years old.

Stomach cancer would claim Hearst barely a year later, but as Matthew Bernstein demonstrates in “George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age,” the old miner went about his work right to the end with the same tenacity, demon energy and genius for finding what he was after that had made him one of the richest men in the American West.

Hearst was born in 1820 into modest yet comfortable circumstances in Missouri, where his father owned three small farms. Farming interested young George not at all, but when he was 15, lead was discovered near his home. The subsequent diggings fascinated him. “I think I was naturally a mineralogist,” he would write years later. “The knowledge seems to me instinctive.”

When gold was discovered in California, Hearst headed west with plenty of competition: There were perhaps 800 San Franciscans before the metal revealed itself at Sutter’s Mill. By the time Hearst arrived, in the fall of 1850, the city’s population had swelled to 25,000, with more than 100,000 hopefuls scouring the riverbeds.

Hearst joined them, and after some discouraging months seeking gold along the rivers—which were overcrowded and quickly exhausted—he turned to the mountains. By then he was looking for quartz, not because it was valuable, but because he had learned that during the volcanic birth of California’s coastal mountains, streams of molten quartz carried gold along with them and imprisoned it as they cooled.The knowledgeable prospector could crack open a stone and see within its snowy depths a gleaming yellow filling. Hearst’s friends gave him the name “Quartz George.”

Then came Washoe, part of Utah Territory at the time. Hearst had heard about silver deposits there, and bought a share of a mine. At first nobody believed that the ore he brought back to San Francisco was valuable, but finally the head of the San Francisco Mint agreed to give it a look—he offered Hearst and his associates $91,000 after costs, or about $3 million today, for what turned out to be one of the earliest extractions from the Comstock Lode. After that, the money never stopped.

Nor did Hearst. In the following decades he traveled throughout the West, sometimes coming up dry, more often not. Some 65 miles outside of Butte, Mont., in 1883, Hearst began digging at the Anaconda Mine, where “they struck a bed of pure copper. Continuing to delve, they found that the bed was thirty to forty feet wide and descended more than a thousand feet. In other words,” Mr. Bernstein writes, “it was the greatest copper strike on the planet.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)