Copper Kings

The stories of the Copper Kings are stories of Gilded Age ambition, impossible wealth, and devious political machinations. They are the stories of Butte, of Montana, and of the country. William A. Clark came to Montana on the cusp of the gold rush. He quickly found that he could make more money selling things to miners than he could mining, and made the beginnings of his fortune shipping goods to Bannack from Salt Lake. From trading he went into banking, and from there to the silver mines of Butte. In the Butte silver mines, he had an early competitor in the form of Marcus Daly.

Marcus Daly

An Irish immigrant, Daly moved from Salt Lake to Butte in 1876 to work as the agent for the Walker Brothers mining company. By the end of the 1870s, the silver was drying up in Butte, and many mines were closing down. Daly however, a skilled geologist and engineer, knew that Butte held enormous lodes of copper ore, and sensed that, because of Edison’s recent invention of the light bulb, the world was ripe for a copper boom. So he quietly bought up the Anaconda and surrounding mines and in the 1880s launched the Anaconda Mining Company, which initiated the copper boom, and turned Butte into the “richest hill on earth.”

Daly and Clark vied for supremacy for the next twenty years. The two fierce competitors held interests not just in mining, but also in railroads, manufacturing, and lumber in Montana and across the U.S. Daly even created a town—Anaconda—to support his smelter outside of Butte. In 1894 one of several political battles took place as the new state of Montana tried to name a state capital. Daly petitioned for Anaconda, but Clark, knowing that Anaconda would put the capital entirely in Daly’s pocket, supported Helena’s bid. The ensuing pamphlet campaign makes for delightful reading, and both Helena-ites and Anacondans lambasted the other with stereotype after stereotype. Helena eventually gained the title in a highly controversial election, and both Clark and Daly proved more than capable of exerting their influence in Helena nearly as effectively as if the capital had been in Butte itself.

William Clark

In 1899, Clark sought to further his political ambitions by buying his way into the U.S. Senate. Because of the obvious corruption, the Senate refused to seat him. In 1901, he won another Senate race (more or less) fairly, and served Montana, and himself, as a Senator until 1907.

Clark and Daly’s feud often split the state on already contentious fracture lines. Clark had English Protestant heritage, while Daly was an Irish Catholic immigrant, and both men leaned heavily on religious and national divisions. Despite his absurd wealth and power, Daly also managed keep a working class air about him, and focussed most of his attention on Montana, while Clark seemed more standoffish and had ambitions across the States. Even today, although Montanans are deeply ambivalent about both men, Daly seems to have the better reputation. This despite the fact that in 1899, Daly sold his vast company to members of Standard Oil for $39 million. It didn’t help that Mark Twain (who was friendly with one of Clark’s industrialist rivals) called Clark “a rotten human being” and the worst kind of Gilded Age capitalist.

Augustus Heinze

In 1894, a new rival appeared on the scene. New Yorker F. Augustus Heinze, the son of immigrants and with an impressive engineering education, established a copper smelter
to challenge Daly. He worked hard to become a hero to the miners—by, for example, reducing the working day from 10 to 8 hours—and a upstart challenger Amalgamated Copper, but he was also a wily political operator. The law of apex stated that miners could follow a vein that originated on their property even if it went onto someone else’s property, and Heinze exploited that law to its maximum. In 1903 Hienze’s miners followed a vein into an Amalgamated mine, and managed to extract 100,000 tons of ore before Amalgamated tried to stop him. There was what can only be described as a pitched battle underground, as the Hienze and Amalgamated miners fought hand to hand, planted grenades, fouled tunnels with caustic lime, tried to smoke each other out by burning rubber, attacked each other with high pressure hoses, and collapsed tunnels with dynamite. Amalgamated eventually decided it was easier to buy Heinze out, and so he sold his Butte interests in 1906 and moved to New York, where he became a powerful financial speculator. His schemes with his brothers in New York are said to have caused the Financial Panic on 1907 and to have led to the creation of the US Federal Reserve.