William Sharon

Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society.

William Sharon ran the Virginia City office of the Bank of California, founded in 1864. Sharon used the financial institution to seize a monopoly of mines, mills, transportation, and raw resources.

William Sharon played an important role in early Nevada. Born in Ohio on January 9, 1821, he practiced law in St. Louis then pursued business in Illinois. With the 1849 Gold Rush, Sharon traveled to California where he engaged in business and real estate, but he lost his earnings in stock speculation.

Despite his failure, the newly formed Bank of California selected Sharon in 1864 to represent its interests on the Comstock. He arrived during a mining slump when businesses needed loans to survive. Banks were lending money at three to five percent interest per month. Sharon offered funds at two percent per month, undercutting competition. Customers flocked to the Bank of California. When loans defaulted, Sharon foreclosed on mines and mills. His mills lowered prices, taking business from his borrowers, driving even more properties into his grasp.

Within a few years, Sharon established the Bank of California as the primary Comstock monopoly. Many saw Sharon's petite, weak frame as the antithesis of the robust early period of Comstock independence. Sharon represented changing times, corporate control, and the loss of frontier honesty and self reliance. Nevertheless, his network of mills and mines could survive while exploiting poorer ores between richer discoveries. With political machinations, Sharon won state subsidies to construct his Virginia and Truckee Railroad, which efficiently transported ore to mills while returning with other goods, including lumber.

In 1872, Sharon sought to replace the aging U.S. Senator James Nye. Competitor John P. Jones, former Crown Point Mine superintendent, was more popular, so Sharon suggested Jones had set the dreadful Yellow Jacket Fire to manipulate stocks. The absurd charge failed to hurt Jones. Sharon withdrew from the race, and the state legislature elected Jones as senator.

At the same time, Sharon's monopoly was failing. Jones and an investor had seized control of the Crown Point Mine in 1871. John Mackay, James Fair, and two other Irish immigrants obtained neglected mines and discovered the famed Big Bonanza in 1873. This Bonanza Crowd, as it was known, broke the Bank of California's control. Bank founder William Ralston swam into the Pacific and drowned, but Sharon survived.

In 1874, William Stewart decided to retire from the U. S. Senate. Sharon began campaigning again. He purchased one of Virginia City's newspapers, the Territorial Enterprise, and replaced editor Joseph Goodman, who had attacked him during the 1872 election. At once, Enterprise editorials praised Sharon. Although Adolph Sutro ran with determination, Sharon outspent him and won election.

Sharon was an extraordinarily disreputable senator. Living in San Francisco, he rarely appeared in Nevada or Washington, D.C. He presented no bills, made no speeches of record, voted in less than one percent of the roll calls, and did not participate in the critical debates about silver and the monetary system. In 1881, the Bonanza Crowd purchased Sharon's senate seat for James Fair.

Sharon had married Maria Mulloy of Quebec who died in 1875. Two of their five children survived to adulthood. William Sharon, whose manipulations had earned him millions, died in 1885.

Further Reading

Michael J. Makley. The Infamous King of the Comstock, William Sharon and the Gilded Age in the West. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1906.
History of Nevada 1881. Ed. Myron Angel. Oakland, CA: Thompson and West, 1881.
Russell R. Elliott. History of Nevada. 2nd edition with the help of William D. Rowley Edition. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 1887.
Ronald M. James. The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press, 1998.
Eliot Lord. Comstock Mining and Miners. Washington, D.C.: General Printing Office, 1883.
Grant H. Smith. The History of the Comstock Lode, 1850-1920. Reno, NV: Nevada State Bureau of Mines and the Mackay School of Mines, 1943.
William (Dan De Quille) Wright. The Big Bonanza. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1876. Reprint, 1947.

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