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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

William Andrews Clark (1839-1925)

Courtesy: The Library of Congress

William Andrews Clark was born on January 8, 1839, in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. As a child, young William excelled in his studies. In 1856, at the age of 17, Clark and his family moved to Iowa where he taught school and studied law.

His True Calling
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Clark discarded his Yankee roots and joined the Confederate military. After a short stint in the Confederacy, Clark deserted his post sometime in 1862 to follow what he saw as his true calling: mining. Clark moved to Colorado and later to Montana, where he and his business partners formed a mining company. He found success on a number of small claims of copper, and Clark invested his earnings into other business ventures to build a mining empire.

Supply and Demand
One of his successful ventures was the company store. Transporting wagons full of groceries from Salt Lake City to the remote mining town of Virginia City, Montana, he provided miners and their families access to much-needed goods. With such a demand, Clark sold the goods at inflated prices and made a handsome profit. When a miner's monthly salary of $4 was considered a respectable income, Clark priced eggs at $3 per dozen. But such amenities were scarce in the rural mining towns of Montana, and the miners grudgingly paid Clark's asking price.

A Mining Empire
Eventually Clark's mining empire grew to include the mills and smelters to process the minerals he extracted from his own mines. Almost completely self-sufficient, Clark became tremendously wealthy, and one of the most powerful men in Montana.

Enters Politics
When Montana achieved statehood, Clark was determined to win the newly created office of U.S. Senator. Running as a Democrat, Clark campaigned head to head against Republican candidate and rival copper baron Marcus Daly. Each magnate tried to outdo the other in an attempt to win the office, bribing politicians and purchasing newspapers to manipulate public opinion and write scandalous, negative stories about the other.

Deep Pockets
But Clark's pockets were deep, and in 1899, he "won" the seat as Montana's U.S. Senator on December 4, 1899, after reportedly shelling out more than a third of a million in bribes to members of Montana's Legislature. Unfortunately for Clark, those in Washington D.C. caught wind of Clark's tactics, and a resolution was issued to officially reject his nomination. To avoid the stain of a formal rebuke, Clark resigned his post on May 15, 1900, before the Senate could adopt the resolution.

Empty Campaign Promises
Undeterred, in 1901, Clark ran for the office again. This time, his bid was both legitimate and successful. He had campaigned for the people he knew best, promising the local miners unions an eight-hour workday and better working conditions. After winning his seat, Clark did not live up to his promises.

His Own Interests
Once in office, Clark was motivated less by a wish to serve his constituents than by his desire to improve the efficiency and profitability of his various businesses. When the issue of the creation of the Panama Canal arose, for example, Clark campaigned heavily for the construction of an alternative canal in Nicaragua, as such a route would be more beneficial to his shipping routes in the Southwest.

Greed and Acumen
Clark was not popular among his colleagues in Washington. They liked to say of him, "If you took away the whiskers and the scandal there would be nothing left." Despite his notorious greed, however, the copper baron-turned Senator possessed an uncanny ability to make well-chosen gambles on risky investment opportunities.

Finds His Way to Las Vegas
In 1902, when Clark's younger brother, J. Ross Clark, suggested the construction of a railroad from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles that would significantly cut the transportation time of his materials from his mines to factories and shipyards, Clark's interest was piqued. Locating natural springs that could provide water for the steam locomotives between the two cities convinced Clark that he had found the perfect site for a way station: Las Vegas.

Partners with E. H. Harriman
The Clarks arranged to share the stock in the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad with railroad tycoon E. H. Harriman. J. Ross Clark was placed in control of the railroad, which was completed in January 1905. They then created the Las Vegas Land and Water Company to run the town.

The Birth of a Town
Clark then went about creating a town around his new whistle stop. On May 15 and 16, 1905, 2,000 acres of land around the railroad tracks were put up for sale, with ads promising to reimburse the return train fare for any buyers. That morning, the Las Vegas Land and Water Company promised to build a depot and railroad repair shops to provide jobs. Clark auctioned off more than 600 lots; by the end of the auctions, he had made a profit of nearly 500 percent. The auction was the beginning what would one day become the most visited place in the world: the town of Las Vegas was born.

Fifth Avenue Mansion
After having established his railroad and having pocketed a tidy sum on the side, Clark lost interest in the town. He continued to serve as Montana's U.S. Senator until March 3, 1907, whereupon he returned his focus to his banking, mining and other enterprises, settling for the rest of his days in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. Boasting more than 100 rooms, a 15-foot wide marble fireplace, and an impressive collection of European art, Clark's house became known as one of the most lavish in the country.

$200 Million Dollar Legacy
On February 5, 1908, Clark County was created in Nevada. Approximately the size of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the county was named after Clark in honor of his participation in creating the town. William Clark died on March 2, 1925, at the age of eighty-six leaving his children a fortune of more than $200 million.

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