William Andrews Clark

views updated May 23 2018

William Andrews Clark

The American copper entrepreneur and politician William Andrews Clark (1839-1925) was a key figure in forging statehood for Montana.

William Andrews Clark was born on Jan. 8, 1839, near Connellsville, Pa. He was educated in private academies in Pennsylvania and in Iowa, and after a short stint as a schoolmaster in Missouri, he studied law at Iowa Wesleyan College. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Clark enlisted in an Iowa regiment. Discharged in 1862, he moved to Colorado Territory.

Although Clark's career in Colorado was brief, it was productive, for it was his experience in the mines of the Central City district that brought into focus his lifelong obsession with the accumulation of wealth and political power. In 1863, attracted by the opportunities a new frontier offered an ambitious young man, Clark left Colorado for Montana. From a lucky strike in a claim near Bannack, he extracted $1500 worth of gold, which became the nucleus of an immense fortune.

Over the next few years Clark alternated between mining during the spring and summer and merchandising during the fall and winter. A typical frontier entrepreneur, he operated stores at several mining camps, lent money to men needing a grubstake, sold timbers to the miners, and operated a mail route between Missoula, Mont., and Walla Walla, Wash. In 1867 he formed a partnership to engage in wholesaling. He then established a bank at Deer Lodge in 1870 and at Butte in 1877.

Mining King

In 1872 Clark had set up headquarters in the booming mining town of Butte. He purchased several mines. Realizing that the day of the untrained independent prospector was ending and that the time for scientific mining was dawning, he spent a year at Columbia University School of Mines. Back in Butte he built the Old Dexter mill and organized the Colorado and Montana Smelting Company. But he always sought to diversify his holdings, and soon he founded a newspaper, the Butte Miner, and went into lumbering, farming, and ranching. In Butte he established the city waterworks and a streetcar line. He also built, and for a time operated, the San Pedro, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake Railroad, later sold to the Union Pacific.

Branching out from Montana, Clark established the Los Alamitos Sugar Corporation in Los Angeles and bought the United Verde copper prospect in Arizona. A significant aspect of Clark's business techniques was his refusal to become deeply involved in any commercial enterprise unless he could own it in its entirety.

Political Aspirant

In 1884, when Montanans sought unsuccessfully to win statehood, Clark served as president of an abortive constitutional convention. Four years later he ran as a Democrat for the post of territorial delegate to Congress. To Clark's astonishment he lost by 5,000 votes to Thomas H. Carter, a virtually unknown Republican. Clark had failed to carry either the mining towns or the lumbering districts, both nominally Democratic and areas he had considered safe. With justification Clark attributed his loss to the machinations of Marcus Daly, the founder of the Anaconda Company, a potent rival of Clark's in the copper business. Thus began a political struggle that eventually placed virtually every Montana voter in the camp of either one man or the other.

In 1889, Clark was again chosen as president of a Montana constitutional convention. He was instrumental in incorporating a clause in the constitution fixing the maximum tax rate for mining property at the price paid to the Federal government for a claim. This meant that a claim worth millions could not be assessed at more than $5. Clark ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1889 and 1893.

Elusive Senatorial Seat

Clark made yet another attempt to capture his long-cherished senatorial post in 1899. The moment seemed auspicious because the Democrats had captured control of the state legislature. After an 18-day contest the legislators chose Clark. Immediately, political foes in and out of his party charged that the election had been won by bribery. Although Clark freely admitted spending several hundred thousand dollars to elect legislators favorable to his political ambitions, he stubbornly denied any involvement in corrupt electoral practices. A grand jury refused to indict him, and he proceeded to Washington, D.C. There Thomas H. Carter, now a senator, introduced petitions from Montana citizens demanding that Clark be denied his seat. After a lengthy hearing, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections recommended unanimously that Clark be unseated.

Not yet willing to give up the fight, Clark waited until Governor Robert B. Smith was out of Montana on business and then sent a letter of resignation to Lieutenant Governor A. E. Spriggs, one of Clark's political henchmen. Spriggs immediately appointed Clark to fill the vacancy caused by his own resignation. A travesty of the political process was prevented only by the timely arrival of Governor Smith, who nullified the appointment and sent a replacement for Clark to Washington.

In 1901 Clark was finally elected to the Senate. He served one term (1901-1907) and distinguished himself only in a negative way, by opposing all measures designed to further the conservation of forest and mineral lands.

After leaving the Senate, Clark moved permanently to New York City. He devoted his last years to assembling a fine collection of art, now part of the collection of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. Clark died in New York City on March 2, 1925, the last of the West's great copper kings.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Clark, but a family history appears in William D. Mangam, The Clarks: An American Phenomenon (1941). Other books containing important material on Clark include C. B. Glasscock, The War of the Copper Kings (1935); Joseph Kinsey Howard, Montana: High, Wide, and Handsome (1943); and K. Ross Toole, Montana: An Uncommon Land (1959).

Additional Sources

William Andrews Clark, Jr., his cultural legacy: papers read at a Clark Library seminar, 7 November 1981, Los Angeles (2520 Cimarron St., Los Angeles 90018): William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, 1985.