The absent legacy of Montana’s most successful Copper King
Charges of election fraud in 2020 have nothing on Montana’s 1899 election fraud that briefly sent Copper King William Andrews Clark to the U.S. Senate before a massive bribery scandal was exposed, which eventually led to the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, mandating the direct election of U.S. Senators.
While no evidence of fraud was found in the 2020 election, the 1899 election for one of Montana’s Senate seats in Washington, D.C., had envelopes stuffed with cash, and preserved in the National Archives.
It also led Clark to eventually declare, “I have never bought a man who isn’t for sale.”
The U.S. Senate would refuse to seat Clark, after a wild debacle that included luring the governor out of state, and Senate hearings that would produce volumes upon volumes of evidence showing bribery and counter-bribery back in Helena.
After being rebuffed by the U.S. Senate, Clark made another attempt at the Senate in 1901, when he won the position he craved, serving one rather undistinguished term before moving on to collecting art and more wealth. When Clark died in 1925, his fortune would have been worth more than $5 billion in today’s dollars, making him one of the richest men in an era of robber barons and titans of capital.
The only accomplishment of note during his Senatorial stint was the byproduct of Clark’s own greed. Craving a railroad between Salt Lake and his California properties, the Copper King helped usher in a railroad that ran across Nevada. There was a little water around a town he planned as a rail stop-over called “Las Vegas.” Today, the county, Clark, is named after him.
Keith Edgerton, who recently retired from leading the history department at Montana State University-Billings, has been studying and writing about Clark for years. He hopes his post-teaching work will include a biography of the steely-eyed Clark, the man who arrived in Butte before his arch rivals and outlasted them all.
“He craved adulation and lacked charisma,” Edgerton said. “The only thing he loved more than money, it was said, was women.”
That led to a spate of scandalous paternity lawsuits after Clark’s first wife had died. Montanans would read about those legal troubles in newspapers Clark didn’t own, but he created another sensation when he married a young woman from Butte whom he had sent off to Paris to study the harp. Anna LaChappelle was 39 years younger than Clark, and they claim to have been wed in 1901 in Europe, although the news of the marriage didn’t become public until 1904.
At a lecture series named in Edgerton’s honor last week, he gave the inaugural lecture on the mining magnate whose mark on Butte will never be erased, but whose fantastic wealth, largely drawn from copper mining there, left virtually nothing charitable or philanthropic in the Treasure State.
“These (Copper Kings) pulled all the wealth out of the earth, and then wrote a constitution where they paid Montana virtually nothing for it,” Edgerton said.
While Clark’s tenacity and his ability to make a dollar preceded him before becoming a Copper King, his life was also a testament to being in the right place at the right time. Clark originally started supplying Silver Bow City (Butte) with goods from his freighting business, which he parlayed into a bank where he extended credit to many miners, using their mining claims as collateral. After amassing property that
had small deposits of gold and silver from foreclosed deeds, Clark enrolled in a crash-course metallurgy class in his future home of New York City. It was at the Columbia (University) School of Mines there that he learned about hard-rock mining in 1872.
Using some of his early capital, Clark invested in mining and reduction works, taking Butte from a placer camp to an industrial city, gaining fabulous wealth along the way. But the money wasn’t in gold or silver, but copper – suddenly in very high demand because of Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and the need to electrify cities. The best wiring conduit for the job was copper, and Clark started to supply most of America’s – and, in fact, much of the world’s – copper.
“He was in the right place at the right time,” Edgerton said.
But Clark’s thirst for glory and wealth wasn’t slaked by just cornering the market on copper. His own vanity led him to purchase properties across the world and start collecting an eclectic mix of art. As a former poor school teacher from rural Pennsylvania and Iowa, he yearned for the acceptance of other elite tycoons and industrialists. This led him to seek out public office, which included leading Montana’s voyage to statehood.
“There were no investors and no corporations with Clark. It was all him. It was his wealth,” Edgerton said.
Not satisfied with a red-brick mansion in uptown Butte, Clark also constructed the largest mansion ever built in New York City, which boasted Turkish baths, art galleries, French salons and a library with a carved oak mantle from an ancient tree in Sherwood Forest. Even for a period known as the “Gilded Age,” the imposing house was considered ostentatious and garish, requiring a separate underground railroad to deliver several tons of coal per day just to furnish heat and power.
Clark would die in that mansion in 1925, and two years later, it had been torn down, his wife and his family unwilling or unable to afford the huge upkeep.
And while the scars that his company and rapacious appetite for wealth created in Montana still exist in the silent headframes and mining grounds scattered throughout Butte, his fortune – as much as others still remember names like Carnegie and Rockefeller – was put to virtually no enduring benefit for Montanans.
What little philanthropic good came from the labor and lives of Butte’s miners through Clark was dispersed to far-off places like Washington, D.C., where some of his art collection was housed for a time, or in Los Angeles as his son used the fortune to create the Los Angeles Philharmonic and a collection of rare books at the University of California Los Angeles.
“Montana, the well-spring of his vast fortune got virtually none of it,” Edgerton said. “We got a traveling art show of a few of pieces he left in state and an environmental catastrophe we call ‘Butte.’”