Biography profiles colorful scoundrel
“The Infamous King of the Comstock” by Michael J. Makley
Unless you are familiar with the history of the Comstock Lode and the Guilded Age, you may not know about William Sharon. He was one of the most colorful scoundrels in the 19th century mining West and epitomized the robber barons of the era, yet he is not as historically known as other figures of the time.
Michael Makley has thoroughly researched and written the first biography of one of Nevada’s most reviled historical figures. In “The Infamous King of the Comstock: William Sharon and the Guilded Age,” Makley examines Sharon’s complex nature and the turbulent times in which he flourished.
It’s interesting to note how closely the Comstock Lode and San Francisco were related. Sharon was a visionary capitalist who controlled more than a dozen of the greatest mines on Nevada’s Comstock Lode and built the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, yet he also manipulated speculation and prices on the San Francisco Stock Exchange and revived the collapsed Bank of America. Along the way he was elected a U.S. senator from Nevada, although his main residence was in San Francisco.
Why did Makley decide to write a biography about Sharon?
“In all my reading about that era I kept coming across the name William Sharon and discovered that remarkably very little had been written about him,” Makley said.
Was Sharon “a thoroughly bad man – a man entirely void of principle,” as one enemy wrote. Or was he “one of the best men that ever lived in Virginia City,” according to a Comstock neighbor. Makley found that both descriptions are reasonably accurate.
In his later years Sharon was involved in a legal entanglement with a younger woman, who claimed they were married and she was entitled to his fortune. Another mystery for the reader.
When Sharon died in 1885 at the age of 64, a newspaper listed his vast holdings. It took a column for his San Francisco real estate alone, as well as others in the Central Valley, Burlingame and Washington, D.C., and most of the stock in the water company that still supplies San Francisco. His homes included the Belmont estate, 22 miles south of San Francisco, and a suite of rooms in his elegant Palace Hotel in the city. Nevada holdings included bank stock and railroad, mining and mill interests.
Author Makley is a longtime resident of Woodfords, Calif., and has taught history and English at South Tahoe High School for 32 years. He is the author of two other books on Western history. “The Hanging of Lucky Bill,” takes place in and around Genoa, Nev., and “The Apprentice Twain” is a historical novel about Mark’s Twain life in Virginia City. He is just finishing a book on John Mackay titled, “The Honest Miner.”
– Nancy Oliver Hayden is community editor at the Tahoe Daily Tribune.