William A. Clark was one of Montana’s so-called copper kings. He was richer than you or I will ever be, although he is now dead and we are not, so we’ve got that on him. On the other hand, you and I shall also be dead one day. Bummer, man.
The reasons Mr. Clark got so rich was 1) drive, ambition and hard work; 2) a mountain of Montana minerals; 3) unscrupulous cunning and greed.
Someone somewhere estimated that William A. Clark was the 50th richest American who ever lived. His yearly income in 1920 was said to be $12 million, at a time when a well-off doctor or lawyer earned $4,000 a year. He used his fiduciary deposits to build the largest, most opulent mansion on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. It was so sumptuous it was awful so they had to tear it down a few years after he died. There might be a Walmart there by now who knows.
His daughter Huguette lived for several years in that mansion, then had a good look at it and moved out. She died in 2011 at the age of 104. She owned many homes and mansions, scattered throughout the country, but had no children. Instead she had a large collection of creepy dolls, like the ones in they had in the Twilight Zone.
Clark started out as a Good Guy. He moved to Montana and lived among the people he employed, even if he did live in the nicest mansion on the block. A self-made man, he began modestly, working as a transport driver, bringing stuff like eggs from Salt Lake City to the Montana mining fields, where eggs were worth their weight in copper if uncracked. Instead of spending his money on booze, women and philosophy textbooks like most miners, he saved it and invested. Soon he had enough money to buy a bank, and then it was goodbye blue collar, hello golden calf.
Clark quickly bought up a vast collection of mines, smelters, electric companies, railroads and newspapers throughout Montana. He attended Rich Guy Only Clubs all over the place, why not he had his own fancy train, and expanded his holdings to mines in other western states.
Still, Clark identified with his workers and supported the miners’ unions. Imagine that. He paid good wages too, once thwarting an attempt by out-of-state mining companies to cut Butte workers’ salaries from the outrageous $3.50 a day to $3.00., a rate the U.S. Chamber of Commerce weeps tragically for.
Mr. Clark’s two competitors for Montana Copper King were Marcus Daly and F. Augustus Heinze. More about them later, but take it from me, they pretty much all hated each other, the way Geraldo Rivera hates Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Daly ruled his fiefdom from Anaconda while Clark fiefed in Helena. Both based their operations in Butte, where they ran competing newspapers. Even then power meant media.
Clark was very active in Montana politics as a Democrat, although back then Democrats were more like Republicans are today and Republicans were more like today’s Democrats. That’s why we need history so pay attention.
It was Clark’s obsession with being a senator from Montana that changed him from being a Good Guy into a Bad Guy. He tried three times before succeeding. The first time he got caught, in 1899, he just handed out naked money. How could he know that one of his bribees, State Senator Fred Whiteside from Flathead County, would be so stupid as to refuse to take a $30,000 payoff? Honestly! Some folks are like that but not me.
The reason Clark thought he could buy his way into the Senate was because this was before 1912, when they passed the 17th Amendment, you know, the one that allows for direct election of U.S. Senators? Back then they were appointed by state legislatures. Clark’s thinking was that if you couldn’t buy your way in, what’s the point? Money is just speech after all. This is why to this day Clark is a hero to any party that will take the money and drink the tea.
Incredibly, even though there was a public furor with all sorts of horrified publicity across the country, the 1899 Montana legislature bent over for Clark and appointed him Montana’s second senator. They even booted out Sen. Whiteside for being a pesky goody-two-shoes.
Clark later admitted he’d spent at least $272,000 to “campaign” for his Senate seat that season, maybe as much as $400,000.
But the battle wasn’t over. When Clark went to Washington D.C. to swivel around in his chair and drop a loogie or three in his spittoon, Republican forces led by Marcus Daly and sitting Senator Thomas Carter demanded the Senate as a whole refuse to seat Clark. They were suspicious about illegalities. So the next year, 1900, they had a big investigation that went on for months. A number of embarrassed Montana legislators had to explain in public how they could afford their spiffy new buggies and whitewall whippersnappers. Before the commission could issue a final report, Clark fixed them all by resigning on May 15. End of Round One.
Round Two was where the real fun happened. So, Montana is chalked up to have two senators like everyone else, right? Only now there was one vacancy, thanks to Clark’s resignation. Governor Robert Smith hated Clark. But his lieutenant governor, A.E. Spriggs was on Team Clark. Smith was lured out of state by Clark associates, and Spriggs, who’d been gone himself, got back just in time to have Charlie Clark, William’s son, deliver his pa’s letter of resignation. Spriggs realized he had the legal authority to appoint an interim Montana senator. So he appointed William Clark. Why not? He already owned stationary with “Senator Clark” printed on it.
This ruse lasted just long enough until Smith got back. He cancelled the appointment and named someone else.
Round Three happened in 1900, which was also an election year. In between warming a disputed seat in the Senate, and resigning and being reappointed, Clark allied himself with the forces of Augustus Heinze. Heinze didn’t care so much about the US Senate, but he wanted control of the Butte-Silver Bow county offices. Clark agreed, threw his considerable media influences behind the deal, and the two copper barons outfoxed Daly. Clark got appointed Senator again and Daly surprised everybody by dropping dead on November 12.
So William Clark achieved his dream of becoming Senator William Clark. He celebrated by moving the hell out of Montana and never coming back. By the way, he was a lousy senator who didn’t accomplish a thing for anybody.
Mark Twain hated Clark. In a 1907 essay he wrote:
“He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.”
Twain, it must be noted, died a century before Donald Trump was invented.
William Clark’s debasement of Montana and American politics stands as a shining memorial to the punks who think Selfishness is a Virtue.
One last note about William Clark: His ahead-of-his time fashion sense. Clark’s influential Crazy Hair is everywhere these days, from homeless guys to mad bombers. Check out famous Unabomber Ted Kacynzski’s locks.