Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: James C. Fair

The name of James C. Fair will be recognized at once as one of the bonanza kings, and like the others he enjoyed only a fair education, starting for California at about the same time as the rest; he taking the overland route while they went by water. His only capital consisting of a miner’s outfit, and with those simple implements he began his hard fought battle for wealth. He made mining a scientific study and after about six years of variable success, he became known as an expert. Soon after this he accepted the superintendency of the Ophir mine, and later, the Hale & Norcross; since which time he has gone on, until now, he can count his worldly possessions by the million. He is a most thorough miner, and his long continued life at the bottom of the mines has had a telling effect on his health. That he has successfully managed such wild and wicked men, as many miners are, without becoming the victim of some “accident,” indicates something of his ability. Finally his impaired health necessitated his withdrawal from active work, and he made an extended voyage, returning in a much improved condition.

In 1881 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he acquitted himself with credit. He charged nothing for his services, an event without parallel in our history, however, he received all for which he went to Washington—honor. He is assessed for over forty millions, and can well afford to donate his salary to the Government.

Like the other bonanza kings he seems to have been specially favored by fortune, but the old saying, “Birds of a feather will flock together,” is true in this case, for these men are all practical miners and changed partners often until the firm of Flood, Fair & MacKay was formed, since which time they all seem perfectly satisfied each with the other. All had been sorely tried during their earlier life and were not found wanting either in ability or stick-to-it-iveness as they passed through the crucible of Dame Fortune.

As we have just been reading the lives of the three bonanza kings, J. C. Flood, J. C. Fair and J. W. MacKay, possibly a description of one of their enterprises in the shape of a flume will be interesting as described by a New York Tribune correspondent:

A fifteen-mile ride in a flume down the Sierra Nevada Mountains in thirty minutes was not one of the things contemplated in my visit to Virginia City, and it is entirely within reason to say that even if I should make this my permanent place of residence—which fortune forbid—I shall never make the trip again. The flume cost, with its appurtenances, between $200,000 and $300,000—if it had cost a million it would be the same in my estimation. It was built by a company interested in the mines here, principally the owners of the Consolidated Virginia, California, Hale & Norcross, Gould & Curry, Best & Belcher and Utah mines. The largest stockholders in these mines are J. C. Flood, James C. Fair, John W. MacKay and W. S. O’Brien, who compose without doubt the wealthiest firm in the United States. Taking the stock of their companies at the price quoted in the board, the amount they own is more than $100,000,000, and each has a large private fortune in addition. The mines named use 1,000,000 feet of lumber per month under ground, and burn 40,000 cords of wood per year. Wood is here worth from $10 to $12 per cord, and at market prices Messrs. Flood & Co. would have to pay nearly $500,000 a year for wood alone. Going into the mine the other day, and seeing the immense amount of timber used, and knowing the incalculable amount of wood burned in the several mines and mills, I asked Mr. MacKay, who accompanied me, where all the wood and timber came from. “It comes,” said he, “from our lands in the Sierras, forty or fifty miles from here. We own over twelve thousand acres in the vicinity of Washoe Lake, all of which is heavily timbered.” “How do you get it here?” I asked. “It comes,” said he, “in our flume down the mountains, fifteen miles, and from our dumping grounds is brought by the Virginia & Truckee Railroad to this city, about sixteen miles. You ought to see the flume before you go back; it is really a wonderful thing.” The flume is a wonderful piece of engineering work. It is built wholly on trestle-work and stringers; there is not a cut in the whole distance, and the grade is so heavy that there is little danger of a jam. The trestle-work is very substantial, and undoubtedly strong enough to support a narrow-gauge railway. It runs over foot-hills, through valleys, around mountains, and across canyons. In one place it is seventy feet high. The highest point of the flume from the plain is 3,700 feet, and on an air-line, from beginning to end the distance is eight miles, the course thus taking up seven miles in twists and turns. The trestle-work is thoroughly braced longitudinally and across, so that no break can extend further than a single box, which is 16 feet. All the main supports, which are five feet apart, are firmly set in mudsills, and the boxes or troughs rest in brackets four feet apart. These again rest upon substantial stringers. The grade of the flume is from 1,600 to 2,000 feet from top to bottom—a distance, as previously stated, of fifteen miles. The sharpest fall is three feet in six. There are two reservoirs from which the flume is fed. One is 1,100 feet long and the other is 600 feet. A ditch, nearly two miles long, takes the water to the first reservoir, whence it is conveyed 3¼ miles to the flume through a feeder capable of carrying 450 inches of water. The whole flume was built in ten weeks. In that time all the trestle-work, stringers and boxes were put in place. About 200 men were employed on it at one time, being divided into four gangs. It required 2,000,000 feet of lumber, but the item which astonished me most was that there were 28 tons, or 56,000 pounds of nails used in the construction of this flume.

Mr. Flood and Mr. Fair had arranged for a ride in the flume, and I was challenged to go with them. Indeed the proposition was put in this way—they dared me to go. I thought that if men worth twenty-five or thirty million dollars apiece could afford to risk their lives, I could afford to risk mine, which isn’t worth half as much. So I accepted the challenge, and two ‘boats’ were ordered. These were nothing more than pig troughs, with one end knocked out. The ‘boat’ is built like the flume, V shaped, and fits into the flume. The grade of the flume at the mill is very heavy, and the water rushes through it at railroad speed. The terrors of that ride can never be blotted from the memory of one of the party. I cannot give the reader a better idea of a flume ride than to compare it to sliding down an old-fashioned eve-trough at an angle of 45 degrees, hanging in mid-air without support of roof or house, and extending a distance of fifteen miles. At the start we went at the rate of twenty miles an hour, which is a little less than the average speed of a railroad train. The red-faced carpenter sat in front of our boat on the bottom as best he could. Mr. Fair sat on a seat behind him, and I sat behind Mr. Fair in the stern and was of great service to him in keeping the water which broke over the end-board, from his back. There was also a great deal of water shipped in the bows of the hog-trough, and I know Mr. Fair’s broad shoulders kept me from more than one ducking in that memorable trip. At the heaviest grades the water came in so furiously in front that it was impossible to see where we were going, or what was ahead of us; but when the grade was light, and we were going at a three or four minute pace, the view was very delightful, although it was terrible. When the water would enable me to look ahead, I could see the trestle here and there for miles; so small and so narrow and apparently so fragile that I could only compare it to a chalk-mark upon which, high in the air, I was running at a rate unknown to railroads. One circumstance during the trip did more to show me the terrible rapidity with which we dashed through the flume than anything else. We had been rushing down at a pretty lively rate of speed when the boat suddenly struck something in the bow, a nail, a lodged stick of wood or some secure substance which ought not to have been there. What was the effect? The red-faced carpenter was sent whirling into the flume ten feet ahead. Fair was precipitated on his face, and I found a soft lodgment on Fair’s back. It seems to me that in a second’s time—Fair himself a powerful man—had the carpenter by the scruff of the neck, and had pulled him into the boat. I did not know at this time that Fair had his fingers crushed between the flume and the boat. But we sped along; minutes seemed hours. It seemed an hour before we arrived at the worst place in the flume, and yet Hereford tells me that it was less than ten minutes. The flume at the point alluded to must have been very nearly forty-five degrees inclination. In looking out, before we reached it, I thought the only way to get to the bottom was to fall. How our boat kept in the track is more than I know.

The wind, the steamboat, the railroad, never went so fast. In this particularly bad place I allude to, my desire was to form some judgment as to the speed we were making. If the truth must be spoken, I was really scared almost out of my reason, but if I were on my way to eternity I wanted to know exactly how fast I went, so I huddled close to Fair, and turned my eyes toward the hills. Every object I placed my eyes upon was gone before I could plainly see what it was. Mountains passed like visions and shadows. It was with difficulty that I could get my breath. I felt that I did not weigh a hundred pounds, although I knew in the sharpness of intellect that I tipped the scales at two hundred. Mr. Flood and Mr. Hereford, although they started several minutes later than we, were close upon us. They were not so heavily loaded, and they had the full sweep of the water, while we had it rather at second-hand. Their boat finally struck ours with a terrible crash. Mr. Flood was thrown upon his face, and the waters flowed over him. What became of Hereford I do not know, except that when we reached the terminus of the flume he was as wet as any of us. This only remains to be said: We made the entire distance in less time than a railway train would ordinarily make, and a portion of the distance we went faster than a railway train ever went. Fair said we went at least a mile a minute. Flood said that we went at the rate of a hundred miles an hour, and my deliberate belief is that we went at a rate that annihilated time and space. We were a wet lot when we reached the terminus of the flume.

Flood said that he would not make the trip again for the whole Consolidated Virginia mine. Fair said that he should never again place himself upon an equality with timber and wood, and Hereford said he was sorry that he ever built the flume. As for myself, I told the millionaires that I had accepted my last challenge. When we left our boats we were more dead than alive. The next day neither Flood nor Fair were able to leave their beds. For myself, I have only the strength to say that I have had enough of flumes.