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Thomas F. Walsh: Progressive Businessman and Colorado Mining Tycoon

Author(s):Stewart, John C.
Reviewer(s):Hall, Joshua C.

Published by EH.NET (December 2007)

John C. Stewart, Thomas F. Walsh: Progressive Businessman and Colorado Mining Tycoon. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2007. xv + 230 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-87081-870-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joshua C. Hall, Department of Economics and Management, Beloit College.

This book is a biography of one of Colorado’s most famous citizens, Thomas F. Walsh, by Denver attorney and historian John Stewart. Called “one of the foremost mining men in the country” by the New York Times at the time of his death in 1910, Walsh is famous for his discovery of the Camp Bird Mine in Colorado, one of the most productive gold mines in U.S. history. In addition, his considerable wealth led him to become a significant figure in state and national politics for the last decade of his life.

Thomas F. Walsh begins by recounting what little is known about the Walsh family in Ireland circa Tom Walsh’s birth in 1850. Walsh came from a fairly typical Irish farming family of the time and began his lifetime interest in geology while in grade school. At this time, however, all mineral rights in Ireland belonged to the British Crown. As a result, in 1869 Walsh left Ireland for the United States.

From this point on, the book can be thought of as split into two distinct parts. The first part, comprised of Chapters 2 through 7, follows Tom Walsh as he seeks to make his fortune prospecting for minerals throughout Colorado. This is also the part of the book that is most likely to be of interest to economists and business historians. In these chapters, Stewart paints a picture of Walsh as a shrewd businessman who loved mining but would only engage when it made financial sense.

Walsh did not immediately rush to Colorado and begin prospecting. Instead, he was happy to find steady work as a carpenter building railroad trestles for the Colorado Central Railroad. When the financial panic of 1873 raised the returns to prospecting relative to carpentry work, Walsh joined the gold rush. Even after moving to the mining town of Del Norte in southwestern Colorado, Walsh split his time between carpentry and prospecting, a strategy he would employ for much of his mining career.

Based on data supplied by Stewart about Walsh’s earnings during his first five years in the mining territory, this strategy was a very lucrative one. According to Stewart, when Walsh left the Black Hills in 1878, he left with $10,000 in carpentry savings and $15,000 from sales of his stake in a local mine.

This raises one of my major criticisms of the book. While Stewart notes that Tom Walsh left the Black Hills as a fairly wealth man, by using only nominal dollars throughout the text he does not provide today’s readers with enough context for how proficient Walsh seemed to be at accumulating wealth. Using the Consumer Price Index, for example, Walsh’s $25,000 in 1878 was equivalent to nearly $500,000 in 2006 dollars. That is a considerable sum to accumulate in just five short years, especially with two-fifths of it coming from carpentry. Given the availability of online calculators (such as the one on EH.NET), it would have been easy for Stewart to have provided readers with this context.

For the next eight years, the Walsh fortunes ebbed and flowed along with his various business ventures, including a lucrative stint as a hotel owner and a not so lucrative period as a silver ore refiner during the silver crash of 1893. Then in 1896, Walsh discovered the Camp Bird gold vein, one of the most lucrative deposits of gold ever discovered in the United States. During its first four years of operation, the mine produced $2.5 million dollars of gold, silver, lead and copper with costs of only $885,000. Thus, in just four years Walsh had earned about $1.65 million in profits from the Camp Bird Mine (around $37 million in 2006 dollars).

What did Walsh do with his newfound wealth? That is the subject of the second half of the book that begins with Chapters 8. Two years after discovering the Camp Bird vein Walsh moved his family to Washington D.C. where the Walsh family quickly became a prominent member of Washington high society. After selling the Camp Bird Mine for $6 million in 1902 ($145 million in 2006 dollars), Walsh spent $2.1 million on building and furnishing a mansion on Massachusetts Avenue in order to better signal his permanence as a member of Washington’s elite.

Until his death from lung cancer in 1910, Walsh spent the remainder of his life “as a prominent member of national society.” He spent his days engaged in philanthropic works and advocated for public policies that he felt would benefit the Western states, such as irrigation initiatives and highway construction. His frequent political donations and newfound social ranking brought Walsh attention from politicians and other world leaders. Among his political acquaintances were Presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William H. Taft.

I found Stewart’s Thomas F. Walsh to be a quick and insightful read. The primary value of the book to economists lies in providing classroom teaching material. In the style of McCloskey’s (1985) price theory text, I use problems ? mostly historical in nature ? to teach price theory. Several examples from this book will find their way into my problem sets. A good example of the firm’s shut-down decision occurs on page 173, when Stewart describes how the Camp Bird Mine would shut down and restart depending on fluctuations in the price of gold or silver. More generally, however, this book is too narrowly focused on the life of Walsh and the mining industry in Colorado to be of general interest to economic and business historians.

Reference: D. McCloskey, The Applied Theory of Price, New York: Macmillan (1985).

Joshua C. Hall is an assistant professor of economics at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. His most recent publication is (with Peter T. Leeson) “Good for the Goose, Bad for the Gander: International Labor Standards and Comparative Development” in the September 2007 issue of Journal of Labor Research.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII