- Historic Sites
The American Heritage
A ranking of the forty wealthiest Americans of all time (Surprise: Only three of them are alive today)
October 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 6
This Irish immigrant failed to strike it rich mining in California and Nevada, so he set up a lumber business to serve prospectors on the Comstock Lode. In the 187Os he and a group of associates got control of a property near Virginia City, Nevada, and in 1873 the resulting Consolidated Virginia Mine produced enough silver to potentially destabilize the U.S. money supply. Fair converted his share of the wealth into railroads, buildings, land, and high living. He served a six-year Senate term but was better known for his family’s sad decline: Divorced, alienated from his children, he died alone. He stipulated in his will that anyone able to prove themself to be his widow or child would be entitled to fifty dollars.
He emigrated from England at sixteen at the urging of an uncle who owned a chemical-manufacturing company in Philadelphia and became its chemist; after the deaths of his uncle and his partner, he took over the business. The predecessor of the modern pharmaceutical company, it was the first to develop and manufacture cheap and effective substitutes for quinine to treat malaria, and it also pioneered the manufacture of citric acid, both a food flavoring and an ingredient in metal polish. He invested conservatively, primarily in land, and became the largest real estate owner in Philadelphia. He was intensely private and shunned society in favor of spending time at home, tending his garden of rare flowers.
Growing up surrounded by wealth—his father was John Jacob Astor’s confidential agent—he was determined to earn his own. In 1832 he used $15,000 he had saved to open his own import business, which he left in 1855 to become the president of City Bank. During the Panic of 1857 he bought controlling interest, for $5 a share, in the ailing Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad; he appeared to have been swept away by his passion for railroads, but seven years later it was trading at $240 a share. His contemporaries regarded his intimate knowledge of his investments as his greatest asset, but he built his lasting reputation on his sense of civic duty: He organized and chaired the committee of bankers that kept the Union solvent during the Civil War.
He seems to have become one of the wealthiest people in American history simply by being in the right place at the right time. His early investments made him comfortable, but a chance meeting with the roundly despised Jay Gould made him rich beyond his dreams. Gould became his friend and ally, and under Gould’s aegis he made a fortune in the stock market, where he is credited with originating puts and calls. He preferred small returns to big risks, and he eventually turned to moneylending; at one time he was purported to have twenty-seven million dollars out on loan. Luck was apparently ever on his side; he survived an assassin’s bomb that killed his clerk and the assassin and died quietly at home.
JOHN I. BLAIR
As a ten-year-old farm boy in New Jersey he supposedly told his mother, “I have seven brothers and three sisters. That’s enough in the family to be educated. I am going to get rich.” He dropped out of school at eleven to work as a clerk and within seven years had opened his own store. He began in mining, forming the Lackawanna Coal & Iron Company, but made his fortune in railroads. With a little help from political connections, he and some colleagues chartered the Union Pacific, which built the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad and became infamous for its owners’ business practices. At one time he served as president of sixteen railroads simultaneously, had enough acreage to cover half of New Jersey, and personally owned more track than anyone else in the world.
He left school at sixteen after his family’s house burned down and eventually made his way into the newspaper business. In 1879 he started the Tribune and farmer , which included a column for women written by his wife; the column was so successful that he spun it into Ladies’ Home Journal , whose circulation rose to two hundred thousand in its first year and a half. He bought The Saturday Evening Post in 1897 for a thousand dollars and had raised its circulation from two thousand to more than 2.7 million by the time of his death. He complemented a genius for marketing to the average American with a willingness to pay the highest prices for stories by writers like Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott.
PAUL G. ALLEN
This whiz kid was blessed with both an interest in computers and being a high school classmate of Bill Gates (No. 5)— though perhaps Gates was blessed with being his classmate too. He dropped out of Washington State to go to work for Honeywell before joining Gates in 1975 to found Microsoft, which took off in the early 1980s. He retired from active involvement in Microsoft in 1983 after learning that he had Hodgkin’s disease, from which he later recovered, but he is still the company’s second-largest stockholder. He also owns, among other things, the Seattle Seahawks football team and the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team.
JOHN PIERPONT MORGAN