Even in Old Age Miner George Hearst Retained His “Tenacity, Demon Energy and Genius”

(p. A15) George Hearst was famous for discovering metals—copper, silver, gold—but he liked any mineral he could pull out of the earth. New Year’s Eve 1889 found him far from his San Francisco home, in West Virginia’s coal country. “We found the coal veins all right,” said Hearst’s traveling companion, T.J. Clunie, a young California state senator. “The samples were fine, the price was low, and I expected to see Hearst snap at the offer.” But Hearst was hesitant. “I don’t like to buy a pig in a poke,” he said. “We had better crawl up and see that coal for ourselves before we discuss the price.” That meant scaling a 3,000-foot hill.

At the summit Hearst found a vein of coal, hacked out a chunk, and set it on fire. The flame sputtered and died in seconds. He tossed the lump aside and went looking for another. He found a different vein, hacked out another piece and ignited it. This one burned steadily for 10 minutes, Clunie recalled, while Hearst watched it “as a mother does her first-born.” Hearst scrambled back down the hill and bought the vein. He was 69 years old.

Stomach cancer would claim Hearst barely a year later, but as Matthew Bernstein demonstrates in “George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age,” the old miner went about his work right to the end with the same tenacity, demon energy and genius for finding what he was after that had made him one of the richest men in the American West.

. . .

Hearst did occasionally interrupt his prospecting. On a visit home to Missouri, the 40-year-old prospector fell for an 18-year-old named Phoebe Apperson, and married her in 1862. It was a happy match—he certainly wasn’t around enough to get on her nerves—and they produced one child, William Randolph Hearst, who would embed himself in the national memory even more deeply than his father.

. . .

. . ., there is a warmth to the man that makes him good company throughout the book, and charm in his downright language, as when he said, “When I was young I had very strong religious views, and was brought up to a thoroughly orthodox way; but after leaving home my ideas got broader, and on studying these things for myself, without any influence from parents, or ministers, I came to the conclusion that I knew just about as much about it as anybody, and I knew nothing.”

For the full review, see:

Richard Snow. “BOOKSHELF; A Head For Metals.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, Dec. 13, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 12, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘George Hearst’ Review: A Head for Metals.”)

The book under review is:

Bernstein, Matthew. George Hearst: Silver King of the Gilded Age. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2021.

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