Wealth has always traveled from West to East
Oligarch Part II

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William Andrews Clark’s political success was not impressive, however. In 1907  Mark Twain described him in his essay, as the embodiment of corruption:

“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. “

Comparing Clark to William Tweed was not a particularly pleasant gesture on the part of Twain. William Tweed, a New York politician also known as “The Boss”, for many years was a real man-institution who with an iron hand steered everything important to New York and brought money to the people in power. He used to say that “I don’t care who does the electing , so long as I get to do the nominating ”.

Tweed, however, was not alone in his efforts to seize whatever was within his reach. A brutal culture of corruption was so common in the second half of the nineteenth century that at one point it began to threaten the proper functioning of the state, which developed its independence banners, emphasizing the necessity of equality, justice and adherence to democratic principles. However, the pervasive corruption among officials, police and economic bosses did not protect Tweed from justice. His thieving legacy turned out to be too great and offended both the common citizen and the political opposition. Tweed’s unusual career ended with his sentencing to many years in prison – for theft of public property and political corruption on a previously unknown scale. “Boss” died in prison in 1878.

The Bosses of the Senate. J. Ottmann Lith. Co. after Joseph Keppler Puck
The Bosses of the Senate. J. Ottmann Lith. Co. after Joseph Keppler Puck © U.S. Senate Collection

Railway rush

A great fortune accumulated over the years and scandalous public activity would not have given Clark a place in US history if it were not for a project. J. Ross Clark, William’s half-brother, described by his contemporaries as a serious and respected businessman, gave him the idea of building a railroad that would shorten the distance between the mines in Montana and Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. It was to be a lifetime’s business for Clark, ultimately to elevate him to the level of America’s most powerful industrialist. The careers of the old railroad barons who built the first transcontinental line from Omaha (Nebraska) to Sacramento (California) seemed to be role models and a measure of success: Collis P. Huntington, Jack Casement , Thomas C. Durant and Grenville Dodge . These people – hailed to the heavens for making the greatest American dream of the era come true – were at the same time known for their boundless greed, power hunger, corruption, fraud, stock manipulation and other vices.

Both old railroad barons and rising stars like the Clark brothers saw nothing wrong with the way they did business. After all, getting a lot of money in the shortest possible time was part of the Wild West ethos, even if the choice between obeying the law and simple fraud repeatedly tilted towards the latter. For many years America had been in a railroad fever for many years, which can only be compared to the speculation over the use of the Internet and e-commerce blown to the sky at the beginning of the 21st century.

Huge funds from the state treasury were allocated to the construction of new railway lines. On the many built routes there were deposits of coal, iron and other valuable ores, and wonderful forests with the wood that fell prey to railway companies. The routes of many lines of the steel trail were charted in strange ways. Sometimes they ran through great wastelands that could be passed over, or suddenly – for inexplicable reasons -made an arc or branched surprisingly, and for incomprehensible reasons ran through areas rich in forests, coal, or ore deposits. The real goldmine was the exploitation of already built lines. Due to the monopoly on fast transport and very high freight tariffs, the railroad barons became extremely wealthy, gained great political influence and showed less and less respect for the democratic rules of the young republic.

William Clark could be pleased with what he had accomplished in the risky endeavor of building the Utah-to-California railroad. The huge sum of money he invested in Nevada and Las Vegas paid him back many times. The real winner in the fight for the Wild West was he, William Clark, a corrupt Senator from Montana.

Ticket from West to East

William Clark left the fortune brining West fairly quickly. This was in line with the general tendency in those days when fame, wealth and power always traveled by rail and always had a ticket purchased from West to East. From the East, trains brought industrial goods. From the West, wagons full of grain, meat, fruits, building materials, minerals and passengers returning to New York and other eastern metropolises who had managed to build fortunes and who decided to consume their success in the civilized East.

Senator William Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue
Pałac Williama A. Clarka na Fifth Avenue © Wikimedia Commons

After his senatorial mandate expired, Clark moved to New York in 1907 and went into the banking business. He spent the last years of his life with his second wife, who gave him love and children despite the unusual age difference. On the day of his wedding, Clark was 62 years old and his French wife, Anna Eugenia la Cappelle, only 23. The young couple moved to Manhattan, where Clark built a palace on Fifth Avenue that outraged and scandalized New Yorkers. The palace, with 121 rooms to accommodate four people, was called “Clark’s Folly”, indicating that it was built for purely prestigious purposes.

The building was an authentic architectural extravagance. 

Mocked “Clark’s Folly” has however become home to a fantastic collection amassed thanks to Clark’s love of art. These collections could impress any collector at the time. Clark’s collection includes works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Van Dyck and Degas.

No unnecessary pomp or ceremony

By dying in 1925, Clark left behind a huge fortune, estimated at $ 2.6 billion in 2014 value. In his last will , Clark asked to be given “a decent Christian funeral in line with his life, without unnecessary pomp and ceremony.” He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery , in a mausoleum, which with its size and splendor exceeded the graves of the then US presidents. Unlike other industrialist barons such as Carnegie or Rockefeller, Clark did not share his fortune, although life was kind to him.

"Who lacks sex speaks about sex, hungry talks about food, a person who has no money - about money, and our oligarchs and bankers talk about morality"

Stepfather of the city

William Clark became the patron of the county in which Las Vegas is located in 1909. Today it is one of the most dynamically developing areas in the US, and Las Vegas has become the world’s capital of entertainment. The status of Nevada and Las Vegas 100 years ago would have been considered pure fantasy with no foundation whatsoever. The harsh nature, a handful of inhabitants and the lack of special development opportunities led some politicians and residents of neighboring states to argue that the state of Nevada should never be created. There was no rational reason to build a city in this area.

Some argued that it would be best to link the territory with its powerful neighbor California, or return to Arizona, where Southern Nevada once belonged. It wasn’t a state, after all, but a gigantic desert inhabited by a handful of desperate people. However, their sense of abandonment and loneliness allowed them to forge the special character of Nevada for which she would soon be known throughout America. Nevada was famous for its tolerance towards those who sinned, its tolerance for the erring but free. In 1931, the worst fears of conservative America became true: Following the liberalization of marriage and divorce laws, Nevada became the only US state that allowed legal gambling in almost every part of its territory. Thus the American Sodom and Gomorrah was born, and its capital was Las Vegas – the fruit of William Andrew Clark’s “great scam”.


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