In 1859, William Thompson won an important commission to build a government fort and houses in Yankton, then the extreme frontier of the Northwest Territory. Unfortunately, before the young frontiersman could get paid for his work tragedy struck: Indians burned the buildings. The situation left the 21-year-old penniless. It wouldn’t be the first time.
An unusual number of financial tragedies befell the hard-working William Thompson (1838-1900) who was helping to support his family by the age of 12. He lost everything several times as he worked his way across the Western frontier, ultimately settling in Montana. Later in life, after he had built a lumber empire, he continued to gamble on mining ventures, with very mixed results. Yet he always managed to pick himself up and provide for his family.
William Thompson was born in 1838 in Cobourg, Ontario Canada. Many of the colony’s roughly 5,000 mid-century residents were British Loyalists and soldiers. William’s father, also named William, probably came from Scotland a decade before his son was born. The elder William was a millwright. He may also have been a British military officer. At least that’s the family legend passed down by grandson J.E. Thompson (1875-1950). Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a family member received a “promotion” through oral history.
The elder William died when the younger one was only 11. Young William, who was educated in Cobourg’s public schools, found work and began providing financial support to his widowed mother and sister. He continued sending money until his mother and sister found a place of their own.
When William was 15, his mother, Margaret Maguire Robinson, moved the family to Detroit, where William served as a sailor on the Great Lakes. He worked there for his half-brother Robinson who owned a tug boat. (Margaret had been married once before to Jack Robinson.) Thompson told his sons that by the age of 16 he was licensed to operate a tug boat on the Great Lakes. While living in Detroit, William also learned cabinet-making and carpentry, skills that would serve him well as he crossed the frontier.
In 1856, at the age of 18, Thompson decided he was ready to find fame and fortune. He pushed off for La Crosse, Wis., a fur-trading and logging settlement on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River. Two years later he traveled to another frontier settlement, High Forest, Minn., in the southern part of state near Rochester. He presumably saved a little money plying his wood-working skills.
Then, in 1859, Thompson set out across the Dakota plains with Moses Armstrong, the pioneer surveyor of the West who ultimately became a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives from Dakota. The group traveled to Yankton, then a Native American settlement, by way of New Ulm, Lake Benton, Pipestone Quarry, and Sioux Falls. Thompson later told his children that the entourage fought Indians along the way, and he served on occasion with the regular troops.
After losing everything in the government fort fire in 1859, Thompson in 1862 managed to win a contract to build the Capitol Building at Yankton. He had gathered the material to do the work when the Sioux, upset that the U.S. government was late on an annuity payment for their land, went on the warpath. The Dakota Sioux massacred farm families and attacked Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. Nearly 200 whites died. Panicking settlers from the west sought refuge in Yankton where they organized a militia company. Thompson was enlisted in the militia.
That’s when Thompson’s second major business misfortune occured. The material he had collected to build the capital building was appropriated for the war effort and used to build barracks. Adding insult to financial injury, the Sioux never attacked Yankton. But Thompson felt the financial arrows: He was wiped out financially.
Joining the Gold Rush to Montana
The year before, in 1861, news of a gold discovery in Montana reached Yankton. It came via a contingent that had visited Fort Benton, then the headquarters of the American Fur Company in the Northwest. The party returned by way of the Missouri river through Yankton, displaying a large quantity of gold. The following spring a small party from St. Louis and other cities went to confirm the find. They traveled by steamboat to Fort Benton and then into the mountains. Two brothers named Hulbert were among the voyagers.
The party reached as far as Prickly Pear Valley, near the current town of Helena, Montana. They found some gold at or near Montana City. While the diggings later proved rich and extensive, the party left discouraged. The Hulberts returned to Yankton that winter and worked for William Thompson. The stories they told him of the mountain country and its probable treasure more than piqued his interest.
The next spring, in 1863, Thompson started for Montana, where he was destined to spend the rest of his life. He was 25, strong, healthy, and full of an adventurous spirit, according to newspaper accounts. He traveled with one of the Hulberts to Omaha where they joined a wagon train headed farther west. With a wagon and two yoke of oxen, the pair crossed the plains to Bannack, arriving in Virginia City, the site of Alder Gulch, on September 16, 1863. They came by way of the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail.
Once there, Thompson settled back into his hard-working routine. Like everyone else, he first located some claims. But then, while others pursued get-rich-quick mining schemes, hoping to dig a fortune out of the ground in short order, Thompson diligently carved window sash from common poles with a tool kit he had brought. His was by several accounts the first kit of carpenter’s tools in fast-growing Virginia City.
“The first winter, while many the people at the camp were idly waiting for the mining season to open, Thompson was diligently at work making doors, frames, sashes, etc., the material for which he hewed out of of pine trees, and easily earned from $10 to $15 a day,” reads his newspaper obituary.
The industrious Thompson had brought glass with him as well. He cut it into 10 x 8-inch sash lights for windows. In fact, the first glass in miners’ cabins at Alder Gulch was put in by William Thompson. He used to tell his family that it was a poor evening when he couldn’t take out his window-glass after dinner and earn a tidy sum before he stopped work for the day.
In those early days the fast-growing mining camp of Alder Gulch was tough, especially during the holidays, when the mostly single miners had to jerry-rig a decent meal. Asked by the Anaconda Standard many years later to reminisce about his first Christmas at Alder Gulch, Thompson wrote an avuncular story about the group’s twisted attempts to produce a decent holiday meal from bear meat.
Thompson formed a business partnership with one of the parties to that feast–Joseph Griffith. The pair built a small store at the foot of Idaho Street that was later moved uptown. From this headquarters, Thompson and Griffith built many of the early homes and buildings in Virginia City. Many still exist. Virginia City has been preserved as an historic mining town.
The most famous building done by Thompson and Griffith may have been the one that, while still unfinished, was used as a gallows in January 1864 to hang the road agents in Henry Plummer’s gang, who were pillaging and killing local land owners. The site was the so-called Hangman’s Building at 123 West Wallace Street, which later became a drug store. Thompson constructed the scaffold on which the five men were hung at one time, according to the History of Montana. One of them was an innocent man that Thompson had come with to the territory who had unknowingly carried a letter for the road agents.
This wasn’t the only controversy to which Thompson was party. On July 4th of that year, while the Civil War was still raging, Thompson had the audacity to erect a flagpole outside the store then hoist the banner of the United States. Southern sympathizers inVirginia City, a Confederate town, cut down the flag during the night. The next day, another pole was set up, and another flag was raised. This time it was guarded. It was not molested.
In the spring of 1864, Thompson and Griffith got serious about the mining business, purchasing Claim No. 2 above the Fairweather discovery. As they worked the claim that season, excitement ran high in Alder Gulch. Some quartz veins containing gold had been found in the upper part of Alder Gulch. Townsfolk suspected that these veins might be the mother lode “from which the gold-bearing gavels of the gulch were derived,” wrote Hermann Hagedorn in notes for his biography of William Thompson’s son, William Boyce Thompson.
But it was no easy job to extract gold from quartz. Costly quartz mills would be needed, and they would would have to be brought in from the East. But there were no railroads serving Montana at the time. What was a frontier man to do?
Thompson Hatches a Grand, Get-Rich Plan
Thompson hatched an ingenious plan that drew on his skills as a pilot and a carpenter. He convinced 168 people who wanted to “return to the states” with their gold to pay him $25 a piece, $4200 all told, to convey them down the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers to Omaha. He had 13 mackinaws built from cottonwoods. The passengers set out in the fall of 1864 from what is now Livingston, Montana.
For the first few days, the swift Yellowstone current propelled them rapidly. But once the entourage reached the lower Yellowstone the going got slow. With winter approaching, and fear of hypothermia setting in, the group took out oars and began rowing down the river. For extra speed, sails were built from blankets.
“After reaching the Missouri, they made better progress, but here had to run the gauntlet of the ‘cut-throat’ Sioux, who were ready and anxious to lift a scalp whenever the opportunity offered,” according to the Illustrated History of the State of Montana.
The History of Montana tells us what happened next. “At Painted Woods they passed a band of Indians belonging to the Santee Sioux tribe, who endeavored to induce them to land, and his companions felt inclined to do so, but Mr. Thompson determined to push onward with his boat and the fleet followed him.”
The situation was a lot thornier than this book allows. The passengers who initially decided to stay put wanted to build a blockhouse as a means of defense. Hearing this, Thompson immediately decided he was going to push on, rallying a group of passengers to his side. He called for a division, for the food supplies to be divided. But just as Thompson’s group of adherents readied to go, the others came around. They pushed on.
It was a fortunate decision, one that surprised the Indians, who weren’t prepared to attack.
“The Indians, finding they would not land, came out upon a sand bar and fired upon them, but aiming too high, the shots passed over them and they escaped uninjured,” according to the History of Montana.
The flotilla stopped at several forts along the way–Union, Buford, Rice, Randall and Thompsons–and then at Winnebago. At each place, they were hospitably treated by the soldiers. They arrived at Sioux City on the 12th day of November, 1864.
New Schemes: Spinning Gold from Quartz
Rather than return to the North in the dead of winter, Thompson decided to revisit his old stomping grounds. He wintered in Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada, re-connecting with old friends and family no doubt. Then, once spring arrived, he took a steamboat up the Missouri River to Fort Benton and then to Helena. He met his wife-to-be on that trip.
He brought some critical equipment with him–three quartz mills and a saw to cut lumber to build the mills. Money to purchase the mills came from Thompson and Griffith as well as some Indianapolis investors. In fact, Thompson had taken out a contract to construct the quartz mills and owned a share of the company, according to Hagedorn, who left his notes to the Library of Congress.
“His energy was poorly rewarded,” Hagedorn wrote. “The mills were put in operation and began treating the ore before he had received all the money that was due him from the people with whom he had associated in this venture. Then it turned out that there was not as much gold in the vein as had been expected. It did not pay out….
“So William Thompson found himself penniless, and in debt. By this time, Alder Gulch was almost worked out.”
A bank held his notes on the deal. Thompson was paying three or four percent a month, although the legal maximum at the time was 10 percent per year. He saved some of the old notes and showed them to his children.
Thankfully, Thompson had the building business to fall back on. In 1866, Thompson and Griffith established a building operation in Helena after winning a $73,000 contract to build the blocks of King and Gillett, Taylor and Thompson, and several other blocks. It’s not clear, after 147 years, how many of these buildings remain standing.
Business had turned south in the busted gold camp of Virginia City. There wasn’t much gold left to be found, and most of the claim owners leased their claims to immigrants to do the work. Thompson had to make do with what he had. After his quartz mill failed, he removed the boilers from them and traded them for some saws. That, according to J.E. Thompson, is how he established his saw mills.
In same year, 1866, Thompson operated a sawmill that served Virginia City. Operated by a water wheel, it was the first sawmill in Montana. It was Thompson’s first participation in the lumber business, with which he would remain associated for the rest of his life. He later established a steam-driven sawmill in Pony, Montana, about 47 miles away. He probably also owned a saw mill in Union City, now a ghost town near Virginia City.
During this period from 1866 to 1868, Thompson and Griffith also built quartz mills for others. They built four or five of the first quartz mills in the Montana territory. It was also about this time that he met his wife, Annie Maria Boyce.
End of an Era: Parting Ways with Griffith
The partnership between Thompson and Griffith ended in 1871, after seven years, when Thompson bought out Griffith. Many years later, Griffith, reflecting on the partnership, said, “At the start I had the money and Thompson had the experience. When we parted Thompson had the money and I had the experience.” Griffith reportedly meant no ill will by the remark.
In 1875, Thompson capitalized on his experience and financial bearing to win a $8400 contract to build the Virginia City school, located a block away from the family’s house. The four-room building is now home to city hall and county government offices. The bricks for the school presumably came from a supply yard Thompson had opened with Thomas Mallet that year near Central City. The yard’s bricks were also used to build the Madison County courthouse.
A lot of business, especially at retail, was conducted in gold dust in those days. Thompson’s son, William Boyce Thompson (1869-1930), remembers that his father used to keep scales on his desk for weighing gold dust. Like most locals, Thompson always carried a gold dust pouch made of buckskin. Grocery bills were settled in gold dust.
William Boyce Thompson remembers that in the early 1870s his father would commute each day to a sawmill he ran 10 miles from Virginia City, perhaps in Union City. He would ride out in the morning and ride home at night, usually coming home at about 7 p.m. He would always carry a prospector’s hammer on his trips. “He was constantly getting out of the rig, examining, searching — knocking off chips of rocks from ledges, and looking for ‘float,'” Thompson wrote in a series of memos to his biographer Hagedorn.
One day he was talking a longer cross-country trip in a sulky, a small cart pulled by horses. “His horse ran away, or became involved in some accident. Father was thrown out of the sulky and his leg was broken….In this condition he lay out there for two or three days. Gradually he worked himself down a watercourse to a farmhouse twenty miles distant–with a broken leg. I think it took him two days to make his way to habitation where he could find assistance.”
The Big Move to Glendale
Tired of commuting, Thompson in 1876 moved his base of operations to Glendale in Beaverhead County, where lead smelters had begun operations. He had the contract to provide lumber for the mine and mill, according to J.E. This was at least Thompson’s third mill–he also had one in Pony, Montana, about 47 miles from Virginia City. Initially, the family would go back and forth between Glendale and Virginia City, where the schools were better. The family finally moved to Glendale in 1879. Their house was up by the sawmill, on a bluff above the town.
Thompson would commute to Glendale. “On one of his trips back and forth to the mines, the payroll was in a shoe box on the back of his buggy. He won a race to Glendale by a quarter mile with some outlaws. He was a brave and kind man and one who loved his family and was determined to make good. How many are there today like him?”
Thompson’s lawyer, Edward B. Howell, remembers that the sawmill stand was on Trapper Creek, midway between the smelter of the Hecla Mining Company and its mines, under the “beetling brow” of Trapper Mountain.
“For a vacation job, I was assisting in the survey of a trainroad for the same company, and boarded at the Thompson boarding house. The air was bracing and fragrant with the perfume of balsam. The food at the boarding house was wholesome and abundant, which was fortunate, because I had the most insatiable appetite of my life during that summer.
“But the nights — I cannot fitly describe the torture, — I slept three-in-a-bed fashion with Mr. Thompson and another man, and being the youngest and the latest arrival, I had to sleep in the middle. Talk about a Turkish bath, — it is not in it with a birth between two husky men who are holding down the sides of the blankets to keep from getting cold in the night air of the mountains.”
In 1879, after his contract ran out, Thompson moved the family to Butte and established the Butte Lumber Yard. He brought along 13 sawmills, according to J.E. The Butte Lumber Yard was first located at 219 Montana in 1885, close to the southwest corner of Galena and Montana, according to business journals. Homes stand at that location today.
Once he moved to Butte, Thompson continued acquiring saw mills throughout Montana. He eventually owned them in Madison, Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Missoula, and Silver Bow counties. He would have bought even more had the banks let him, according to Haslett, an acquaintance interviewed by Hagedorn.
“[Thompson] had a mania for buying sawmills,” Haslett recalled. “When, however, he came to the Silver Bow Bank to borrow money to purchase another, the officers would not let him have it. ‘It’s awfully cheap,’ he protested, but they were adamant.
“He spread out and lost his money in foolish ventures. The sawmill business was none too good, as it was, since it was in competition with the big mining companies, which all conducted a lumber business on the side.”
A Side Business in Mining
Thompson, for his part, was conducting a mining business on the side, still hoping to strike it rich. In the early 1880s, he spent a lot of time and money on mining. “He was coming along in the world,” remembers William Boyce. “He was now in mining a good deal. As a matter of fact, he lost a lot of money in mining. At about that time, he owned many claims which later became important properties in Butte. Years afterward, I turned over the estate comprising many of these properties to my brother [J.R. Thompson] in Tacoma, who derived revenues from it of some consequence for a long time.”
Thompson also owned an interest in the Shannon Mine in Chandler, Ariz., at the time of his death.
Thompson eventually sold his “immense” lumber operations and became vice president of the company that acquired them. It isn’t clear whether he sold the business by choice or by necessity to pay off mining losses. The business, according to newspaper obituaries, continued to grow in importance until his death. Another son, J.E. Thompson, told Hagedorn that his father “made a lot of money in lumber and lost in in mines.”
Meanwhile, in 1889, Thompson started the Thompson Investment Company with his three sons. The company dealt in general real estate and insurance. The principals promoted mines and built houses on the installment plan. These were lines of business that the sons would one day ply to make personal fortunes.
Thompson Investment Company, which was first located on West Granite in Butte, moved to 47 East Broadway and then 15 West Broadway, where it remained until it was dissolved.
The Thompson family initially lived at 155 West Granite in Butte. Then, in 1884, Thompson built a story-and-a-half home at 304 W. Granite that remains standing. It is now home to First Montana Mortgage. The kitchen and dining room were in the basement. For the last several years of his life, Thompson lived at his son, James R.’s home at 1101 Caledona. The shingle-style home, with a wide, open porch, was built in 1897. William White was listed as the architect.
The Thompson Administration: Above Reproach
Thompson was twice elected to the Montana legislature, where he helped write the Montana constitution. He was also credited as the father of a wages lien law that made laborers’ wages the first claim upon any attached property, ensuring that miners would get paid for their work. “Mr. Thompson is honest, straight-forward and capable and makes a most useful legislator,” wrote the Daily Inter Mountain on September 26, 1889. “No working man in this country can vote against him without voting against his own interest.”
After serving in the legislature, Thompson served as mayor of Butte from 1895 to 1897. A Republican, he ran in a three-person contest against Howell, his lawyer, who later recounted that he was glad he lost.
“[Thompson] was a man of thorough honesty and of great energy,” Howell wrote to Hagedorn. He enjoyed the confidence of everybody….[I]n the matter of efficient economy and honesty his administration has never been surpassed in all the history of Butte…I have never ceased to be glad I was defeated.”
When Thompson was elected, “things were pretty wrong in Butte,” recounts Arthur Smith, an early miner in Butte whom Thompson appointed city clerk. “The former city treasurer had committed suicide. The city clerk, my predecessor, had departed for parts unknown. Petty forgeries had been discovered, padding payrolls, raising checks. It was a mess.”
There was some concern that Thompson, a Republican, who was a leader of the A.P.A., an anti-Catholic movement, might try to pay back the religious and business people who had elected him. Instead, by all accounts, he ran a clean organization, free of patronage. In fact, his unwillingness to appoint his constituents to government positions cost him support in mid-term city council elections.
He made one error of judgment, though, appointing a chief of police who was a grafter. “I used to take minutes of the secret investigations,” Smith wrote. “The Chief had a Polish clerk, and the Pole tried to get information from me.”
It’s a good thing Thompson brought strong organizational skills to political office, because he wasn’t much as an orator, reported O.P. McConnell to Hagedorn many years later. One man asked to report what the mayor had said on a certain occasion answered, “He just opened his mouth and let it say what it had a mind to.”
The elder Thompson may have been honest to a fault. While he was abroad in the Mediterranean, representatives from Boston & Montana approached William Boyce about buying one of his father’s claims. They took the price he suggested.
“Later, Heinze came along and offered about ten times the price I had quoted,” William Boyce remembers. “This was before father returned home. Upon his arrival he said to me:
‘You made such a price to these other people?’ I told him, yes.
‘Did they take it?’
‘Well,’ said father, ‘they get it.’
William Boyce had quoted a price of $20,000. The Heinze clan had offered $200,000. At the time, William Boyce recalled, his father needed the money. “But father’s word was as good as gold.”
Maybe Thompson’s position had something to do with the influence of a very important person he had just met, Pope Leo XIII, who, of course, was Catholic. Thompson succeeded in getting a personal interview with the Pope and conceded that he was elected mayor due to a wave of righteousness. The Pope granted him mercy in a way by saying the movement had probably led many lukewarm Catholics to become more active supporters of the church. Much more on this in a subsequent post.
Thompson lived to meet the Pope, but not much longer. He was paralyzed by a stroke in May of 1900 while in the offices of the Boston and Montana Company and died several days later. The headline for his obituary in the Butte Miner noted that he had come to America as a youth, crossed the plains in an ox cart to Virginia City, and “by his hard work accumulated a fortune.”