James Richard Thompson (1873-1927) was born in Virginia City, Montana, the second son of William Thompson (1832-1900) and Annie Marie Boyce (1846-1894). Relatives described him as an avid reader who lived in a house filled to the brim with books. The three boys – including William Boyce (1869-1930) and Joseph Edward (1875-1950) – were wonderfully close.
As young boys in Virginia City, they took an early liking to firearms and would stage mysterious expeditions involving robbers and Indians. On one occasion, the gang, including a couple of W.B.’s friends, camped out behind the woodshed of the Thompson house, probably where the Thompson-Hickman Library now stands. Unable to start a campfire due to high winds, they built one inside the woodshed. The structure predictably caught fire, and Jim was nearly singed.
When the family moved to Butte, the children would stage elaborate theatrical productions in the basement, borrowing wood from the Thompson lumberyard to build a stage.
“[T]heir bailiwick was the whole town and the hills which surrounded it, but the rock-walled basement of the Thompson house was their rendezvous,” remembers a family friend. “In that basement they hatched their plots and stratagems. There, too, whenever a traveling theatrical company had come to town, they would emulate its delights, giving improvisations which started out in superb melodrama and invariably fizzled out in guffaws and a roughhouse.”
In 1887 or 1889, the boys went into business with their father, and longtime business partner Arthur Smith, forming the Thompson Investment Company (TIC). William Thompson served as president, and Smith as secretary. The outgoing W.B., a great deal maker, was vice present and general manager. James Richard served as treasurer. He was probably also a real estate broker. He may have been the brains behind the operation.
“Jim Thompson was more likable than W.B.,” remembered Milo Hanson, a family friend. “Jim wanted to go into politics and would, no doubt, have made a great success in that field, but his father wanted him in his business, and Jim’s wife objected also. He was out of his element in business, and never made a success of it.”
J.E. Thompson, who was already building homes as a teenager, was closely aligned with the partnership though not an owner initially; he built homes with his brother Jim. The TIC was in nearly all lines of real estate and sold stock traded on the Boston Stock Exchange. It ran a coal business and managed the elder Thompson’s mining portfolio. The family made for an intriguing partnership.
“Jim was large, easy-going, deliberate, and a great reader,” remembers Lynn Boyce, a cousin. “Ed was inclined to be dictatorial and at nineteen brought his father to the point of sputtering protest by telling him how to run his lumber business. W.B. never made that mistake…. W.B. in Butte was serious-minded, but no one dreamed that he was exceptional or would attain the heights he reached.”
Thompson Investment Company was easily one of the most prominent home builders in Butte, in one year building 200 homes. But they also sold raw lots (often in districts that they had platted), rented houses (in some cases, homes they had no doubt built on speculation), ran a realty business, and sold homes on an installment basis (where your rental payment went toward eventual ownership of the house).
A series of clever, illustrated ads in Butte newspapers stoked interest in owning or renting property. One ad, with the headline “Throwing up Earth” over the figure of a man with a shovel tossing dirt in the air, said that the practice is a sure sign that “a man has come to a realizing sense of his position in the community.” It implored men to buy a lot in the Gagnon or Volunteer districts for as little as $200 and establish “title as a worthy citizen of this, the greatest mining town on earth.” For those unwilling to take the ownership plunge, the same ad offered a wide variety of rentals – everything from a 2-bedroom brick house for $11.50 a month on S. Arizona to a 6-room furnished home on South Dakota for $85 a month.
The city had an egalitarian mix of housing styles and prices – the rich and miners lived side by side. The 1100 block of Caledonia is a perfect example. James R. Thompson’s home massive, architect-designed, shingle-style residence occupied the north side of the street. He was the Thompson Investment Company treasurer when he built it in 1897, and William White was the architect. The south side of the block is lined by several of the Thompson Investment Company’s one-story, wood-frame worker’s houses constructed at the same time for a cost of about $500.
William and his two oldest sons also incorporated the Montana Fuel Company in 1898, delivering wood and coal in Butte.
Jim took over as president of Thompson Investment Company after his father died in 1900. William Boyce had moved on to New York to try to sell stock in mining ventures.
William Thompson, who died in 1900 – he lived the last several years of his life in James R.’s house on Caledonia – left behind many mining claims, more than 20, including the Copper Chief and Ida-M, that later became essential properties in Butte. William Boyce managed them at first. “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.”
Jim was heavily involved with his older brother in purchasing the Shannon Copper Company, the deal that made them their first fortune. The deal looked like it might fail initially; copper prices had dropped precipitously. Jim went to Clifton, Arizona, in July 1902. William Boyce wrote to him and told him not to lose faith in the deal. “Write me some letters that I can show others, and others only for myself. The result you will find, I think, will be that the smelter, while not giving the best result, is doing fairly well.”
William Boyce put his younger brother, Jim and James P. Gaskill, in charge of the big plans to build out the town of Ely City, Nevada. Nevada Consolidated Company, Ely’s most prominent mining presence, was considering building a new smelter and treatment plant east of the city that would employ 1,200 workers. The brothers would make a killing providing homes and services for the worker. Jim and James quickly put more than 500 people to work grading streets. They oversaw the construction of the nine-story Steptoe Hotel, the Ely Water Company, the Ely Electric Light and Power Company, and the Bank of Ely, later reorganized as the Copper National Bank. The effort went puff when Nevada Consolidated decided to build the smelter somewhere else.
In 1906, William Boyce became interested in the Pacific Traction Company — a real estate development — in Tacoma, Washington. With a man named E.B. Cadwell, whom he had met casually at a summer resort, he developed great plans for trolley, land, and power companies. Pacific Traction led to an interest in real estate at American Lake, Tacoma; the Sultan River project; and the Nisqually water rights on Nisqually River. The Pacific Development Company was created as an offshoot of the Pacific Traction Company. He ultimately decided the wasn’t yet ready for such a development. When it failed to unfold as expected, William Boyce lost interest and ultimately gave all his holdings to his brother Jim.
Later, J.R. Thompson, together with two partners, bought 80 acres of land in Lakewood, Washington, that in 1915 was developed into a cemetery, Mountain View Memorial Park.