St. Louis Gold & Silver Mining Company Stock - with Big Four W. S. O'Brien Signature

Currency:USD Category:Coins & Paper Money / Stock & Bond - Mining Start Price:1,500.00 USD Estimated At:3,000.00 - 5,000.00 USD
St. Louis Gold & Silver Mining Company Stock - with Big Four W. S. O'Brien Signature
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State: Nevada City: Silver City Date: 1861 (1871)
The St. Louis Mining Co. Stock certificate signed by one of the Comstock Silver Kings
By Fred N. Holabird and Joseph Elcano


This is one of the most dramatic of the Nevada Territorial - Utah Territorial stock certificates in the Prag Collection. It was incorporated months before Nevada became a Territory. It is assigned to WS Hobart, the Lake Tahoe Lumber baron. But most importantly, contains the signature of W. S. O'Brien as president.
William S. Obrien was one of the four “Silver Kings” of Comstock fame, along with his partners John Mackay, James G. Fair, and J.C. Flood. Together, the group successfully monopolized much of the Comstock during the bonanza production period of the 1870’s and more.

In over four decades of intensely looking for key Comstock autographs, I (FH) have never before found an O’Brien signature on anything. That includes the several Flood & O’Brien letter books, hundreds of letters from key Comstock personalities, thousands of checks and hundreds of original deeds – where we found other key autographs from Leland Stanford, A. G. Bell, Mark Hopkins to George Hearst. Even the Nevada Historical Society and the University of Nevada Special Collections Library have no O’Brien signature.

O’Brien Gets His Start in California Gold Country

William Shoney O'Brien was born in Ireland and came over to American when he was a young lad. In 1849 he headed to the California gold fields. He was so poor that he was forced to help unload the ship that brought him to California. He was so poor a stranger gave him a serviceable pair of boots. He immediately headed for gold country only to return to San Francisco in 1851. There he went into business eventually selling marine supplies. In 1857, after the sinking of the SS Central America caused a financial panic, many San Francisco businesses suffered and failed. O’Brien and his neighbor JC Flood decided to try a different operation, a saloon. Along the way, O’Brien was captain of San Francisco’s California (Fire) Engine Co. No. 4.

Flood & O’Brein’s Saloon

The original saloon location was inadequate, and the pair soon moved to a spot adjacent to the largest marketplace in San Francisco, known as the Washington Market (located on Washington Street). They called it “Auction Lunch” (saloon). Here, the saloon took off. It was a winner. They made it even better by providing free food for the drinking patrons. Flood worked the bar, and O’Brien served meat from freshly cooked hams and beef, always keeping a jovial attitude which the customers loved. It was called a 'one-bit' saloon, a term for saloons serving cheap liquor. The "money" saloons charged two bits- 25 cents- for a drink. As Oscar Lewis pointed out in his work Silver kings (1986), “It was O’Brien’s fashion to array himself in broadcloth and high silk hat, and so bedecked to stand outside the saloon and do the agreeable to the passing acquaintance, a little exercise of attention that generally led to adjournment for a drink.” Flood dressed in a similar flamboyant fashion. (Lewis, p 220)
It was at the saloon that the pair met John Mackay and James G. Fair. Over many a drink, dreams and plans began to emerge.
Soon after the saloon opened, the San Francisco Mining Exchange, created in 1862 to promote and trade Comstock stocks, moved next door to the market, and Flood & O’Briens’s Auction Lunch Saloon became the key important place for meetings and discussions of mining ventures. At one point, it was rumored that O’Brien was appointed president (unconfirmed as of this writing). It was from the Auction Lunch Saloon that the “Silver Kings” began their plans.

The Comstock mines hit a hiatus in production in the first half of the 1860 decade, with production from the Ophir and Gould & Curry leading the way. But as the rich near-surface ores became depleted, stocks and overall production began to wane. This weak financial period represented a key opportunity for speculation in mines, and Mackay, Fair, Flood & O’Brien figured it out and struck- at first as two separate “teams” and later as a more unified single team.

In 1867 Flood and O'Brien sold the saloon and started a stock brokerage firm specializing in Comstock mines. Flood was reportedly the brains behind the operation. They also recognized other opportunities related to Comstock mines, in particular the milling side of the business. Here, Flood & O’Brien realized they could have some partial control over the milling part of the business by controlling the mercury needed for the stamp mills. In this endeavor, they became the crucial middlemen between the California mercury producers in Sonoma and Lake counties, New Almaden and the Comstock mills.
In 1869 O'Brien and John Mackay partnered and headed to Virginia City. As they approached the Comstock, O'Brien took a 50c piece, the only cash the two of them had, turned around and hurled it back down the canyon for good luck. That was so like O'Brien.

O’Brien shunned the business limelight that his partners cherished. O’Brien was happy to take the back seat, and this is reflected in the rarity of original documents bearing his name.

The Partnership in Mining Ventures

The four partners began purchasing what were thought to be unpromising properties. Then in 1869, through shrewd trading, the four gained control of the Hale & Norcross. The Consolidated Virginia came next. Within four years of selling the “one-bit saloon”, O’Brien was making a half of a million dollars a month. O'Brien bought the William Sharon residence in San Francisco. Definitely high society! But business cares and social responsibilities rested lightly on his shoulders. He was seen more often at McGovern's saloon talking to his former Auction House acquaintances than in his office at the Bonanza firm. He was often referred to as the 'jolly millionaire. While his partners were integrated more and more into high San Francisco society, O'Brien held on to his roots. He constantly was looking for the stranger that gave him those boots back in 1849 so he could thank him properly. [San Francisco Alta, Obituary, 5-3-1878 and Silver Kings by Lewis]

This Certificate

The St. Louis Mining Company was incorporated when Nevada was still part of Utah Territory. This is certificate #494 for three shares to W. S. Hobart, the Tahoe lumber king. Signed by W. S. O'Brien as president and Cyrus W Jones as secretary. Dateline August 17, 1871. Incorporated January 14, 1861. Valley mill scene vignette with fancy scroll work on left. BF Butler printer. Not cancelled. Prag Collection.

So, is this really a William Shoney O'Brien's signature? Without one to compare with, we have to rely on provenance. In 1866/7 O'Brien left the saloon business to devote his full attention to Comstock mining. This 1871 stock certificate would fit that time period perfectly, and also perfectly fits the known data. It was also during the time when the Bonanza Kings were gobbling up mines. According to Anasari [Mines and Mills of the Comstock Region Western Nevada], the St. Louis Mine, along with the Echo, Lucerne and Waller's Defeat, were purchased by the Big Four (Mackey, Flood, Fair, and O'Brien) in 1872/3. These were later incorporated into the Silver Hills Mine, a major mine in Silver City that had near-continuous production through WW2. We did an 1870's census search for anyone in California or Nevada that might be another “W. S. O'Brien”. William Shoney O'Brien was the only one that fit the bill. We searched San Francisco Directories from 1868 to 1874. The only W. S. O'Brien in any of the directories was William Shoney O'Brien of Flood and O'Brien. There was a William (no 'S") listed as a miner only in 1868 and Walter (no 'S") listed as a miner only in 1872. There were many other W. O'Brien's with occupations ranging from butcher to laborer to waiter to teamster to deckhand to cashier to farmer to porter to dressmaker, etc. These would certainly not be the president of a major Comstock mine in 1871.

William Shoney O’Brein died in 1878. His fortune has been reported as anything from $15 million to $35million. He was listed as one of the 100 wealthiest Americans in 1996 by Klepper & Gunther [The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates—A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present]. Despite his rags to riches story, his story as a true 49er, his accumulation of vast wealth on the Comstock, today he is almost the 'Invisible Man.'

HWAC# 84518