Copper King Mansion and William A. Clark

William A. Clark built the 34-room Copper King Mansion in Butte, Montana between 1884 and 1889. It was situated in what was called Uptown and was reported to have nine fireplaces imported from France, ninety doors, and six-hundred and thirty-nine windowpanes. In addition, there was a grand staircase, known as the “Staircase of All Nations” that was an outstanding European wood carved staircase designed with birds and flowers and exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1909.

Copper King Mansion

The Copper King Mansion. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Clark was a wealthy American entrepreneur who strongly resembled the famous author, Charles Dickens. Clark also amassed a fortune during the Gilded Age, an era that extended roughly from 1870 to 1900 and was time of rapid economic growth. Clark’s story was a rags-to-riches one. He gained his wealth through his mining, railroad, and banking interests and became extremely prosperous just like William Henry Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller.

Copper King Mansion - William A. Clark

William A. Clark. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Clark was born on 8 January 1839 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and moved with his family to Iowa in 1856. There he worked as a schoolteacher and studied law. In 1862, he changed careers and traveled west to become a miner. Eventually he headed to the gold fields of Montana during that territory’s gold rush and landed in Bannack on 7 July 1863. He helped settle that town as the capital of the territory.

Clark also began placer mining in Montana. Though his profits were moderate, he invested his earnings wisely and became a trader of basic supplies. As a trader he initially drove mules back and forth between Salt Lake City and the unpaved boom towns of Montana. Of these early times The Independent Record noted:

“Mr. Clark crossed the Mullen Pass [in the Rocky Mountains] in the first stage driven over the divided at that point, and established a general merchandise business at Blackfoot [Idaho]. One deal in tobacco which Mr. Clark made about this time must have resulted in a profit of $15,000 to $18,000. Mr. Clark made several trips overland to the Mississippi valley, attended by a great deal of danger and hardship. In 1868 he opened a whole business in Helena … but the store was removed to Deer Lodge in 1870.”[1]

Despite his merchandising success, Clark changed careers once again in 1872. It happened the same year that writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, published Roughing It. Clark decided to become a banker in Deer Lodge and began repossessing mining properties when owners defaulted on their loans. This resulted in him making a fortune and he soon expanded his business interested into copper mining, small smelters, electric power companies, newspapers, railroads, and other money making ventures. In fact, he became so wealthy he was known as one of three “Copper Kings” of Butte, along with Marcus Daly and F. Augustus Heinze.

Mark Twain by A.F. Bradley in 1907. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

William A. Clark had nine children with two different women. His first wife was Katherine Stauffer and she died in 1893. His second wife was Anna Eugenia La Chapelle, described as mysterious and beautiful with one brown and one blue eye. She was thirty-nine years Clark’s junior and born 10 March 1878. Her father was a Montreal immigrant and early settler in Butte who died penniless.  After her father’s death La Chapelle’s mother, her, and her siblings then became Clark’s wards.*

With all his wealth, Clark decided to spend about $500,000 to construct a Romanesque Revival Victorian house in Butte. This house he declared as his primary residence. Architect D.T. McDevitt and the construction firm W.F. Beall & Co. built the three floor Copper King Mansion between 1884 and 1888. It was located at 219 West Granite and Idaho Street, and it had all the latest gadgets. For instance, there were gas jets and incandescent lights and when illuminated the Copper King Mansion was described as a “picturesque corner of fairy land with its floral decorations, rich furnishings, and draperies.”[2] Moreover, after its completion, the 34-room brick house with its Tiffany stained stained-glass windows was decorated with pansies on its stoop.

The Copper King Mansion became the site for a dancing reception that Clark held in December 1888. Newspapers reported that the party was considered one of the “most brilliant” social events in Butte, although it was nothing like some of the parties that socialites Alva Vanderbilt or Caroline Astor threw nor was it like the famous Devonshire Costume Ball of 1897. However, Clark’s party was reportedly attended by the most elite people within the territory. Guests began to appear around nine o’clock in the evening and Orton’s band furnished the music. After everyone promenaded and had a good time supper was served. Dancing then resumed, and, as was usual at the time, dancing lasted until the early morning hours.

Because of the party the Copper King Mansion was described in some detail by The Butte Miner:

“Mr. Clark’s residence is of the style of architecture now so much in vogue in the East, which combines many of the best features of the Tudor with the Italian renaissance. The frescoing of the vestibule is of the morseque order, and contains a beautiful statues of fine marble, placed in a niche to the left. The floor is laid with en-caustic tile of handsome design. The floors of the staircase, hall and bathroom are laid with mosaic flooring, and the walls of the main staircase hall are wainscotted with quarter sawed oak, four feet high, paneled and polished. The ceiling is laid off in panels formed by elaborately carved wood cornice and beam casing. The ceilings of all the rooms are works of art in themselves, copied from well-known master-pieces of world renown. The floors of the music room, dining room, parlor and billiard room are inlaid with mahogany, cherry, ash, white oak and white maple.

The main hall is 20×22. The visitor is first of all struck by the imposing ceiling, furnishings, and decorations of this room. The floor is inlaid, and on a handsome fireplace and mantel are several costly pieces of bric-a-brac. Portieres of rich tapestry and rugs of most elegant design complete the appointments.

To the left is the staircase. It is wide and gradual in ascent, and redeems its simplicity of plan by much opulence of ornament. At the first landing of this stairway is a window of double leaded Venetian amber and beveled plate 6×9 feet and the figures represent two of the muses. Cut crystal of many colors of gems are thickly studded wherever there is a pretext for them and is very beautiful.

The main hall of the second story is 12×16 and from it stretch minor corridors. It has a paneled wainscoting of oak four feet high and the other trimmings are of the same material. The sleeping apartments and guest chamber are on this floor as is also the family room which is finished with birch wood. … Wealth has provided each apartment with all sorts of costly and precious decorations. Royal Worcester, Dresden, alabaster and oil paintings by old masters are among the many beautiful things seen in this artistic home. …

In the third story is the ball room, servant’s sleeping rooms, study room, sewing room, etc. The ball room is 24×62 and the ceiling thirteen feet in the clear, and the walls are terra cotta. Two handsome chandeliers furnish the artificial light and the floor is as smooth as glass.”[3]

After the Copper King Mansion was built Clark enjoyed the distinction of being the only person in Butte who burned lots of coal in his parlor grate of his brick house. That was because brick was expensive to buy and transport. Of the brick house the Saturday Evening Post reported:

“Miners in-out-of-the-way camps who knew of Mr. Clark’s great fortune could not be induced to believe that he lived in a house made of real bricks, and the story that he burned coal would not be accepted by these men on any terms. Whole delegations of miner-men would arrive in Butte at all kinds of unseemly hours of the day and nights, and stare transfixed at the wonderful Clark mansion. Bets were won and lost in these early days by men who believed it impossible for any one to have the wealth and enterprise necessary to put up a brick structure in the wildness.”[4]

The King Copper Mansion was not the only house Clark built. He had homes in Santa Barbara, California, Washington, DC, and several other cities including Paris, France. Besides these he also built a much larger and much more extravagant mansion in New York known as the William A. Clark House. This residence was built at a cost of 7 million dollars, was 9 stories high, and contained 121 rooms, 25 of which were guest rooms with their own baths and another 35 rooms housed servants. The massive mansion also contained a 90-foot long Gothic library. Furthermore, Clark housed his extensive art collection that included works by such well-known artists as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, François Boucher, Jean-François Millet, and Charles-François Daubigny.

William A. Clark House in New York. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Clark’s New York home was located at 962 Fifth Avenue on the northeast corner of its intersection with East 77th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The house took up 250 feet on 77th Street and 77 feet on Fifth Avenue. Unfortunately, it does not exist today as it was demolished in 1927 and replaced with a luxury apartment building called 960 Fifth Avenue but also known as 3 East 77th Street.

Clark amassed his wealth as an influential and ruthless businessman and after securing millions he decided to get in politics. He had a dream of serving as a U.S. Senator and was elected to the Senate by bribing members of the Montana State Legislature in return for their votes because at the time U.S. Senators were chosen by their respective state legislatures. In response to criticism about him having bought votes to get him elected, Clark reportedly said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”[5]

William A. Clark as U.S. Senator. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the bribery scandal that surrounded him, many saw Clark’s ultra-extravagance in building such residences as the Copper King Mansion and the William A. Clark house as the embodiment of the excesses and corruption that ran rampant during the Gilded Age. Twain was among Clark’s fiercest critics and thought so little of him that after being roped into a dinner at the Union League Club where Clark was present, Twain criticized him in a 1907 essay stating:

“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. … I found that the Montana criminal was not merely a guest, but that the dinner was given in his honor. While the feeding was going on two of my elbow-neighbors supplied me with information concerning the reasons for this tribute of respect to Mr. Clark … [who] had lately lent to the Union League Club, which is the most powerful political club in America, and perhaps the richest, a million dollars’ worth of European pictures for exhibition. It was quite plain that my informant regarded this an act of almost superhuman generosity. One of my informants said, under his breath, and with awe and admiration, that if you should put together all of Mr. Clark’s several generosities to the club … the cost to Mr. Clark, first and last, would doubtless amount to a hundred thousand dollars. I saw that I was expected to exclaim, applaud, and adore, but I was not tempted to do it, because I had been informed, five minutes earlier, that Clark’s income, as stated under the worshiping informant’s breath, was thirty million dollars a year.”[6]

The 34-room Copper King Mansion still exists today. After Clark’s death it was inherited by his son, Charles. Unfortunately, he incurred serious gambling debts and was forced to sell the house to meet these debts. The Helena diocese of the Catholic Church bought it and then used it as a convent and girl’s school until it was purchased in 1953 by Mrs. Anne Cote. Now the splendid Copper King Mansion, which can be toured,§ is a bed and breakfast managed by Cote’s grandchildren.


*La Chapelle reputedly came from the Butte’s brothel-fill streets because her family rented out rooms to miners. 
John A. Schneider, along with two other New Yorkers, Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Osmond, were the fresco painters who did the fresco work at Clark’s home. The fresco work was estimated to have cost Clark at least $5,000 at the time.
The corruption associated with Clark’s election to the U.S. Senate contributed to the passage of the 17th Amendment and although the Senate initially refused to seat Clark, his later senate campaign was successful. He then served a single term from 1901 until 1907.
§For more information about touring or staying at the Copper King Mansion in Butte click here.

References:

  • [1] The Independent-Record, “Who Wants It?,” July 21, 1889, p. 5.
  • [2] The Butte Miner, “A Brilliant Reception,” December 22, 1888, p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The Saturday Evening Post, “Senator William A. Clark: The Copper King,” May 27, 1899, p. 763.
  • [5] C. C. Spence, Montana: A Bicentennial History (Nashville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), p. 102.
  • [6] Fischer, V., etal, ed., Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Mark Twain Papers 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), p. 388.

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