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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,454

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This is the grave of Meyer Guggenheim.

Born in 1828 in Lengnau, Switzerland, Guggenheim grew up in the Jewish population of that nation, training as a tailor. He came to the United States in 1847. He started at the bottom, as a peddler, working out of Philadelphia. That was pretty typical for Jewish immigrants. One of the things he sold was shoe polish. He realized he could figure out how to do this and thus increase his profits. It worked. He started making more money and investing it. Still, for most of his life, he was just a middling immigrant, slowly rising and becoming wealthier, but hardly the patriarch of the one of the richest families in American history. By the early 1870s, he was reaching middle aged and he was doing pretty well, getting involved in some import/export stuff with connections back in Switzerland. He was an immigrant success story, but not one that would be remembered by the future.

The 1880s brought a very different late life for Guggenheim. He relocated to New York and began to invest his money in western mines. His seven sons were adults now and they had money too and so it was a family operation. But there wasn’t any genius here. He had a business associate who had some options on a couple of silver mines in Leadville, Colorado, that hadn’t produced much. Well, they were good mines. They went full bonanza. He paid $5,000 for the mines. He made $15 million. And there you have your Forever Family. He did make good decisions for sure–lots of people have gotten super rich and then blown the money. Guggenheim decided the mines weren’t enough. He thought he could make profit smelting the minerals as well. He was correct. He opened a smelting company in Denver and that also proved exceedingly profitable. Then he spent over $1 million on a gigantic smelter in Pueblo. That actually could have blown much of the fortune, but it worked too and he made even more money.

As a confirmed monopolist, Guggenheim wanted to control all parts of the industry and he wanted to get around any kind of regulations. He was also a pretty smart guy. The McKinley Tariff Act of 1890 put a new tariff on imported metal ore, but excluded Mexico. So Guggenheim sent one of his sons to Mexico to cut a deal with the dictator Porfirio Diaz. This was a good time as Diaz was the in process of selling off assets left and right to American and European capitalists as part of his attempts to modernize the nation. This would eventually be a huge catalyst for the Mexican Revolution, but this was nearly two decades in the future. Guggenheim bought a bunch of mines off Diaz. He build a new smelter in Monterey, which is what Diaz wanted, keeping some of those profits in Mexico. Guggenheim built another smelter in Aguascalientes. Combined, he now controlled 20 percent of Mexican silver and 40 percent of Mexican lead.

Then Guggenheim decided to build a new mill in New Jersey dedicated to the finer aspects of refining smelted ores. Again, this was your classic vertical monopolist of the Gilded Age, attempting to control every part of the process. But he was good at it. One of the things he consistently did was spend big for the best work. Of course paying your workers next to nothing helped. That went double for the Latin American operations, where Guggenheim could treat workers as peons, which he very much did. By 1900, Guggenheim was the world’s leading smelter owner. The company grew and grew, especially investing in mines in colonized nations, working with the European colonizers.

Guggenheim died in 1905, richer than his possible dreams. By the end, it was Guggenheim on one side of the smelting world and the Rockefeller-controlled ASARCO on the other. He gave control over the company in 1901 to his son Daniel. Another of his sons, Simon, bought his way into the Senate from Colorado, helping to lead to the Seventeenth Amendment.

Meyer Guggenheim is buried in Salem Fields Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Crocker is in Oakland, California and Elbert Gary is in Wheaton, Illinois. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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