Five years ago, Goleta-raised author Gregory Crouch was looking for a new project. He had two successful narrative nonfiction books to his credit and thought his next might be about San Francisco. As he was researching ideas, Crouch kept coming across connections between the growth of San Francisco in the mid-19th century and the Comstock mines, located just over the Sierra Nevada mountains in Virginia City, in the Nevada Territory. The gold rush and the discovery of the Comstock Lode — the most concentrated source of precious metals on the planet — were pivotal to the development of the American West and transformed San Francisco from a trading port into an industrial city.
Probing this history, Crouch discovered John Mackay, a hardworking, fistfighting Irish miner who became one of the richest men in the world. “Mackay is a fascinating figure,” Crouch told the Santa Barbara Independent during a recent interview, “an improbable rags-to-riches story that captures the ethos of the time period.” Mackay, an immigrant whose family had fled the Potato Famine in Ireland, grew up desperately poor — so poor that the family shared its living space with a pig — in New York City’s infamous Five Points slum. Like thousands of other young men in the 1840s and ’50s, Mackay struck out for California to chase his fortune in the gold fields.
When Crouch, a graduate of Dos Pueblos High School and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, takes on a project, he immerses himself in the geography as much he does primary source material. “Places feel very different,” he said, “and that has a big impact on how I shape a story. I need to experience the physical territory, put my feet on the ground. I honestly think this stems from growing up in Goleta, being outdoors all the time, climbing trees, exploring creeks. My previous book, China’s Wings, was a logistical challenge because it’s about aviation in China and India, and I was only able to experience the locales once.”
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