Tommy Freehill: The Nevada Capitalist
Last week, Frank Duff’s ancestral connections to Ballyconnell were explored on the side of his maternal grandfather Michael Freehill. Another brother of Michael’s whom we mentioned, had emigrated, earning immense wealth abroad as a businessman and was described by the papers of his day as the ‘Capitalist’ Tommy Freehill, a self made man whose investment in a variety of projects with an eye to making a profit were equal to his kindness in helping the poor.
Tommy eventually settled in Virginia City, Nevada, a region famed for the Comstock lode found below the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, a peak lying in the Virginia Range of Virginia City which was discovered in 1859 and started one of the United States’ first silver ore mines that ignited a silver rush.
The Comstock lode was named after the erstwhile miner Henry Comstock and the mine once was described as the ‘richest silver mine’ in American history. However, Tommy Freehill, the canny Cavan man was later to claim that he had never invested a single share in any type of mine in his life. So how then did Tommy Freehill from Ballyconnell make his fortune?
Born on May 30, 1825, and christened Thomas Freehill, his parents were Francis and Mary Anne Reilly Freehill of Ballyconnell. Tommy as he was to be called had as previously mentioned in last week’s column a brother Michael and a sister Catherine. According to genealogical records, Catherine emigrated to the United States and she died there, at San Francisco in California, at the age of 90 in 1925.
In 1875, the White Pine News reported on Freehill, an old and respected citizen of Hamilton who had now made his headquarters in Virginia City and his ‘moneyed interests’ in White Pines meant it was necessary for him to visit every so often. He once announced to the press that White Pines ‘will yet come out and be one of the most flourishing counties in the Great East’, of Nevada. Freehill was known to be ‘a good square citizen and capitalist’ who in his youth departed the old home country and venturing forth he arrived in the West Indies and invested in a sugar plantation of which he became manager and ‘associate owner’ according to The Enterprise.
After Freehill’s taste of success, he moved to California in 1851 where he studied the goings on of the real estate market before buying into the market. Then, moving into Downieville, California, he set himself up in business and occupied himself with mining and mines presumably as a going concern to be bought and sold, and it was noted that, ‘he was very successful in that and everything else he undertook’. This was the man who blatantly boasted that he never once owned a single share in mining stocks and yet he grew very rich. Poetically, Downieville was known as the Forks of the Yuba, and the business minded Tommy Freehill saw an opportunity in the bridge that crossed the Yuba River which he purchased in 1860 and then promptly introduced a toll which made it ‘highly remunerative’ for its owner.
The gold miners had to cross that bridge when they came to it and evidently Freehill had calculated on a heavy flow of traffic when he invested in this important river crossing.
Two years later, and laden down with enormous wealth he left California and came to the Comstock, the home of the Comstock silver mine where it was all happening.
Freehill was not there to let the people free wheel through his new neighbourhood and quickly invested in the building of a toll road through the canyon below the mining town of Hamilton, Nevada and thereby establishing another line of income for himself.
Tommy Freehill, described as a pioneer of the old west, died on Thursday, 1 July 1886 at the home of Mrs. J.H. Curtis in Reno, Washoe, Nevada. Five days later, The Silver State paper wrote that the late capitalist ‘left an estate valued at over $500,000’ and ‘although strictly a businessman, he was no ways hard hearted, but accommodating and lenient to creditors and generous and charitable where he deemed it proper or necessary, and many poor people whom he constantly assisted will be sorry to learn that Tommy Freehill is no more’.
The Enterprise stated that ‘another of the old timers’ had passed away ‘into eternal quietude’ at 8.30pm in the Dunlop House and his only relative in the city was Frank Golden, his nephew. Although, he had a sister Catherine in Healdsberg, California whose husband, a former State Senator Lewis Byington, had coincidently died the day before his brother-in-law’s demise. Another relative of Tommy’s was his niece at Healdsberg. Mr Freehill was a member of the Masonic Order in Reno, and the brotherhood took charge of his funeral, and they laid him to rest in the Masonic section at Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada. Further information and research can be found online at: www.findagrave.com
On 16 April 1887, the White Pine News told of a new monument being prepared by the monument manufacturer J.M. McCormack to be placed at the grave of Tommy Freehill in Virginia City Cemetery and noted that, ‘it is seldom such a work of art is placed in a cemetery in sageland’.
Next week, we are again in Freehill genealogical territory and this time it is the story of Patrick Freehill who emigrated from Ballyconnell to Australia and whose generosity was said to have been unsurpassed; a man credited with having helped introduce hundreds of emigrating Irish families to Australia.
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