Among the last five states to join the Union, Utah existed as a rugged western territory. Settlers fought to ensure hot meals through the winter, let alone to scrape together enough to expand their homesteads.
Despite the perils of the untamed landscape, several innovative individuals struck it rich. With life-and-death stakes, many of these people from the 19th and 20th centuries should have lost everything with their risky prospecting, but managed to beat the odds and claim their big payday.
Here are some legendary Utah historical figures that made it big.
David Eccles, Utah's first multimillionaire
Born into an impoverished Scottish family in 1849, David Eccles was a teen when his family moved to Utah. During his life, he became one of America’s leading industrialists, notes a description from the University of Utah business school that bears his name.
He founded more than 50 businesses including lumber mills, shingle mills, planing mills, railroads and an electric plant in Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. He also invested in banks, insurance companies, construction companies, a sugar company and more.
Eccles was the state's first multimillionaire, according to Leonard Arrington's "Utah History Encyclopedia." As a practicing, polygamist, he had 23 children by two wives, including son George Eccles and grandson Spencer Eccles who were both prominent in the region's banking industry.
At the time of his death in 1912, Eccles was president of 17 corporations and seven banks and served as acting director of 24 businesses in various industries.
George Hearst: successful miner in Utah Territory
Park City natives may recognize the name of the infamous miner and entrepreneur, George Hearst. Raised on a small debt-ridden Missouri farm, Hearst's father died when he was 26, leaving him in charge of family welfare. Strapped for cash, he connected with miners nearby, learning whatever they would teach him about different types of mines, where to find ores and how best to extract them.
“The informal education he acquired at the local mines would prove invaluable, and — coupled with his natural gift for sniffing out rich veins of ore — would ultimately make him one of the wealthiest men of his time, and arguably the most knowledgeable on the subject of mining,” according to True West Magazine.
When Hearst heard of riches in California and the West, he went to Nevada, where he was successful at mining ventures. Then, he heard a rumor about “blue stuff” in the Washoe district of Utah Territory. Investing a chunk of his savings, he bought a one-sixth interest in the Ophir Mine near Virginia City. The profit was staggering.
“George Hearst opened his famous Ontario mine, which produced more than $50 million worth of silver in its heyday,” says Utah Stories. “Upon the completion of the mine in 1870, the Transcontinental Railroad brought hopeful miners by the hundreds to try their hand at prospecting in Park City’s exceedingly rich, treasure-laden ground.”
His success didn’t detract him from diversifying and optimizing his investments. He continued investing in real estate, cattle ranching and breeding horses. However, the real legacy of his life was in his winning personality. Serving in the California Senate, his fellow senators remembered him as a philanthropist.
Thomas Kearns: mining master and political novice
Spending his early years in the Silver King mine in Park City, Thomas Kearns used the millions he earned to make a name for himself in Utah. He moved from Nebraska to Park City as a young man, determined to make his fortune in mining.
As his dreams panned out, he found himself running for the open seat of the U.S. Senate. He was elected in 1901 but failed to be reelected for the next term. Kearns returned home to Utah and purchased the Salt Lake Tribune and launched the Salt Lake Telegram, according to History To Go.
He built St. Ann's Orphanage, now used as a school, as well as the Kearns home. Kearns died in 1918, and some years later his wife donated the home to the state. It is now the governor's official residence.
Jesse Knight: Silver City revitalizer
You may never have heard of the fabled Tintic mining area in Juab Country where the towns of Eureka, Mammoth, Dividend, Tintic Station, Silver City and Ironton sprang up around the 1870s. The region is geographically special — veins of ores and minerals swirled into the hillsides. As their names reflect, the outskirts of the towns bulged with precious metals.
After a prospector discovered silver ore, Eureka grew to be one of Utah’s top 10 largest cities, according to Utah Stories. In 1907, Jesse Knight, who had already discovered and made money from silver in the area, created the Utah Ore Sampling Company and the Tintic Smelter in Silver City.
“His claims in Tintic became valuable, and he soon was worth $30,000,” according to Utah Biographies. After buying and naming the Humbug Mine, he waited to see if it would pay off. In 1896, a great find in the mine produced the capital for him to invest in the Uncle Sam Mine.
By 1908 Silver City's population surged to its peak of 1,500, most of them Knight employees. However, the town’s glory days were numbered, and in 1915 the smelter was moved to Murray. Today the area is a ghost town; a victim of short-lived success.
Charles Steen: Moab uranium entrepreneur
Before it was the popular stop-over on the way to Utah’s famous national park, Moab was on the map as the place where Charles Steen hit the atomic jackpot. Once an unemployed oil geologist, Steen was looking for caches of uranium. He had extra motivation from incentives offered by the federal government.
The government was looking for domestic sources for the nuclear weapons program and was going to pay massive amounts of money if someone struck a vein, according to a biography of Steen, written by his son.
Gambling everything he had, he went to Utah with the theory that uranium would deposit in anticlinal structures. He hoped that several locations he had in mind would have the right attributes to produce a large supply.
“Using oil technology, Steen struck it rich with his ‘Mi Vida’ mine claim just southeast of Moab in Lisbon Valley,” according to Utah Stories. In 1952, Steen made millions off his claims from Mi Vida and “Moab soon became the ‘The Uranium Capital of the World’ and by the late 1950s, Utah’s uranium boom was turning prospectors into millionaires virtually overnight.”
You can still see Steen’s expression of the massive wealth he amassed after finding the cache. He built a $250,000 hilltop mansion, which is now the Sunset Grill. He also donated much of his wealth to build the community.
Daniel Jackling: a legacy of copper
Orphaned at age 2 in 1871 in Missouri, Daniel Jackling managed to gain an education and graduate from the Missouri School of Mines in spite of being passed from family to family.
By the mid-1890s, he was in Utah, working for a gold mining company in the Mercur district, according to a book called "Interview with Mining Engineers." During that time, he visited property around Bingham Canyon and believed it had potential for producing copper from low-grade ore.
In 1903, he was part of the group that acquired the mining rights to the property and founded the Utah Copper Company. The venture was called "Jackling's Folley" because most believed the low-quality of the ore meant mining it could not be financially viable.
Using open pit mining with steam shovels and railroad cars, the venture became wildly profitable and by 1912, Bingham Canyon Mine and the nearby smelting operations were the largest industrial mining complex in the world.
Jackling built a mansion in Woodside, California, in 1925. In 1984, the property was purchased by Apple founder Steve Jobs. A statue of Jackling rests in the Utah State Capital Rotunda.
Jon Huntsman Sr.: chemical billionaire
Huntsman started out as the son of a music teacher and built his chemical empire to a company worth billions. According to the New York Times, he created the plastic "clamshell" for Big Macs in the 1970s. This same company created many of the first disposable plates, bowls and fast food containers, but he sold the company to start Huntsman Corporation.
This new venture would be exceptionally profitable for the Utahn — his company created chemicals that are used in everything. Forbes notes that he purchased 34 companies throughout his lifetime, including Texaco's petrochemicals operation.
While earning his billions, Huntsman simultaneously worked for the Nixon administration. He also tried running for Utah governor, but ultimately lost. His legacy isn't forgotten in the beehive state, though. As a cancer survivor, Hunstman created the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. The New York Times reports he and his family donated more than $1.4 billion to cancer research during his lifetime.
John Willard Marriott: pioneer in hospitality
J. Willard Marriott was born in Utah, but his businesses took him all over the country, and eventually the world. According to Marriott, he was an entrepreneur even as a little child; he would help his dad sell the fruits of their family farm. He graduated from the University of Utah, which gave him the push he needed to start his own businesses.
Marriott's first start came from opening an A&W franchise, where he expanded it to include hot food and curbside service. That led him to open a total of seven Hot Shoppes in the Washington D.C. area, bringing him close to millionaire status, says Entrepreneur.
In the 1950s, Marriott was finally at a place where he could invest into bigger things. He opened his first motel, and the rest is history. In 2018, a few decades after Marriott's death, Marriott claimed the title as the biggest hotel operator in the world, Forbes reports.