James Graham Fair (Clogher, County Tyrone 3 December 1831 – San Francisco, 28 December 1894) was the overnight millionaire part-owner of the Comstock Lode, a United States Senator and a colorful real estate and railroad speculator.
Born to a poor Irish family Clogher, County Tyrone, Graham immigrated to the United States in 1843 and grew up on a farm in Illinois. There he received an extensive education in business before moving to California in 1850, where he prospected the Feather River country for gold embedded in quartz rather than pan for placer gold. His attention shifted to Nevada, where he operated a mill on the Washoe River and landed various mine superintendent positions in Angels and other places in the Mother Lode region. He became superintendent of the Hale and Norcross mine in Virginia City, Nevada in 1867.
He formed a partnership with three fellow Irishmen, John William Mackay, and the San Francisco saloon owners James C. Flood, and William S. O’Brien. The company was formally Flood and O’Brien, but popularly known as the “Bonanza firm”. The four made large fortunes in shares in silver mines working the Comstock Lode, struck in 1859. It was the first major silver discovery in the United States, producing over five hundred million dollars in twenty years’ operation. Although Fair was acknowledged to be a capable mine superintendent and a shrewd businessman, he was not well liked, and carried the nickname “Slippery Jim.” He invested much of his income from the Comstock in railroads and San Francisco real estate. Fair and Mackay owned the Nevada Bank of San Francisco, the rival to William Chapman Ralston’s Bank of California; after the collapse of Ralston’s financial empire, the Nevada Bank was for a time the largest bank in America at the height of the silver boom.
In 1876 he conceived the daring plan of extending his narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad down the east side of San Francisco Bay, through San Jose and Los Gatos and southward through a mountain route that entailed a 6,200-foot tunnel, another 5,000-foot one and six shorter tunnels, during which some six hundred Chinese workers were employed, among whom thirty-one lost their lives in explosions of coal gas. After Fair’s death the Southern Pacific took over his line and converted it to standard gauge.
Fair was appointed by the Nevada legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1881. He was not much interested in Washington, where he promoted silver issues in the Senate at a time when a movement was afoot to demonetize silver. Fair only served one term due to his defeat in the 1886 election. Following the end of his term, he moved back to San Francisco.
In 1861 Fair married Theresa Rooney, who had been keeping a boarding house. She divorced him in 1883 on grounds of “habitual adultery” and brought up their four children on her own, with a very considerable settlement.
When his daughter, Theresa “Tessie” Alice Fair was married in 1890 to Hermann Oelrichs of Norddeutsche Lloyd shipping lines, in the grandest wedding San Francisco had seen, he remained in his hotel suite without an invitation. He gave her a million dollars as a wedding gift nevertheless.
Fair is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California. His will left $40 million in trust to his daughters, née Theresa “Tessie” Alice Fair, Mrs. Hermann Oelrichs, and Virginia Graham, later Mrs William Kissam Vanderbilt II and his surviving son, Charles Lewis Fair.
After his death, Mrs. Nettie Cravens came forward claiming to be his wife. She presented her evidence to the court trial, but lost the case. She moved to Iowa and lived in obscurity, spending her last days in a mental institution. Later, another woman, Phoebe Couzins, a women’s-rights advocate, also claimed a relationship with Fair.
The Fairmont San Francisco hotel was built and named after Fair as grand monument by his daughters, Theresa Fair Oelrichs and Virginia Fair Vanderbilt who built the hotel Construction began in 1902, but they sold their interests in 1906, days before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.