05 June 2004

Leigh S. J. Hunt (1854-1933), Adventuresome Capitalist

Iowa State University Library houses a collection of papers from its third president, whose biographical sketch is more than a little intriguing.
Leigh S. J. Hunt was born in Indiana in 1855. He obtained his undergraduate degree through Middlebury College in Vermont via correspondence course. Hunt studied law independently and passed the bar in Indiana. He then taught at public schools in Indiana before moving to Iowa and becoming superintendent of schools at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (1880) and East Des Moines Independent School District, Des Moines, Iowa (1882). Hunt became the third president (1885) of Iowa State Agricultural College (Iowa State University). His lack of experience and aggressive style of leadership led to conflicts with the students and faculty and he resigned in 1886 after only one year.

Hunt moved to Seattle, Washington, and over the course of his lifetime participated in a wide variety of successful business ventures. He became a newspaper publisher (1886), real estate developer, and president of a bank while in Seattle. Hunt also would operate a gold mine in Korea (1893), grow cotton in Sudan (1904-1910), and eventually pursue mining, agriculture, and land development in Las Vegas, Nevada (1923-1933).

In 1885, Hunt married Jessie Noble (attended Iowa State, 1882) of Des Moines and had two children: Helen and Henry. Leigh Hunt died on October 5, 1933, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mr. Hunt made a lasting impression on Seattle.
[In 1887,] while Leigh Hunt, editor and publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was trailblazing along the ridge of what would be called Capitol Hill, he, by his own description, "fell into a deep communion with nature and under the enchanted spell of her visible forms." Under the influence of this reverie, Hunt next came across the few marked graves at Washelli. Perhaps dreaming of good copy, the editor claimed that a voice came to him demanding "Dispose of the dead elsewhere; this ground is reserved for the enjoyment of the living."

Promptly the city obeyed the influential publisher. The graves were moved next door to the Lake View Cemetery and the fresh and free acres were held as a reserve for more "deep communion with nature." The site was eventually named City Park and in 1901, Volunteer Park, to commemorate the patriotic gang of locals who volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898-99.
Donald C. Clark's Living Dangerously in Korea (Eastbridge, 2003) picks up Hunt's story from there.
After having left Seattle a pauper in 1894, in 1901 he went back and gave a dinner for his creditors, a party that was described in a local newspaper [Seattle Argus, 8 January 1934]: "At the end of what was probably the finest dinner ever served in this city up to that time, Mr. Hunt made a little speech and delivered to each of his guests an envelope containing a check for the amount of his debt, with interest added."
Korea is where he made all that money. He happened to be in Shanghai when James Morse of the American Trading Company in Yokohama was there looking for investors in a large-scale gold mining project that Korea's King Kojong was trying to get underway near Unsan, north of Pyongyang. Although Hunt was broke, he had rich friends, one of whom, New York financier J. Sloat Fassett, was willing to commit $100,000. By the summer of 1897, Hunt and Fassett has bought out Morse's share for $70,000, and Fassett returned to raise more capital and incorporate their venture as the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company, Inc., of West Virginia.

In 1899, they bought out the King's share for a combination of cash and annual royalties that came to less than $250,000, in return for which they ended up with "a 40-year, tax-free gold mining concession, complete with its own supplies of labor, timber, and water" (p. 226). By 1901, the newly reorganized OCMC was worth $5 million, and included investors in California (William Randolph Hearst, among others), New York, and London. Hunt and Fassett turned profits of about $2 million each. That's when Hunt decided he could afford to repay his Seattle creditors.

By the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, Hunt was investing in cotton ventures in the Sudan. A report in 2001 by the general director of the Sudan Cotton Co. on "stickiness problems in Sudanese cotton" briefly mentions the same Mr. Hunt in its introductory paragraph.
Cotton production in the Sudan has its roots as early as 1839 when it was introduced by Mumtaz Basha, a Turkish governor of Tokar district during the Turkish colonial rule in Sudan. In 1904 an American investor (Leigh Hunt) was granted a concession at Zeidab area - subsequently the Sudan plantation syndicate, a private company, was authorized to begin experiment with cotton production in 1911 in Tayba which was to become a nucleus for the prospective Gezira scheme. The construction of Sennar Dam in 1925 signaled the real take off for commercial cotton production in Sudan and in that year 80,000 feddans (virtually acres) were irrigated and expansion of area since then progressed in steady rates in Gezira and alongside Blue Nile and White Nile Banks.
Finally, the University of Nevada at Reno's Walter Hunsaker Collection adds more detail about Mr. Hunt's contribution to economic development in Nevada:
Hunt was an educator, president of Ames College in Iowa (1885), publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, head of a Seattle Bank, gold mine operator in Korea, developer of Egypt's long staple cotton industry, personal advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt during the Russo-Japanese War, and mining developer in the Eldorado Canyon District in Clark County, Nevada. Hunt made and lost several fortunes but always recovered after each loss.

Hunt came to Las Vegas in 1923 in search of health [sic]. He became the largest single land-holder in the Las Vegas area and had plans for extensive development of those holdings stimulated by the growth made possible by the cheap power from the nearby Boulder Dam project. His holdings included both land for housing subdivisions and property along the downtown Las Vegas "strip." In 1929 he hired Walter S. Hunsaker as his confidential secretary and business agent....
NOTE: Leigh S. J. Hunt is not to be confused with J. H. Leigh Hunt (1774–1859), the English Romantic poet, author of this metrically jarring yet delicately indescribable Rondeau (said to be about Thomas Carlyle's wife Jane).
Jenny kissed me when we met,
   Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
   Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
   Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
   Jenny kissed me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow Joel, thanks a lot for this information! If you have any more about Leigh S. J. Hunt and his exploits, I'd love to have it. You can email me at ogoodridge@gmail.com if you do have any more info and are kind enough to share it. Leigh is my great-uncle (I think). He was an amazing man.