John Warne Gates

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"John W. Gates" redirects here. For the New York politician, see John W. Gates (New York).
Gates circa 1900

John Warne Gates (May 18, 1855 – August 9, 1911), also known as "Bet-a-Million" Gates, was a pioneer promoter of barbed wire who became a Gilded Age industrialist.


Gates was born in West Chicago, Illinois (then known as Turner Junction) in 1855. At age 12, Gates graduated in 1867 from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and married Delora R. Baker of St. Charles, Illinois. The couple had one son, Charles Gilbert Gates.

Gates' career began with a trip to San Antonio, Texas in 1876 when Isaac Ellwood hired him as a salesman for the Washburn-Moen barbed wire company, and a dramatic demonstration with cattle penned into Military Plaza.[1]

He later started the Southern Wire Company of St. Louis, Missouri, which merged with the wire company of William Edenborn to form Braddock Wire Company, from which Consolidated Steel and Wire Company was organized in 1888.[2] With the help of Chicago attorney Elbert Henry Gary he created a monopoly in the US wire industry in 1898 with American Steel and Wire Company, which was sold in 1901 to J. P. Morgan in a deal (also negotiated by Gary) to become part of the new U.S. Steel conglomerate.1.

Gates was a founder of The Texas Company which became the Texaco oil company. He became influential in the development of the city of Port Arthur, Texas when he took over the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad in December 1899 after he forced it into bankruptcy along with its previous owner and Port Arthur founder Arthur Edward Stilwell.

Gates had several other railroad investments. He was chiefly responsible for the financing and construction (with Arthur Stilwell) of the so-called "northern properties" including the Quincy, Omaha & Kansas City Railroad and the Iowa & St. Louis Railway, a Midwestern coal hauler. Gates was also involved in an attempt to speculate heavily on the stock of the Northern Pacific Railroad in May, 1901. 2.

Gates funeral in 1911 in Manhattan

In a 1900 horse race in England, Gates won $600,000 on a $70,000 bet, which rumors escalated to over $1 million and conferred on him the nickname "Bet-A-Million".

A compulsive gambler, he once participated in a marathon poker game on a train journey from Chicago to New York. After a week of nearly constant play (meals were taken at the poker table), the match ended with about half a million dollars changing hands.

Another story of Gates's gambling proclivities tells of his betting a million dollars on which of two raindrops on a window would reach the bottom first. He lost.

Gates died in Paris, France in 1911, following an unsuccessful operation to remove a throat tumor.[2] His funeral was held in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in New York. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


The Gates Memorial Library in Port Arthur was funded by his widow and donated to the city in 1918. Originally the city's public library, Gates Memorial now serves as the campus library for Lamar State College–Port Arthur.


  1. ^ "History of barbed wire". Ellwood House and Museum. Retrieved 2010-12-19. Because of these controversies, Sanborn and Warner failed to sell much barbed wire. This situation changed when a 21-year-old sales-man named John W. Gates was hired by Ellwood. Arriving in Texas, Gates obtained permission to build a barbed wire corral in San Antonio's Military Plaza. He announced that he intended to demonstrate that this fence could contain even the most wild Texas longhorns and offered to take all bets on the outcome. Gates' bravado soon aroused the interest of many cattlemen. When the fenced enclosure was complete, he had wild Longhorn bulls driven into the corral. The animals, aroused by the taunts of the onlookers, were provoked repeatedly to charge the barbed wire. The fences held and Gates soon began to sell barbed wire to the cattlemen by the railcar load. ... At the head of this company was John W. Gates who had begun his career selling barbed wire in Texas. American Steel & Wire became a subsidiary of the U. S. Steel Corporation in 1901. 
  2. ^ a b "J. W. Gates Dead. Ill For Months In Paris. Efforts of the Best Medical Skill Fail to Save American Financier's Life. Director Of Big Concerns. Was on the Board of Eight Railroad and Industrial Companies and a Powerful Influence in Others". New York Times. August 9, 1911. Retrieved 2010-11-09. John Warne Gates was born on a farm at Turner Junction, Ill., in 1855. His birthplace is now West Chicago. He began to show his business ability while ... 

Further reading[edit]

1. *Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt, Bet-A-Million!: The Story of John W. Gates, 1948, New York: Bobbs-Merrill

  • The Cyclopædia of American Biography, 1915, New York: The Press Association Compilers, Inc., vol. 8 p. 61; available online at the Making of America digital library.

2. Larry Haeg, "Harriman v. Hill- Wall Street's Great Railroad War", 2013, Minneapolis, MN.,University of Minnesota Press, p. 185.

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