Winfield Scott Stratton: The $10 Million Man, Part 3
A Testament to a Legacy
Winfield Scott Stratton, America’s richest man and Colorado’s Mining King, was at the top of his game in 1899. The Independence Mine, the source of his sudden wealth, was producing about a million dollars a month (yes, you read that right) and Stratton had decided to do something crazy—sell it.
Stratton’s life had been directed by prophetic dreams: he dreamed that he would leave his hometown of Jeffersonville, Indiana to seek his fortune in Colorado, and he dreamed that he would find his motherlode under an abutment of rock on Battle Mountain near the town of Victor. Stratton awoke from a dream early in 1899 that foretold another major event in his life: the selling of the Independence in the largest mining deal yet made.
After entertaining several possible candidates for the sale, he went to England to discuss the most likely offer. He was invited to dinner by a group of gentlemen who called themselves the Venture Corporation. Gossips told a story that over a several-course meal these men offered Stratton $5 million with the soup, $5.5 million with the fish, $6 million with the entrée, and $7.5 million with the after-dinner cigars. None of that is true. After much negotiation over a period of months, during which time he was very ill and almost died from multiple stomach disorders and diabetes, Stratton ended up selling the Independence for $10 million, which in today’s currency equals just over $280 million. No wonder people said he couldn’t ever spend it all! By 1908 the Venture Corporation, renamed the Independence Capital Company after the sale, mined an additional $11 million worth of ore from the Independence. (The Independence continued in production until 1935, and in its lifetime produced a total of $28 million, almost $4.8 billion today. It was the third-highest gold producer of all time, behind the Cresson and Portland mines, at $49 million and $60 million respectively. These mines, operating until 1951, were in Cripple Creek.)
Stratton, very ill and declining, returned to his home in Colorado Springs, grateful to be in the shadow of the Peak again. Besieged by hundreds of callers asking for money, both at home and at his office, he couldn’t get away from people and sometimes escaped out the window of his office, jumping to the roof of the nearby newspaper building. Rumors abounded about his temper, his tendency to practice with his pistol at all hours of the night, and his past incidents of shooting people. It’s amazing their fear didn’t keep people away. Who wants to ring the doorbell and take a chance at getting shot?
Stratton decided it was time to truly give back to the community that had made him rich. Instead of building a theater (now the City Auditorium) as his friend Portland-mine-owner Jimmie Burns had done, Stratton bought up several blocks of downtown Colorado Springs and donated the land to the city, under one condition: the city must use the lots to build what it needed most. “Little London” needed a city hall, a county courthouse, and a post office. The problem was, even with the donated land the city couldn’t afford to construct these buildings. No problem: Stratton loaned the city the money to build them.
Stratton also created an entire streetcar system that ran from the Old North End all the way to Manitou Springs. The tracks were supposed to go right through the center of town, but Colorado College stood between the downtown area and the Old North End, and the college would not allow Stratton to install tracks through the center of campus. So, he grudgingly went around it. The streetcar system was unusual for its time not because of the system, but because of its workers. Stratton was the first businessman in America to set up a company-wide insurance policy for the entire streetcar workforce, a concept unheard of for its time. He also set up and bankrolled a program to provide homes for every employee. Within ten years, all workers owned their own homes, free and clear, due to Stratton’s creative financing.
Since mines in Cripple Creek and Victor had started producing pretty regularly, Stratton had noticed that miners and interested investors would meet and make mining deals right out in the open on the street corners. The corner of Nevada and Pikes Peak Avenues was the most popular place, and since the men were there already, Stratton figured they needed a roof over their heads, so that’s where he built the Mining Exchange. Stratton was heavily involved in the project, and stories abound of him visiting the work site. One time he allegedly kicked out part of a three-foot wall and told the bricklayer to start over, to build a better wall worthy of its purpose. Another time he showed up early in the morning to find a worker beating his arms against his sides to keep warm before starting his shift. Stratton fired him, saying that if the guy couldn’t keep warm enough through hard work, he didn’t deserve the job (although the next day he hired him back). Occasionally he would fire entire crews of men, hiring them back the next day with full compensation for the previous day’s lost wages. He figured this practice kept them on their toes so they wouldn’t take their jobs for granted.
Things settled into a pattern for a couple of years, at least on the surface, of Stratton dealing with business during the day and closing himself up inside his house at night. Unbeknownst to anyone, he was planning his largest scheme yet: to tap into what he called a “bowl of gold” underneath the mountains near Cripple Creek. He was sure he hadn’t yet gotten to the largest deposits of gold even though he had consulted on many other mine claims, including the Portland (Cripple Creek’s largest producer). He quietly bought up most of the claims in the area, concentrating on a six-square-mile section between Gold and Bull Hills. This, he said, was the center of a defunct volcano, where huge deposits of gold lay. (His theory was supported by the science of the time, although back then they believed that gold resulted from oxidation of the ore. That’s why many miners were convinced the gold was near the surface.) He wasn’t sure how far down he had to dig, but he was ready to go at least a thousand feet down, if not more. He was prepared, both financially and strategically, to do whatever it took.
Physically, though, he was not prepared. Drinking more and more, Stratton finally became bedridden with a combination of extreme cirrhosis of the liver and sugar-induced diabetes. Stratton had eaten little when he was healthy; now he barely ate anything, and only then with coaxing from his loyal housekeeper. Sinking in and out of consciousness, in his lucid moments he continued to write checks and keep tabs on his many business ventures until he passed away on September 14, 1902. His body lay in state at the Mining Exchange under armed guards for most of the next day. The streetcars stopped at 2:00 p.m. and the courthouse bell rang 54 times, once for each year of Stratton’s life. A short service followed at his home to which only family was invited, and then he was interred in Evergreen Cemetery.
Rumors flew like a wild prairie fire about Stratton’s will. Colorado Springs had been lobbying for a new library, Colorado College just knew their former student would forgive them for not allowing him to run tracks through their campus, and the Masons and Elks’ Clubs, of which he had recently become a member, expected to receive large endowments. The will didn’t go the way people expected, though. When it was read a week later, a few relatives and loyal employees received $50,000 or $10,000 stipends, but the rest of the fortune was to be expended building and maintaining a home for the aged, orphaned, and poor, named (after Stratton’s father) the Myron Stratton Home. Construction costs for the home were limited to $1 million; the rest of the funds were to be held in trust to keep the home running in perpetuity.
Everyone was outraged, spurring a long period of litigation. The state of Colorado was the first to bring suit, but suits were also brought by the city and county as well as at least a hundred individuals, all claiming that they either were owed money from a claim or deal they had made, or that they were a long lost relative. Leslie Popejoy, the man who had originally grubstaked Stratton’s claims on the Washington and Independence, showed up with a wooden stake from the original Independence claim that had both their names on it, saying he was owed his share of the mine’s profits. Although he sued the estate twice, he ended up settling out of court both times. One lady claimed to be Stratton’s sister (they had all died except for Anna, and she was present at his death and is buried beside him). This “sister” showed up and asked for her due, and when questioned as to her thirteen-year delay in acknowledging her relationship with her brother, she claimed she had forgotten about him after an argument they’d had years ago.
One woman, claiming to be his wife, said Stratton had married her while he was in Texas in 1874 brokering a deal for “cheap cattle.” The case drew out over several months, during which time the woman’s hot shot lawyer appeared to have the upper hand, producing eyewitnesses to and evidence of their wedding. The break in the case was Stratton’s weak point: he was a terrible accountant. He wrote checks for everything, but he never kept a register or reconciled his bank account, even when he was just a carpenter. For some reason the bank had kept his cancelled checks instead of returning them to him, and it was these checks that proved Stratton’s whereabouts on the dates his “wife” claimed he was in Texas. He was in Colorado Springs the whole time, doing business as usual.
And who should appear, after a decade, to collect his inheritance? The long-absent son, Isaac Henry Stratton, calling himself “I. Harry.” Stratton’s will had left him $50,000, which he contested. He won, eventually walking away with $350,000 and a handful of lawsuits from his informants in the Springs whom he had paid to keep tabs on his father. He lost $13,000 to those suits and took the rest to California where he lost it on bad real estate investments. He eventually became a bank clerk.
All the other suits lost, and then the big boys stepped in. The Independence Capital Company, which originally brokered the sale of the Independence in 1908 for $10 million, sued the estate, claiming Stratton never paid them. Harry McAllister, present as a toddler when Stratton did the woodwork on the McAllister House, defended Stratton’s estate. He set out to prove that no money was supposed to have changed hands with the sale of the Independence—it had been purely a stock transaction. After months of litigation, McAllister won the suit, protecting Stratton’s assets from the last of the litigants and paving the way for Stratton’s will to proceed.
Thirteen years after Stratton’s death, construction on the Myron Stratton Home could at last begin.