Winfield Scott Stratton: The $10 Million Man, Part 1

A Test of Faith

Winfield Scott Stratton, perhaps the least known but single largest contributor to Colorado Springs, was an enigma. Known as much for his benevolence as for his eccentricities, Stratton was Colorado Springs’ first and biggest nineteenth-century multi-millionaire.

Born in Jeffersonville, Illinois in 1848, he was one of eight children, six of whom were girls. Most of his siblings died in infancy, so by the time he was a teenager, he had three older sisters left (theories have been offered that so many females in the house may have negatively influenced Stratton’s ability to form lasting relationships with women later in his life). He was named after Winfield Scott, nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” a hero from the Mexican-Indian war whom his father admired. Turns out young Winfield matched his namesake’s demeanor, earning the title “Little Fuss and Feathers” because he was calm most of the time but subject to bouts of temper. This personality trait would gain prominence throughout his life. When he was a teenager his father, Myron Stratton, imposed upon him an apprenticeship as a carpenter in his shipbuilding business, and young Winfield’s talent as a draftsman and woodworker was born.

Stratton didn’t really like carpentry, though. When he heard “Pikes Peak or Bust” from passengers on ships coming up the river, he began thinking of going to Colorado Springs to seek his fortune. He even had a dream about it, the first of three that would shape his life. It was another couple of years before he got the guts to defy his father, and he did it in a sneaky way that was becoming a pattern. His sister’s husband had recently opened a drug store in Iowa, so he took a job there as a clerk in order to further his secret plan to get to Colorado. He worked a couple of years at the drugstore until he had saved $300, then he left for Pikes Peak without telling anyone.

Anyone who has traveled toward Colorado Springs from the east knows the thrill of seeing the Rockies from far away and watching Pikes Peak take prominence as it gets closer. Stratton must have been awestruck by his first sighting of the mountain that would later change his life. He sidled into town, keeping his $300 hidden deep in his pocket and spending the night in a livery stable. The next day, he set about getting work.

With Stratton’s talent in carpentry and drafting, finding work was easy because in 1872, Colorado Springs had been incorporated for only about a year. His skills were in high demand. Soon, Stratton became well known for his businesslike manner and strong work ethic. He built many of the shanties people lived in until more permanent residences could be established. He took that $300 and invested in two pieces of land, which he later sold at a profit. One of the pieces was at the corner of Pikes Peak and Weber across from the Presbyterian Church, a lot he would later re-purchase because he loved it. After he became rich, he built his office there.

As his reputation as a carpenter and woodworker grew, he began making from one to three dollars a day. He soon started his own business, but due to his hot temper and rather unpredictable nature, he went through three partners before finally finding one that fit. One of the partners left because Stratton got so mad he tried to shoot the guy. Despite his erratic temper, Stratton was still considered one of the foremost authorities on buildings, so when Henry McAllister, one of the Springs’ earliest and most prominent residents, asked for his advice on building a weather-resistant house, Stratton suggested the twenty-inch-wide, two-inch-iron-rod reinforced walls that make the McAllister House still stand today. Stratton also hand carved all the distinctive “knob and notch” trim work around the doors in the house, and all the fancy woodwork on the porch and outside trim.

Stratton's trim work both inside and outside the McAllister House. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Stratton’s trim work both inside and outside the McAllister House. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Even though he did the woodwork in most of the houses on Millionaire’s Row (Wood Avenue), the McAllister House is one of the few specimens of Stratton’s work that still exists in the city today. McAllister’s son, Henry Jr., was a toddler at the time of Stratton’s work on the house; this boy would grow up to have a huge impact on Stratton’s legacy. Watch for him in part three of this series: “A Testament to a Legacy.”

The mountains were calling to Stratton louder than ever. Silver had been discovered at Leadville, and H. A. W. “Haw” Tabor, a grocery store owner there, had struck it rich and become an instant millionaire. Stratton was unable to deny the lure of the hills, so he sold his rather lucrative construction business, bought himself a tool outfit and a couple of burros, and started west.

Over the next five years, Stratton wandered all over the mountains trying again and again to find the bonanza he knew was out there. He stayed close to home in the winters, prospecting up some of the nearby canyons. It was during the winter of 1875-76 that he met Zeurah Stewart, nine years his junior and one of the few ladies whom he could tolerate. After a six-month courtship, he married her the following July. He was not a good husband. He left his wife alone for several months at a time, spent the inheritance from her mother’s death on prospecting, and flew into a jealous rage upon hearing that, in his absence, she had kept company with other men. After just a few months of marriage, she told him she was pregnant, and he swore the child wasn’t his. Convinced she had cheated on him, he sent her back to her home in Illinois and never saw her again. Two years later he filed for a divorce. Maybe because he was raised in a female-dominated household, or maybe because he felt burned by someone who was supposed to love him, but after that Stratton swore off women for good.

He went back to Leadville, where silver was king, and got a job in one of the mines there. One day he was hanging out in front of a hotel where he saw an imposing figure light a cigar with a dollar bill as he stepped through the doorway. Stratton was awed. Haw Tabor was the richest person in the country, pulling silver out of the Matchless and other mines way too fast to spend it all. People all over Colorado were striking it rich, so why couldn’t Stratton? He was more determined than ever to find his motherlode.

A political cartoon from 1895 depicting Haw Tabor and his silver dollar. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

A political cartoon from 1895 depicting Haw Tabor and his silver dollar. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Tabor had heard of Stratton’s talent with wood and commissioned him to carve and silver-leaf a giant wooden silver dollar. The icon was to go on top of the bank Tabor had built on the lot where his grocery store used to be. Stratton, broke after chasing false leads and finding nothing, gratefully took the job and even helped install the giant coin on top of the building. With the cash from Tabor, Stratton again set out into the mountains, chasing up stream beds and camping in valleys as he followed the rumors of gold and silver. When he ran out of money, he went back to Colorado Springs to earn some more, beginning a pattern of work-in-the-winter, prospect-in-the-summer that would continue for the next twelve years.

He went as far south as La Veta, as far west as Ouray, and as far north as Creede, but he still didn’t find anything. Pikes Peak kept watch over him, sending him the vibe that gold was at her heart. He looked up at her often and pondered her secrets. He was sure things would change if he tried some little-explored sections of the high country on the back side of the Peak. The problem was that by this time he had no cash, no supplies, and no credibility. Nobody wanted to grubstake him anymore; people considered such a venture a waste of money. He was a laughingstock, both in Cripple Creek and in Colorado Springs. He also had no education, so he took some surveying classes at Colorado College and at the Colorado School of Mines. He learned how to test ore for gold himself on site, which saved him time.

With a final plea he went to his old friend Leslie Popejoy, a plasterer with whom he had worked many times, and asked for a $275 grubstake. Stratton convinced Popejoy that this time would be different. Popejoy had heard this story before but ended up giving him the cash, telling Stratton that he was going to check up on him to make sure any stakes he drove around a claim had both their names on them. Stratton bought a new burro and supplies, and headed up Ute Pass. He camped outside Cripple Creek, talking late into the night with old prospectors and young greenhorns, getting a feel for things. His eyes kept going back to a promontory on the side of Battle Mountain, and he fell asleep dreaming of it. In the dream, he had an epiphany: his motherlode was inside the mountain under that ledge. The next day, he ran to stake it out. Miners thought he was crazy because there was no geological evidence of any gold over there. They laughed at him–he was such a fool!

With his usual quiet reserve he staked out two claims, the Washington and the Independence. Initial samples of the Washington claim assayed at almost nothing, so when Popejoy’s agent came to check that the stakes had both names on them, the agent returned with the news that yes, the stakes had both names, but no, the claims weren’t worth much. When Stratton came back to town the next day and bought out Popejoy’s share of the grubstake, Popejoy didn’t ask where Stratton got the money so fast; he just assumed that Stratton had swindled some other sucker out of it. Popejoy was glad to be shut of the whole deal, breathing a sigh of relief that he had avoided being added to the long list of those who had been shafted by Stratton’s schemes.

Popejoy’s mistake was Stratton’s life-changing moment: he was about to strike paydirt on the biggest goldmine in the world.

Click here for Part Two: “Independence and Influence,” in which Stratton strikes it rich and pays it forward.