Winfield Scott Stratton: The $10 Million Man, Part 2

Independence and Influence

Continued from:

Part 1: “A Test of Faith”

As dawn broke on July 4, 1891, Winfield Scott Stratton stood upon his two claims near Victor, Colorado: the Washington and the Independence, named to commemorate the date on which they were claimed. Leslie Popejoy, who had grubstaked Stratton the $275 it cost for the claims, had taken off for Denver after Stratton bought out his share. How did penniless Stratton get the money? He had been hiding an ace up his sleeve, a deed to a piece of land in Denver which he sold for $250. Then he sold his house and lot in Colorado Springs. After paying off Popejoy, he had $500 left to spend on his claims. He was going all in.

After an initial streak of gold that led Stratton to start selling shares that amounted to around $80,000, the Washington fizzled out. He sold it and focused on the Independence. For months he and a friend poked around the claim, digging here and there, but in one area huge ten-ton boulders were in their way. The $80,000 evaporated quickly and in desperation, Stratton broke apart one of the boulders. He knew he was onto something when the assay of the boulder’s pieces ran to $12 a ton. He earned $60,000 just from the boulders alone, so he figured this area might be a good place to sink an ore chute which, contrary to what everyone predicted, tapped directly into a giant gold vein. GOLD! He’d struck it rich, becoming Cripple Creek’s first millionaire.

All of a sudden, Stratton had more attention than he could handle. People crowded like paparazzi around the Independence hoping to catch a glance of or have a word with the local millionaire. He hadn’t had his picture taken in 22 years, and now everyone wanted him to sit for one. He was invited to all sorts of parties and events in Colorado Springs, but he barely noticed; he was a very busy man. There was talk of legislation to change to a silver standard because of all the silver coming out of Leadville, but Stratton just kept plugging along, staying out of the politics. The federal government, saying that too much silver had glutted the market, decided to keep the gold standard. Stratton was relieved, but as usual he didn’t discuss his opinion openly.

Cripple Creek at the turn of the century was just like a movie cliché: a boom town full of miners, prospectors, and capitalists. Casinos, saloons, and brothels cropped up along Meyers and Bennett Avenues as the population bloomed to 50,000. Colorado Springs, known as “Little London,” teetotaling, snobbish spa-resort town that it had become, was mortified that just 22 miles away all this fighting, gambling, and whoring was giving their state and city a bad name. Stratton didn’t want much of a social life in either place, so he split his time between the city and the mine, living part-time in a shack near the Independence so he could keep an eye on things. People expected Stratton to buy two homes and start a lavish lifestyle as others like H. A. W. “Haw” Tabor, the Silver King of Leadville, had done. Stratton’s shared time in both places, where he talked to very few people,  fueled speculation about where he was and what he was doing and added a further air of mystery to an already secretive man.

At the mines, labor tension was brewing. The miners’ union insisted that workers’ pay should be standardized at $3.00 a day for eight hours of work, but the owners said that if the workers wanted $3.00 per day, they would work 10 hours and eat on their own time. Stratton tried to find the middle ground at $3.25 for nine hours of work, but things got volatile very quickly. Mines all over the area started requiring armed protection and hiring “scabs” to replace their striking miners. A sheriff’s deputy got shot as he stood outside a hotel, which spurred an all-out war. Somebody even brought in a cannon, and the two sides opened fire. The State Militia and eventually the National Guard had to be brought in to settle things. And there sat Stratton, unscathed by it all, because although the nearby Strong mine got blown up, nobody touched the Independence. No one knew Stratton defended it alone–just him and his pistol.

In Little London, Stratton’s odd social habits, which once had caused people to pity and laugh at him, were, with the addition of his millions, euphemized as “eccentricities” and “whimsy.” He was generous to a fault, but very subtle about giving money. Frank Waters, author of Midas of the Rockies put it this way: “right hand outstretched with money, left hand raised with a finger to his lips.” He was not a churchgoer, but he donated toward the establishment of at least three churches in Cripple Creek and two in Colorado Springs. He donated to the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind for a scholarship and physics lab, to the Salvation Army to feed homeless people, and to prospectors who came back from Cripple Creek broke. He built a modest house at 115 N. Weber where he had special trim work installed around the outside of the house (he fired a gardener once for not keeping the grass trimmed so it could be seen from the street. It was the only time he ever fired anybody permanently). He also demanded fresh sheets and table linens every day so that his laundry maid would never want for work. He once overheard five sisters wishing for bicycles outside a local shop, so he went in and bought them each one, then arranged for each laundry maid in town to have her own bike so she wouldn’t have to walk to work. When Cripple Creek caught fire in 1896, he sent up wagons full of blankets, food and supplies. He funded it all himself, telling the displaced citizens to spare no expense and to charge whatever they needed to his account.

Fire in Cripple Creek, 1896. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Fire in Cripple Creek, 1896. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Collection)

Unlike Haw Tabor, he didn’t blow his money on bad investments, tour the world, throw weekly lavish parties or light cigars with it. Stratton was a different kind of millionaire whose philosophy was that if the land made him a millionaire, he should give back to the community that made him rich. The only luxuries he afforded himself were new tailor-made boots and Stetson hats. After he struck it rich, he was never seen without them.

Stratton shunned all forms of public entertainment, even dances and celebrations given to honor him. General Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, hosted a banquet for him at the Antlers Hotel and talked Stratton into going, since he was the guest of honor. After dressing in a tuxedo for the evening, Stratton asked his maid if he looked presentable. She remarked, “You look wonderful, Mr. Stratton, but you can’t wear boots and a Stetson with a tuxedo. It just isn’t done.” Hearing this, he ripped the tuxedo into shreds and refused to attend.

One day he was sitting in his office sorting through the hundreds of letters he got each day when his assistant knocked on the door. “Someone’s here to see you, Mr. Stratton.”

“You know I don’t take visitors.”

“You’ll want to take this one.” After the assistant closed the door, Stratton peeked through the office window into the waiting room. Oh my gosh! A young man stood there who looked just like him: tall and slim, with the same piercing blue eyes and aquiline nose.

“Send him in,” Stratton grunted through the closed door. The young man entered, presenting himself as Isaac Henry Stratton, his son via Zeurah Stewart, the wife whom Stratton had sent away and divorced many years previously. The resemblance was undeniable. “What can I do for you?”

The boy, now eighteen, was interested in attending college and wanted Stratton to fund his education. Stratton wrote him a check and arranged for $100 a month payment until he finished school. In order to keep receiving money, Stratton said, the boy must leave the city and deny any relationship to or knowledge of Stratton. The kid kept his promise…until after Stratton’s death at the reading of his will.

Stratton’s reclusive behavior intensified. The more he shut himself in, the more he was thronged with requests for his time. Everyone seemed to have a theory as to why he was so secretive. Visitors to his home, though few, had to be smuggled in the back door at night. The gossips kept watch and reported all comings and goings from the house, embellishing Stratton’s actions and filling in the gaps with wild conjecture until Stratton’s activities became the stuff of legend. He was so besieged by beggars and the curious that he finally hired a carriage driver to take him the few short blocks between his home and office. However, his home life was not nearly as wild as it was assumed. After his evening meal he usually went to his library where he read voraciously, enjoying many books on philosophy and religion. He also began drinking a lot. He never drank during the day, and no one ever saw him drunk, but as his alcohol consumption increased, so did related illnesses such as sugar-induced diabetes and the beginnings of cirrhosis of the liver. He complained of constant stomach pain and barely ate anything. I contend, after researching several sources, that Stratton may have been either clinically depressed or had bi-polar disorder. His actions and temper certainly bear more study in regards to this theory.

By 1898 the Independence was reporting somewhere near the million-per-month mark (think of it: that’s just over $28 million a month by today’s standards), but Stratton shrewdly treated the mine like a bank, only withdrawing what he needed.

A check written from the Independence Mine to the bank in Victor, CO. (Credit: Mt. Gothic Tomes and Reliquary)

A check written from the Independence Mine to the bank in Victor, CO. (Credit: Mt. Gothic Tomes and Reliquary)

He swore all mineworkers to silence about anything that happened at the mine. Just the same, information leaked out. At the turn of the century, the Independence was growing bigger by the week, so it became harder and harder to keep its secrets. Now encompassing fourteen claims (110 acres) with more than six-and-a-half miles of underground workings, the average ore yield was $92 per ton ($2,577 today). Sections of the mine had so much gold that they were named as if they were mines within themselves.

He kept in touch with his old friend Haw Tabor, who, after blowing his millions on trivialities, was destitute. The only things he had left were liens on several pieces of property in Denver as well as the famous Brown Palace. The tables had turned, and Stratton reflected on the time  when he, as a young prospector, had seen Haw Tabor light a cigar with a dollar bill outside a hotel in Leadville. Stratton went to Denver and paid off all Tabor’s debts, bought all his useless property as well as the Brown Palace, and set the Tabors up with a pension.

Early in 1899 Stratton became uncharacteristically communicative, allowing the Independence’s earnings to be shared openly in the press. The man who wouldn’t appear at public functions or discuss his business dealings with anyone suddenly started publishing his mine’s worth. This really started tongues wagging, but there was a method to his madness: he was planning to sell the Independence in the biggest mining deal yet.

Click here for Part Three: “A Testament to a Legacy” in which Stratton brokers a $10 million deal, and his will shocks Colorado Springs to its core.

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“Winfield Scott Stratton: The $10 Million Man, Part 2”