Pioneer Profiles: Jimmie Burns
Not many Colorado Springs residents are familiar with Jimmie Burns, but they sure know his house, the grandest on Millionaire’s row at 1315 Wood Avenue. Now a set of apartments, Burns bought and expanded that huge complex after striking it rich in Cripple Creek from his Portland Mine, the richest mine in Colorado history.
Attracted to Colorado Springs by reports of gold, thirty-three-year-old Burns moved here with his sisters in 1886. Burns didn’t know a thing about prospecting or mining, but like thousands of others, he believed that there was so much gold in nearby Cripple Creek that he would stumble upon some and become fabulously rich. And why shouldn’t he? Kids across America were singing this little ditty:
Goin’ up to Cripple Creek,
Goin’ on a run!
Goin’ up to Cripple Creek
To have a little fun!
Burns was so sure of his incumbent success that he told his friend Winfield Scott Stratton, “I’m going to make a million and get a beautiful wife and send my brats East to school and build a house as big as General Palmer’s. And then I’m going to tell those god-damn millionaires to go to hell!” A city boy at heart, Burns hated the camp life of Cripple Creek which he endured while conducting his search for gold. Like many others, he would toss his hat and dig where it landed. If things looked promising, he’d file a claim. After several futile attempts, he enlisted the help of his friend James Doyle.
Burns talked Doyle into leaving his summer job as Superintendent of Irrigation in Colorado Springs to form a partnership and help fund the next endeavor. When Doyle got to Cripple Creek, he confessed that he had lost almost all of his wages in a craps game, so he didn’t have much to offer. Still, although Doyle was young and rather irresponsible and Burns was old enough to be his father, they hit it off, forming an unorthodox partnership that consisted of Burns learning from Stratton (who had had a few courses in mining from Colorado College and the Colorado School of Mines) then taking what Stratton taught him and teaching it to Doyle. Stratton hadn’t struck it rich yet, but they were all convinced it was only a matter of time.
Then Stratton struck gold with the Independence Mine, and in the shuffle of nearby claims afterward, Burns found himself standing in an area close by that wasn’t claimed. He jumped at the opportunity, staking a claim on a small area 700 feet above the Independence on Battle Mountain. “The Two Jimmies,” as they became known, took turns digging, coming up with nothing, and bickering the whole time. This frustrated and angered Stratton, who stopped talking to them.
Desperate for help, they took on John Harnan, who had been working as a sorter in the Independence. Burns called him over and asked his advice—they didn’t even know what a vein looked like, much less how to identify the signs of one. Harnan looked down and saw a huge chunk of sylvanite (an indicator of gold) in their trash pile and asked them, “How much will you give me if I find a vein?” They offered him a third interest, which he accepted. He went down the ladder and found the sylvanite vein he knew would be down there. Within a week, they ran their drift and began sacking ore. They had a problem: the claim was tiny, and wedged in between a bunch of other claims. Harnan was afraid of lawsuits if the ore was found to originate on one of the other claims, so they began to sack their ore at night and sneak it down to Pueblo for refining. Once Stratton got wind of what they were doing, Burns confessed, and Stratton helped them solidify their claim on what was to become the richest mine in the state.
The Portland, named after Burns’ hometown, eventually employed 700 men working in three eight-hour shifts. It produced gold until 1951, yielding $60 million and reaching a depth of 3200 feet. By comparison, the next two highest producing mines, the Cresson and the Independence, yielded $46 million and $28 million respectively. The Two Jimmies were now the richest men in the state. They and Stratton became household names, which drew even more gold-seekers to Colorado.
Burns and Doyle might have had a lifelong friendship, but money caused their breakup. In 1896, Stratton observed that they were “on the outs.” In January of that year, Burns had just come up from inspecting inside the Portland when eight miners went down and were killed in a collapse. Burns spent $100,000 recovering the bodies, and even more compensating the families. He did this without consulting the others, causing a deficit in the March dividend, which Doyle needed. He accused Burns of neglect that caused the miners’ deaths. Burns quit as President of the Portland, and it took Harnan and Stratton to calm him down. Things were never the same, and shortly after that Stratton reported seldom seeing them together. Doyle concentrated on being mayor in nearby Victor, and Burns focused on running the Portland. Their feud, lawsuits and grudges lasted until the turn of the century, and neither man ever spoke to the other again.
Burns served as the First National Bank president in Colorado Springs for several years and left an estate of almost $1.2 million, but not much of Burns’ legacy still exists in Colorado Springs, which may explain why many modern residents have never heard of him. After Burns moved into his house on Wood Avenue in 1902, he decided that the city needed an opera house similar to the one Tabor had built in Leadville. He built the Burns Theater in 1912 just near the center of town, which became the Chief Theater and was demolished in 1973 to become a bank parking lot.
Even though there isn’t much in the way of permanent fixtures to mark Jimmie Burns’ contributions to the Pikes Peak area, the United States economy felt the impact of his mine’s production for many decades after his death in 1917. Gold mines in Cripple Creek and Victor were so productive that the gold from them alone kept us on the gold standard until the mid-1970s. It just goes to prove that you don’t need a building named after you to leave a lasting mark in history.
Cripple Creek, a Quick History, by Leland Feitz
Exploring the Old North End, by Jennifer Lovell and Robert Loevy
Here Lies Colorado Springs, ed. Denise Oldach
Midas of the Rockies, by Frank Waters
Money Mountain, by Marshall Sprague