Stratton, the $10 Million Man (Part 1)
Part 1: A Test of Faith
Winfield Scott Stratton, Colorado Springs’ first and biggest nineteenth-century multi-millionaire, was the single largest contributor to Colorado Springs. He left a legacy that still thrives today, although most people don’t know it. This four-part series explores his life and its lasting impact on the Pikes Peak region.
Born in Jeffersonville, Illinois in 1848 as one of eight children, by the time he was ten, he had only three older sisters left after the others died in infancy. He was named after Winfield Scott, nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers,” a hero from the Mexican-Indian war whom his father admired. “Young Fuss and Feathers,” as young Winfield was nicknamed, shared his namesake’s calm demeanor with sudden bouts of temper, a trait for which he would become known later in life. One story goes that when Winfield was about 12 or 13, he argued with his father and ended up firing a gun at him. His father, Myron Stratton, made him an apprentice carpenter in his shipbuilding business. Although young Stratton hated carpentry, he became quite adept at it.
While at work in the shipyard, he would hear, “Pikes Peak or Bust” from passengers on ships coming up the river; he became curious, later dreaming about seeking his fortune in Colorado Springs. This was the first of three rather prophetic dreams that would shape his life. After two years of planning, he took a job as a clerk in his brother-in-law’s shop in Iowa, worked a couple of years at the drugstore until he had saved $300, then took off for Pikes Peak.
Anyone who has traveled toward Colorado Springs from the east knows the thrill of watching Pikes Peak take prominence as it gets closer. Stratton must have been awestruck by his first sighting of the mountain that would later dominate his life. He sidled into town, keeping his $300 hidden deep in his pocket and spending the night in a livery stable. With his 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 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 re-purchase because he loved it, later building an office there.
As his reputation as a carpenter and woodworker grew, he began charging up to three dollars a day. He soon started his own business, but due to his hot temper and rather unpredictable nature (that old “fuss and feathers” trait), 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 him. He was still regarded as one of the foremost authorities on buildings, though, despite this erratic behavior.
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. The McAllister House is one of the few specimens of Stratton’s work that still exists in the city today. McAllister’s son, Harry, 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.”
Although he was successful, the mountains were calling to Stratton, and he had gold fever. 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 sold his lucrative construction business, bought himself a tool outfit and a couple of burros, and started life as a prospector. Over the next five years, Stratton wandered all over the mountains trying again and again to find the bonanza he knew was out there.
During the winter of 1875-76, he met a young woman named Zeurah Stewart and married her the following July after a whirlwind courtship. Still unable to shake the gold bug, he left her alone for several months at a time while spending the inheritance from her mother’s death on prospecting. True to form, he flew into a jealous rage upon hearing that, in his absence, she had kept company with other men. A few months later she told him she was pregnant. Convinced she had cheated on him, he swore the child wasn’t his and sent her packing. He never saw her again, and he swore off women for good.
In Leadville, where silver was king, he got a job as a miner. Hanging out in front of a hotel after work one day, he looked on in awe as an imposing figure lit a cigar with a dollar bill as he stepped through the doorway. Haw Tabor, the richest man in the United States, was standing right in front of him! Tabor’s Matchless Mine was as famous as he was. People all over Colorado were striking it rich, so why couldn’t Stratton? He was more determined than ever to find his mother lode.
Tabor had heard of Stratton’s talent with wood and commissioned him to carve and silver-leaf a giant wooden silver dollar to be mounted on Tabor’s new bank. Stratton gratefully took the job and even helped install it, as well as the bank’s vault. Flush with Tabor’s cash, Stratton again set out into the mountains, chasing up stream beds and camping in valleys as he followed the rumors of gold and silver. He worked as a carpenter in the winter to grubstake himself, then prospected in the summers for the next 12 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, so he set his eye on some little-explored sections of the high country on the back side of Pikes 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 him 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, learning how to test ore on site, a valuable skill.
With a final plea he went to his old friend Leslie Popejoy, a former co-worker, and asked for a $275 grubstake. Popejoy had misgivings, but ended up giving him the cash, telling Stratton that he would send an agent to check up on him to make sure any stakes he drove around a claim had both their names on them. With a new burro and supplies, Stratton headed up Ute Pass to camp outside Cripple Creek with some old prospectors who had inside information. As he listened, his eyes kept darting to a promontory of rock on the side of Battle Mountain. That night, he had a second prophetic dream. He awoke sure that his mother lode was right under that ledge he had been eyeing the night before, so he ran to stake it out. Other miners thought he was crazy and laughed at him; there was no geological evidence of any gold over there! They called him a fool.
He staked out two claims, naming them the “Washington” and the “Independence” to commemorate the day they were staked: July 4, 1891. Initial samples of the Washington assayed at almost nothing. Popejoy’s agent returned with the news that yes, the stakes had both names on them, but no, the claims weren’t worth much; Popejoy was glad to be shut of the deal when Stratton came back to town the next day and bought him out. He knew Stratton was broke, but he didn’t ask where the money came from.
This was Stratton’s life-changing moment: he was about to strike paydirt on the biggest gold mine in the world.