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, Stratton’s former co-worker, had grubstaked Stratton the $275 it cost for the claims. Stratton sold a piece of property he owned in Denver for $250 and his house and lot in Colorado Springs. After paying off Popejoy, he had $500 left to spend on his claims. He went all in.

After an initial streak of gold 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, obstructed in one area by huge ten-ton boulders. The $80,000 evaporated quickly and in desperation, Stratton broke apart one of the boulders. The assay of its pieces ran to $12 a ton! He earned $60,000 from the ore in those boulders, so he wondered if his dream of gold on Battle Mountain could become a reality. Once the boulders were removed, he sank an ore chute which, contrary to what everyone predicted, tapped directly into a gold vein. From the moment the first samples were tested, Stratton knew he’d hit paydirt, quickly becoming Cripple Creek’s first millionaire. But with fortune comes fame, and he was not prepared for the attention his wealth attracted.

Before he could turn around, Stratton was famous. People crowded like paparazzi around the Independence hoping to catch a glance of the local celebrity. He hadn’t had his picture taken in 22 years, and now everyone wanted him to sit for one. Stratton didn’t want much of a social life in either Cripple Creek or Colorado Springs, 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 start a lavish lifestyle as others had, but 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.

He had kept in touch with Haw Tabor, the Silver King of Leadville, who, after blowing his millions on trivialities, was destitute. (A more recent study on sudden wealth indicates that about 70 percent of people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education.) 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.

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 told Stratton 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.

Stratton didn’t know what to do with his millions. He was a different kind of millionaire with a different kind of philosophy: if the land made him rich, he should return the favor. Unlike Haw Tabor, he didn’t blow his money on bad investments, tour the world, throw weekly lavish parties or light cigars with dollar bills. Instead he set upon civic improvement, both in Cripple Creek and in Colorado Springs. He was not a churchgoer, but he donated toward the establishment of at least five churches in both cities. 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 once overheard five sisters wishing for bicycles outside a local shop, so he went in and bought them each one, then arranged for every laundry maid in town to have her own bike so she wouldn’t have to walk to work.

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

Many times Stratton’s generosity was much more secretive. He gave untold thousands of dollars wherever he saw need. He may even have paid for Cripple Creek’s premier madam Pearl DeVere’s funeral, but there’s no way to tell. 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.” Yet 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.

Stratton was besieged with requests for money. 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 to see a young man 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 presented himself as Isaac Henry Stratton, his son via Zeurah Stewart, the wife whom Stratton had divorced many years before. The resemblance was undeniable. “What can I do for you?”

The boy, now eighteen, wanted Stratton to fund his education. Stratton wrote him a check and arranged for $100 a month payment until he finished school. The caveat was, the boy must leave the city and deny any relationship to or knowledge of his father. The kid kept his promise…until after Stratton’s death at the reading of his will (see part 4 of this series to find out what happened).

As demands for his attention intensified, so did Stratton’s reclusive behavior, and everyone seemed to have a different theory as to why. Visitors to his home, though few, were smuggled in the back door at night, causing the gossips to keep watch and report all movement around the house. They embellished Stratton’s actions and filled in what they didn’t know with wild conjecture until Stratton’s activities became the stuff of legend. Due to this intense scrutiny, he was forced to hire 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 to read, which he did voraciously. He owned many books on philosophy, mining, religion, and of course the classics. 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. He complained of constant stomach pain and barely ate anything. Stratton may have suffered from depression; his actions and temper certainly bear more study in regards to this theory.

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,”  was a teetotaling, snobbish spa-resort town, and the locals were mortified that just 22 miles away all this fighting, gambling, and whoring were giving their state and city a bad name. They were concerned about all the attention Stratton, and later others like Jimmie Burns, were bringing to Cripple Creek; they hoped not to be associated with such brazen behavior. Stratton’s odd spending habits combined with the over-active rumor mill did nothing to quell the speculation about just how much money he was making.

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

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 and keeping the mine’s total wealth a secret. He swore all mine workers to silence about anything that happened at the mine, but even so, 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 it a secret. 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.

Labor tensions were brewing in Cripple Creek and Victor. The miners’ union insisted that miners’ 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 the conflicts escalated. Mines all over the area required armed protection and hired “scabs” to replace 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, causing the State Militia and eventually the National Guard to come in to settle things. Stratton was unscathed by it all, because although the nearby Strong mine got blown up, nobody touched the Independence; people on both sides considered him a friend. No one knew Stratton defended his mine alone, with just a pistol to defend himself.

Early in 1899, Stratton suddenly became uncharacteristically communicative, allowing the Independence’s earnings to be shared openly in the press. This secretive man who wouldn’t appear at public functions or discuss his business with anyone suddenly started publishing his mine’s worth. This really started tongues wagging, but he had a plan to sell the Independence in the biggest mining deal ever made.

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.

Photo By: Penrose Library Digital Collection
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“Stratton, the $10 Million Man (Part 2)”