Stratton, the $10 Million Man (Part 3)

A Testament to a Legacy

Continued from:

Part 1: “A Test of Faith”

Part 2: “Independence and Influence”

Winfield Scott Stratton’s life had been directed by prophetic dreams: when he was a kid, he dreamed that he would leave his hometown of Jeffersonville, Indiana to seek his fortune in Colorado. As a middle-aged man, he dreamed that he would find gold on Battle Mountain near the town of Victor, Colorado. Early in 1899, Stratton had a third dream that foretold selling his Independence mine. At the time, Stratton was America’s richest man and was known as Colorado’s Mining King because the Independence was producing about a million dollars a month (yes, you read that right). This would be the largest mining deal ever made.

Stratton spent quite a bit of time considering offers, finally traveling to England to have dinner with a group of gentlemen who called themselves the Venture Corporation. Gossips told a story that over a several-course meal, these men offered Stratton $5 million with the soup, $5.5 million with the fish, $6 million with the entrée, and $7.5 million with the after-dinner cigars. None of that is true. After much negotiation over a period of months, during which time he was very ill and almost died from multiple stomach disorders and complications from diabetes, Stratton ended up selling the Independence for $10 million, which in today’s currency equals just over $280 million. No wonder people said he couldn’t ever spend it all! That’s why I call him the $10 Million Man.

By 1908 the Venture Corporation, renamed the Independence Capital Company after the sale, mined an additional $11 million worth of ore from the Independence. The Independence continued in production until 1935, and in its lifetime produced a total of $28 million, worth almost $4.8 billion today. It was the third-highest gold producer of all time, behind the Cresson and Portland mines, at $49 million and $60 million respectively. These mines, operating until 1951, were nearby in Cripple Creek. So just for a little perspective, the world’s top three top gold-producing mines were all within a few miles of each other on the back side of Pikes Peak, just where Stratton had predicted, and the gold produced in these mines created over a third of the world’s wealth. Staggering!

Stratton, very ill and declining, returned to his home in Colorado Springs, grateful to be in the shadow of the Peak again. Besieged by hundreds of callers asking for money both at home and at his office, he sometimes escaped out the window of his office, jumping to the roof of the nearby newspaper building. Rumors abounded about his temper, his tendency to practice with his pistols at all hours of the night, and his past incidents of shooting people. His will lists seven long guns in the closet by the front door and five pistols in his night stand. Given his past (he shot at his father as a kid, and at a business partner early in his career), it’s amazing more people didn’t get shot.

Stratton decided it was time to truly give back to the community that had made him rich. Instead of building a theater as his friend Portland-mine-owner Jimmie Burns had done, Stratton bought up several blocks of downtown Colorado Springs and donated the land to the city, under one condition: the city must use the lots to build what it needed most. “Little London” needed a city hall, a county courthouse, and a post office. The problem was, even with the donated land, the city couldn’t afford to construct these buildings. It’s a good thing Stratton could loan the city the money to fund them.

Stratton also created an entire streetcar system that ran from the Old North End all the way to Manitou Springs. The tracks were supposed to go right through the center of town, but Colorado College stood between downtown and the Old North End, so he grudgingly went around it. The streetcars were unusual for its time not because of the system, but because of its workers. Stratton was the first businessman in America to set up a company-wide insurance policy for the entire streetcar workforce, a concept unheard of for its time. He also set up and bankrolled a program to provide houses for every employee. Within ten years, all workers owned their own homes, free and clear.

A Streetcar with workers in 1898. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Archive)

A Streetcar with workers in 1898. (Credit: Penrose Library Digital Archive)

Since mines in Cripple Creek and Victor had started producing gold in such huge amounts, Stratton noticed that investors would meet and make mining deals right on the street corners. The corner of Nevada and Pikes Peak Avenues was the most popular place, so that’s where he built the Mining Exchange, seen as it was in 1902 and in the present in the header picture, above. Stories abound of him visiting the work site only to kick out part of a three-foot wall and making the bricklayer start over. Another time he showed up to find a worker beating his arms against his sides to keep warm before starting his shift. Stratton fired him, saying that if the guy couldn’t keep warm enough through hard work, he didn’t deserve the job (although the next day he hired him back). Occasionally he would fire entire crews of men, hiring them back the next day with full compensation for the previous day’s lost wages, just to keep them on their toes and grateful for their jobs.

Things settled into a pattern for a couple of years, at least on the surface. Stratton conducted business during the day and closed himself up inside his house at night. Unbeknownst to anyone, he was planning his largest scheme yet: to tap into what he called a “bowl of gold” underneath the mountains near Cripple Creek. This, he said, was the center of a defunct volcano, where huge deposits of gold lay. His theory was supported by the science of the time, although back then miners believed that gold resulted from oxidation of the ore, which is why they were convinced the gold was near the surface. He was sure he hadn’t yet gotten to the largest deposits of gold even though he had consulted on many other mine claims, including the Portland and Cresson. He quietly bought up most of the claims in the area, concentrating on a six-square-mile section between Gold and Bull Hills. He was prepared, both financially and strategically, to do whatever it took–even if it meant drilling down at least a thousand feet or more.

Physically, though, he was not prepared. Stratton’s alcoholism caused him to become bedridden with a combination of extreme cirrhosis and sugar-induced diabetes. He had eaten little when he was healthy, but eventually only ate when his housekeeper was able to coax him to. Sinking in and out of consciousness, in his lucid moments he wrote checks and kept tabs on his many business ventures until he passed away on September 14, 1902. His body lay in state at the Mining Exchange under armed guards for most of the next day, when the streetcars stopped at 2:00 p.m. and the courthouse bell rang 54 times, once for each year of Stratton’s life. A short service followed at his home to which only family was invited, and then he was interred in Evergreen Cemetery.

Stratton's tombstone. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Stratton’s tombstone. (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

Rumors flew like a wild prairie fire about Stratton’s will. Colorado Springs had been lobbying for a new library, Colorado College expected an endowment, and the Masons and Elks’ Clubs, of which he had recently become a member, expected to receive large gifts. When the will was read a week later, people were shocked: a few relatives and loyal employees received $50,000 or $10,000 stipends, but the rest of the fortune was to be expended building and maintaining a home for the aged, orphaned, and poor, named (after Stratton’s father) the Myron Stratton Home. Construction costs for the home were limited to $1 million; the rest of the funds were to be held in trust to keep the home running in perpetuity. This revelation sent the city reeling. Nobody wanted a “poor house” so close to their beloved Little London.

Everyone was outraged, spurring a long period of litigation. The state of Colorado was the first to bring suit, but suits were also brought by the city and county as well as at least a hundred individuals, all claiming that they either were owed money from a claim or deal they had made, or that they were a long lost relative. Leslie Popejoy, the man who had originally grubstaked Stratton’s claims on the Washington and Independence, showed up with a wooden stake from the original Independence claim that had both their names on it, saying he was owed his share of the mine’s profits. Although he sued the estate twice, he ended up settling out of court both times.

One woman claiming to be his wife said Stratton had married her while he was in Texas in 1874 brokering a deal for “cheap cattle.” The case drew out over several months, during which time the woman’s lawyer appeared to have the upper hand, producing eyewitnesses to and evidence of their wedding. The break in the case was Stratton’s weak point: he was a terrible accountant. He wrote checks for everything, but he never kept a register or reconciled his bank account, even back in his carpentry days. For some reason the bank had kept his canceled checks instead of returning them to him; they proved Stratton was in Colorado Springs on the dates his “wife” claimed he was in Texas.

And who should appear, after a decade, to collect his inheritance? The long-absent son, Isaac Henry Stratton, calling himself “I. Harry.” Stratton’s will had left him $50,000, which he contested. He won, eventually walking away with $350,000 and a handful of lawsuits from his informants in the Springs whom he had paid to keep tabs on his father. He lost $13,000 to those suits and took the rest of his money to California where he lost it on bad real estate investments. He eventually became a bank clerk.

All the other suits lost, and then the big boys stepped in. The Independence Capital Company, which originally brokered the sale of the Independence in 1908 for $10 million, sued the estate, claiming Stratton never paid them. Harry McAllister, present as a toddler when Stratton had done the woodwork on the McAllister House, defended Stratton’s estate. He proved that no money was supposed to have changed hands with the sale of the Independence—it had been purely a stock transaction. He paved the way for Stratton’s will to proceed. Thirteen years after Stratton’s death, construction on the Myron Stratton Home would at last begin.

Click here for Part Four: “The More Things Change,” in which Stratton’s legacy comes to fruition and is still visible today.

Photo By: Penrose Library Digital Collection
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