Stratton, the $10 Million Man (Part 4)
The More Things Change
Winfield Scott Stratton was a man whose destiny had been shaped by dreams. As a teenager, he dreamed of coming to Colorado to seek gold. As a destitute carpenter and part-time prospector, he dreamed of the location of his mother lode, and as a millionaire he dreamed about selling his gold mine. Stratton’s life was enigmatic when he was alive, and it continues to be one of mystery and benevolence even 115 years after his death.
What has happened to the buildings and holdings of Stratton’s estate?
The Mining Exchange functioned as usual until sometime in the 1920s, when gold and silver mining in the area tapered off so much that it wasn’t needed anymore. It sat empty for a few years and was a bank and office building for many years before it was purchased and refurbished into the Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel in 2013. Considering that the building originally cost $325,000 to build and was considered in 1902 to be “the handsomest…and most substantial building in the city,” it sure has kept its grandeur all this time. Pictures comparing it at the time of construction to today barely show any difference.
Stratton’s mark is all over the city. The Stratton open space, Stratton Park, and Stratton Elementary School are just a few places that bear his name. Buildings and land that he bought, donated and financed are still in active use today. The Independence and Fremont buildings, the Post Office, City Hall, and the Courthouse buildings are at the heart of downtown (the courthouse building now houses the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum). The McAllister House and a few other buildings still bear his beautiful woodwork.
What about Stratton’s “bowl of gold” theory?
For a guy who had just a few classes at the School of Mines and Colorado College, Stratton was pretty astute when it came to mineralogy. At the time of his death in 1902, he had invested at least $7 million into a venture to explore a six-square-mile area near Cripple Creek where he expected to drill down at least a thousand feet if necessary to find a “bowl of gold.” People at the time thought he was crazy, but he was right. In 1907, a tunnel was driven into the south side of Pikes Peak at 8,000 feet to drain water that blocked further downward progress, and more gold was discovered. In 1941, another tunnel was added 3,200 feet below, draining 25,000 gallons of water a minute into the Arkansas River, exposing even more gold. To date, over forty-five million ounces of gold have been processed in Colorado, 25 million solely from the areas around Cripple Creek and Victor. It’s no wonder those old-time miners had “gold fever,” and some people still do—at $1,297 per ounce, you do the math.
Mining processes have changed significantly in the intervening years, and the “slag” that the nineteenth-century miners discarded is now being processed to extract gold ore in ways the old timers never imagined. Current mining involves cyanide leaching, where the ore is pulled out and crushed, then laid out over large expanses where a cyanide mixture is slowly dripped over it. After the gold is extracted, the excess soil is cleaned and stored until the mining is finished. From the areas being mined near Cripple Creek today, over 230,000 ounces of gold were produced last year from the Cresson Project, which started mining the area in 1995. Since modern mining doesn’t involve drilling, the mined areas must be backfilled with cleaned and processed soil, then layered with topsoil and reseeded with native plants and trees.
What about the Myron Stratton Home, the main benefactor of Stratton’s will?
The idea of a “poor house” didn’t go over well with the citizens of early 1900’s Colorado Springs. They didn’t want the stigma of a home for indigents hanging like a pall over “Little London.” It took 13 years to litigate Stratton’s will, after which people understood that the will was airtight. Most people hoped the home would be established further south of the city, closer to Fountain, but the executors found a nice piece of ground just south of the Broadmoor Hotel. Since the will allowed for no more than $1 million to be expended to buy and build up the property, most of Stratton’s fortune would be held in trust to fund the ongoing staffing and maintenance of the Myron Stratton Home.
The Home was originally designed to house elderly people in 25 cottages and orphans in dormitories (the Independence for boys and the Washington for girls, so named for his original mine claims). The goal was to provide sanctuary for those who needed the most support. Many kids who grew up in the home thought of Stratton as their savior. One girl even said, upon viewing his statue at the corner of Nevada and Pikes Peak Avenues, “That’s our pal!”
In the 1970s, when foster care replaced the need for an orphanage, the Home re-purposed the dormitories as a Consortium for service-providing, non-profit businesses in accordance with Stratton’s very specific will, which stipulates exactly what kinds of services his money must serve, even today. For a while the Home hosted Cleo Wallace, a care center for emotionally and physically disabled kids, which moved to Denver in 2004. Now the Consortium houses several other care services, such as Partners in Housing, which provides up to a year’s stay and case management, budget counseling, and life skills training for single homeless mothers; TESSA, which provides sanctuary and help for victims of domestic violence; and Peak Vista, a health care service provider. These businesses have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship. For instance, if a victimized woman goes to TESSA for help and needs to see a doctor immediately, she can get right into Peak Vista with little notice, and Partners in Housing will find her a place to stay.
By far the best part of the Myron Stratton Home is the elder care. As stipulated in the will, only those who are low-income may apply for residency. The Home offers two levels of care: independent living in the cottages, and alternative care in the Winfield House. Although later housing laws caused the Home to start charging for these services, the bulk of the costs are still covered by Stratton’s trust fund. Rent and meals are charged on a sliding scale, and no resident pays more than $2.50 for a meal (although most cook for themselves in their own cottage kitchens). The older people I met in both areas were happy and well attended, with a variety of services and activities available. They even play pool on Stratton’s own pool table.
In 1913 Stratton’s fortune amounted to about $4.4 million after all the lawsuits and expenditures had been settled, but now its assets total well over $152 million. Most of the land holdings have been sold off; currently the estate holds about 105 acres of land including the Home, the reservoir behind the Broadmoor Community Church on Lake Avenue, and royalties on the ore that is refined in Cripple Creek on land that Stratton originally bought.
The Home started a grant program in 2001, since then dispensing over $3,625,500 to 105 different agencies with programs that center on the elderly, children, and low income and health and nutrition projects, just as Stratton would have wanted. It’s not easy to get a grant; the process takes at least six months, and once awarded, the grant will not be reconsidered for at least another year. The goal is to provide opportunities to many different organizations and as diverse a population as possible, also something Stratton would have valued. Stratton’s original wishes are always considered when the Home’s administrators make decisions, but they don’t do it because it’s in the will. After more than “A Century of Sanctuary,” they do it because they believe in Stratton’s ideal of giving back to the community that made him rich.
Winfield Scott Stratton lived a life most people couldn’t imagine; even those who knew him didn’t know him well. Many questions about his motivations and decisions are still unanswered, leaving the door open to further study. The kid from Jeffersonville, Indiana who dreamed of becoming rich in Colorado Springs worked all his life to make that dream come true. Stratton gave back to the place that made him a millionaire, and those of us who live in the shadow of Pikes Peak are all richer for it.