Thursday, December 22, 2011

Midas touch, saddle burrs, and a generous spirit


Wealth and power can be a burr under the saddle to someone that is not used to taking that seat.  At the end of his life, Cripple Creek’s first, and greatest, millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton, couldn’t touch something without it turning to gold or money. It made him very unhappy.
“This wealth came to a man who had spent most of his life working as a carpenter for $3 a day,” wrote historian Kenneth Jessen in a recent newspaper article in Loveland Reporter Herald. The Independence Mine contributed the bulk of Stratton’s wealth.
“At today’s gold prices, the Independence yielded over $2 billion and when Stratton sold the mine, he received nearly a quarter of a billion dollars,” noted Jesson.
But that is not the interesting part.  The perennial ‘nice guy’ who never forgot where he came from, ended up giving most of it away.  His fortune, born on the Fourth of July, was pretty much spent and/or handed out as gifts by the carpenter-turned-miner at the Christmas of his life.
“On July 4, 1891, Stratton was prospecting on the side of Battle Mountain. Based on geology, he reasoned rich ore could be found there,” says Jesson. “As he searched for gold, Stratton could hear shots fired into the air as miners began their celebration of the Fourth of July. That day, Stratton found and staked out the Washington and the Independence claims.
That claim, and other subsequent moves, made him tremendously wealthy. “He would eventually own one-fifth of the mining land in Cripple Creek and Victor,” writes historian Tom Stockman.
“He was extremely generous, he bought bicycles for the local washer women to use on their rounds, and when Cripple Creek burned in an all-to-common fire, he helped the town rebuild in brick.”
Just a few on the list of Stratton’s other benefactors:
• To “Crazy Bob” Womack, discoverer but not the heir to Cripple Creek riches, Stratton wrote a check for $5,000 as consolation.
• He donated land for the Colorado Springs City Hall, Post Office, a major park and the El Paso County Court House (which now is the Pioneer Museum).
• He greatly expanded the trolley streetcar system in Colorado Springs.
• When he died, he left his money with directions to found a home for itinerant children and the elderly.
•  According to the National Mining Hall of Fame, “most memorable of the needy visitors to his door was H.A.W. Tabor, Leadville’s mining king.  He was a beaten man, whose fortune had collapsed with the end of silver coinage. Stratton gave him $15,000 and saw he was named Postmaster of Denver.
• Rescued the Brown Palace in Denver from the brink of bankruptcy by paying off the noteworthy hotel's delinquent bills.
• Gave a gift of $25,000 to the Colorado School of Mines to finish the “Hall of Metallurgy,” which now bears his name.
• Each Christmas, he had coal delivered to poor families in the mining towns he was familiar with.
According to Tom Stockman, “Disdaining the common practice of building a mansion, Stratton lived in one of the houses he had previously built as a carpenter. His many charitable acts actually drew public disapproval. He eventually attracted so many false applicants for aid that he withdrew from society, becoming a heavy-drinking eccentric recluse.”

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Photo information: W.S. Stratton’s residence on Battle Mountain, with Independence Mine at the rear. Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.

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