c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins
Colorado, and especially the Cripple Creek District, are well familiar with Winfield Scott Stratton, the man whose Independence Mine made him a millionaire almost overnight. Between that and his other mines, Stratton’s daily income once peaked at some $12,000 per day. Per. Day. But so unlike other rich mining men who openly flaunted their wealth, threw their weight around, and paraded around the world as some of the most affluent socialites of their time, Stratton’s money bothered him a great deal. So did the slew of women, both wicked and chaste, who hoped to wile him into marrying them, or at least giving them money.
A carpenter by trade, Stratton began dabbling in mining as early as 1874. Urged by his friend, Bob Womack, Stratton arrived in Cripple Creek in 1891 divorced, broke, and tired. He was, after all, already in his 40’s when he invested in the Independence Mine. Within an amazingly short time, Stratton was wealthy far beyond his means, or anyone else’s for that matter. But he never saw his wealth as a healthy asset. “Too much money is not good for any man,” he once said. “I have too much and it is not good for me.” So rather than join the elite jetsetters who built extravagent mansions along Millionaires Row in Colorado Springs and traveled the world, Stratton continued to live a somewhat simple life, preferring to donate his wealth rather than flaunt it. Carefully choosing his own charities, on his own time, was the ultimate power the man could excercise.
For nearly 11 years, everyone wanted a piece of the man who bascially hid from sight in his modest homes (first at the town of Indpendence and later in Colorado Springs), morosely sipping whiskey and finding ways to terrorize his female house staff. It wasn’t the women’s faults, by any means. It was just that, especially after he became obscenely rich, Stratton felt like everyone was out to get his money. And no doubt some of them were. Even today, the female historians among us must sometimes wonder if, had we known him, we could bring him out of his melancholy state, tame his temper, and perhaps even marry right into his fat pocketbook. Probably not. Although he immersed himeself in culture, Stratton was not so much prone to attending the theater, or any public affairs. His social activities, from what is known about him, tended to focus on floosies like the future madam Laura Evens of Salida and other wanton women. And, anyone familiar with the zodiac signs knows that Cancers (Stratton was born July 22) in general hide in their shells and will not come out no matter how long or hard you poke them with a stick. Only they can choose when to come out into the light of day, and Stratton was no exception.
In spite of his refusal to follow the Big Book of Societal Rules for Millionaires of the 1890’s, Winfield Scott Stratton was indeed a generous man. For a few years, his good deeds were the stuff of gossip and speculation among his peers and fellow citizens. There was the time, for instance, that he spied his laundress bringing his freshly pressed shirts to him on foot. Upon learning that the lady could not afford so much as a bicycle to transport her goods, Stratton was said to have purchased the two-wheeled vehicles for every washerwoman in Colorado Springs. He also was known to reward his favorite employees by purchasing homes for them. Such sweet stories were countered by the one about the time Stratton and some dame (allegedly Madam Hazel Vernon of Cripple Creek) stumbled into the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel in Denver during a wretched storm. Stratton was ordered by an imperious employee to remove himself and his muddy boots from the lobby. The temperamental tycoon retaliated by purchasing the hotel outright so he could fire the employee. But Stratton’s unbridled generosity during Cripple Creek’s two disastrous fires in 1896 is a bonafide example of how he really did care for those with less, and jumped without hesitation to the rescue for thousands of people.
The two infamous fires of Cripple Creek, which destroyed much of the town, happened within four days of each other during April of 1896. Lost were nearly the entire business district along Bennett Avenue, the red-light district along Myers Avenue, and hundreds of homes. Five thousand people were left with no house, no food, no clothing. Although some of them filtered over to the nearby towns of Anaconda, Elkton and Victor, supplies throughout the whole district quickly ran dangerously low. Stratton, who was in Colorado Springs at the time, had gathered with his fellow millionaires to listen to the news via the primitive telephone system. As the devastation of the first fire during the afternoon on April 25th was described in detail, Stratton jumped into action and formed a relief committee like no other. Billing everything to himself, he lost no time in procuring a special two-car train to make the needed trip to Cripple Creek. In the meantime, volunteers were rounded up to gather as many supplies as they could.
Within hours, cases of food, blankets, tents and clothing were stacked into freight wagons and hauled to the Colorado Midland Depot at nearby Colorado City. It is said Stratton even commissioned Colorado College students to collect more food door-to-door, and that the effort took every available loaf of bread in Colorado Springs. The train began chugging towards Cripple Creek at 5 p.m., with stops at Chipeta Park, Green Mountain Falls, Crystola and Woodland Park to pick up more supplies. As the train made its way up Ute Pass, well-wishers ran alongside, tossing even more items to workers on the cars. At Divide, the goods were transferred quickly to Midland Terminal trains as more items were added.
The sight of Stratton’s relief train chugging into Cripple Creek that night must have brought tears to many an eye. It took most of the night to distribute supplies, which were handed out at the Midland Terminal Depot on Bennett Avenue (one of only a couple of buildings to survive the fire) and loaded onto wagons. Another relief train departed Colorado Springs at 2 a.m. with even more supplies, including furniture, liquor and cooking utensils. Even more supplies were sent after the second fire on April 29 burned more homes and businesses. Whether he liked it or not, Stratton’s selfless act made him a hero to many in the Cripple Creek District.
Naturally Stratton’s actions generated a lot of hero worship for the man in Colorado Springs, as well. During his time there, Stratton shaped so-called “Little London’s” distinguished reputation as a city of wealth by providing land on which to erect such opulent buildings as the City Hall, the El Paso County Courthouse, the Post Office, and two other important structures he was associated with: the Mining Exchange Building and the Independence Building. In addition, he bought and significantly improved the Colorado Springs and Interurban Railway, and oversaw construction of a professional baseball stadium where the “Colorado Springs Millionaires” team played. It is doubtful, however, that he ever attended a game. In fact, about the only place he ever went when he left his home was to his office in the Independence Building just a few blocks away. And when a lavish banquet was later thrown in his honor at the prestigious Antlers Hotel in Colorado Springs, they say, Stratton stubbornly declined to attend.
For the rest of his life, Stratton remained as reclusive as ever. Curious is that he does not seem to appear in the 1900 census, anywhere. Odds are that he was holed up in his home on Weber Street in Colorado Springs (which sadly no longer stands), and outright refused to answer the door. That command would have been extended to his housekeeper, Eliza – the only one of his employees to put up with his shenannigans and who dared to talk back to him. It was a trait that Stratton would secretly admire. But by 1902, he was even more withdrawn and suffering from liver disease – the penalty for drinking like a fish in his efforts to escape from his wealthy status. He died on September 14 and, quite possibly against his wishes, was buried with much ceremony in Colorado Springs’ Evergreen Cemetery.
Stratton’s last great contribution was leaving money in his will to build the Myron Stratton Home, an expansive institution with beautiful grounds where orphaned children and the poor of El Paso and Teller counties could live and be treated with respect. He would be mortified if he knew that his last act of kindness was immediately cast into litigation for nearly 11 years as would-be heirs, supposed wives, and other so-called constituents battled over his fortune. In the end, however, the Myron Stratton Home won out and remains among the best assisted living facilities today, with private residences and other amenities seldom seen in the land of elder care. Today, Stratton’s buildings, a statue, Stratton Park, and other landmarks in Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek pay tribute to Winfield Scott Stratton. But it remains a shame that one of Colorado’s biggest, and most eccentric, philanthropists died without realizing the true appreciation so many felt for him, and his unwanted money.
Image courtesy of the Myron Stratton Home