The Man Who Regretted His Millions
Season 4, episode 1
If you work hard enough, or get lucky enough, the distinctly American myth goes, anyone can become rich. And once you’re rich, of course, you’ll be happy … right? In the nineteenth century, no one embodied that American myth of the rugged individual than Winfield Scott Stratton, the first millionaire of the Cripple Creek Gold boom in 1893.
Guests: Thomas Andrews, Betsy Jameson, Matt Mayberry, and Christine Siddoway
Resources: All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek by Elizabeth Jameson, Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.
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The Man Who Regretted His Millions Script
Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by The Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the Humanities and the power of storytelling for more than twenty years. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, exploring the human endeavor.
Noel: When I was a kid, my favorite bedtime book was D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. My mom would read it to me while I lay beneath my pilled Mickey Mouse blanket and wait for her voice, like a soft magic carpet, to carry me off into that world before sleep.
My dog Frosty chewed the corners of the cover, and the dust jacket’s more scotch-tape now than paper, but I still have it. I read it to my kids. And when I open it, the brightly colored stone lithograph illustrations and the stories of the weird and darkly meddlesome Gods still take me back to my childhood bedroom.
Noel: Oh yeah, here we go. This is, I love this illustration of the Kraken, which is basically just a giant burrito with big pink lips.
I remember being endlessly fascinated that these nearly omnipotent, immortal characters with superhuman powers could also be so stupid and petty and human. Kronos swallowed his children for fear they would overthrow him. Zeus cheated on Hera with earth girls, and Hera turned them into cows. When Zeus’s son King Minos of Crete wouldn’t sacrifice a bull to Poseidon, the God of the Seas was furious, and made Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall so in love with the bull that she had a cow suit made so she could mate with it.
These Gods were crazy! And their all-too-human flaws were perfect for bedtime. They’d happened so long ago, and so far away, and they were even more petty, vindictive and jealous than the kids at my school.
Perhaps my life wasn’t so horrible after all! And it all became small as I drifted off to sleep.
I was lucky! Lucky enough to live at the foot of Pikes Peak, at the edge of the American West, which had been settled by courageous and upstanding cowboys, and wholesome farmers and ranchers, who’d paved the way for ME to live in the Greatest Country in the World.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I began to see how close to home those myths actually were.
Noel: From History Colorado, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black.
In this season of Lost Highways, we’re going to peek behind the curtains of the myths, fairy tales, and legends of the American West.
And on this episode, we’ll look at one of my favorite western archetypes: the rags-to-riches story of the grizzled miner toiling alone in the mountains with nothing but a pan and a pick ax.
Growing up in Colorado Springs in the 1970s and ‘80s, it never occurred to me that the local histories we learned in 4th grade might also be myths or fairy tales. A good story of any kind was true enough. And one of my favorites was the story of Winfield Scott Stratton. Stratton was the epitome of the grizzled miner, the Cinderella of the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the early 1890s and, eventually, its King Midas.
A humble carpenter by trade, the story went, Stratton spent almost every summer of his adult life alone with his horse, searching for gold in the rugged Rocky Mountains. Then, in the summer of 1891, right as he was about to hang up his pick, he had a dream about a cow pasture west of Pikes Peak. He went up there on Fourth of July, staked two of the last claims, and named them The Independence and The Washington. (What could be more American!?) And before he’d even scratched the surface, he found gold just lying around on the ground in the spot where his dream had led him. Before long, he became the first millionaire in Cripple Creek. But he didn’t buy a fancy house or fine clothes. He remained the humble man he always was, and lived in a modest house, and dedicated most of his wealth to the hardworking people of the City of Colorado Springs. And there was a statue in the middle of Pikes Peak Avenue downtown to prove it. It was like America itself had given Stratton those patriotic mines as a reward for all his hard, lonesome work and faith in the American dream.
And one of the weirdest things about that myth? Most of it is true. But I found out as I looked into the history of it, that what makes it a myth is the far more interesting truth about the American dream that it covers up.
[Pioneers Museum Ambi]
To find out more about Stratton, I went to the Pioneers Museum in downtown Colorado Springs. Built with Stratton’s money, this gorgeous, neoclassical building with a domed clock tower and stone walls quarried from Pikes Peak granite was the El Paso County Courthouse until 1979. Now, 120 years after Stratton’s death, it’s fitting that it houses much of his legacy in its archives and collections.
Matt Mayberry: When you walk inside, you see what I think is just phenomenally beautiful, yellow scaleola, which is a manmade product that is made to look like marble. So it's faux marble that is used throughout the main lobby, the grand main lobby. And it really brings the kind of lights and life to the space, I think. But all of this made possible because we have a wealthy guy who's willing to fund it.
Noel: This is Matt Mayberry. He’s the Director of the Pioneers Museum, a mining historian, and a local expert on Stratton. His voice is still a bit scratchy after a rough bout with Covid he had over a year ago.
Noel: Matt takes me into the exhibit celebrating Colorado Springs’s sesquicentennial, which is a great word, and which opened last year, and shows me one of the museum’s prized artifacts: Winfield Scott Stratton’s Death Mask.
Matt Mayberry: There he is.
Noel: Yeah. Quite the nose.
Matt Mayberry: Thin wisps of hair on top. Of course, it would be matted down by clay, by a plaster. And this. Yeah, but very frail and very pronounced cheeks. Good chin. Cleft chin.
Noel: Sturdy jaw.
Matt Mayberry: I don't know how much his health was known at the time. Different time when we didn't talk so much about health.
Matt Mayberry: Publicly. Yes.
Noel: Spoiler alert, Stratton drank himself to death just ten years after he struck it rich in Cripple Creek. He was miserable. Absolutely hated being rich. And this is one of things about him that I find most fascinating. But we’ll come back to that.
Matt Mayberry: Well, he, as you said, raised in Indiana, had a troublesome relationship, I think, with his father, who was named Myron Stratton. Left home fairly young, made his way across Iowa and Nebraska, finally coming to Colorado Springs in, I think, 1872, very, very soon after Colorado Springs was founded. He brought with him carpentering skills that he learned as a child, his father was a boatbuilder, and that he'd used elsewhere. Very independent.
Noel: Stratton was so independent, in fact, that his one and only marriage during his early years in Colorado Springs lasted only a few months, and he never married again. Not even after he struck gold and women far and wide began pursuing him. In fact, Stratton’s archives contain whole boxes full of letters from women trying in vain to court him.
Matt Mayberry: All of this is Stratton: personal correspondence, requests for financial assistance, multiple boxes of requests.
Noel: Two of the boxes are full of letters from women trying to court him, even proposing marriage. Matt pulls one of them down and lets me go through it. There seem to be longer letters from women he knew, but many more brief propositions like this breathless, run-on sentence dated December 8, 1901 from one Mrs. La Clare, a widow from Denver:
Pardon the liberty I am taking to make your acquaintance but I have heard so much of you but as I am alone and a young widow and need some good friend and know you to be good and smart and like things that are so nice and quiet and I live alone, and would love to meet you just because I know you to be noble and good so when you are in Denver again I would love to have you drop me a line and come and see me you will find me true blue hoping you will pardon me I remain with respects.
Mrs. La Clare
Noel: There’s no evidence that Stratton replied to any of these love letters from women interested in his “goodness” and “intelligence.” And after his short-lived marriage, he devoted himself to one mistress alone: Theia, the Greek goddess of gold.
Matt Mayberry: He liked the chase of searching for gold and thinking about the strategies that he could use to do that. And the sense that I get is that he would spend, you know, nine months out of the year in Colorado Springs building homes. In the summer he'd take his horse and his dog and his gold pan, and he'd go up in the mountains and search for gold.
Noel: If you go on Google Maps and search for Cripple Creek and then move the map just a little bit to the east and look at it on satellite view, you’ll find a pit so big and so deep that, like the Great Wall of China, it can be seen from outer space. It’s roughly 7 square miles around, the size of Venice, Italy.
I took a tour of this pit once about 10 years ago and found it to be a much more brightly lit version of what I imagined Hell might look like when I read Dante’s Inferno in college: one giant stepped ring after the next spiraling deeper and deeper into an abyss. And when you got to the bottom, instead of Satan, there was just another layer of rock and ore being blasted to smithereens by grids of mathematically placed dynamite. Once the ore was blasted out, they’d load it onto these gigantic yellow Tonka-looking dump trucks like small battleships with beds the size of swimming pools, drive it up to the mill, crush the ore into tiny little bits, and then pour sodium cyanide over all of it to leech the remaining gold out. I remember, you could see holes high in the walls of the pit where the old mine shafts had once been excavated. Now, the pit has swallowed up almost every mine shaft in the district. Since Stratton first found boulders containing high grade gold ore just sitting on the surface of his claims in 1891, the Cripple Creek Mining District has given up nearly 30 million ounces of gold worth 50 billion dollars, adjusted for inflation, and depending, on any given day, on the price of gold. And that doesn’t include the reserves – the countless amounts of gold that may still be in the ground.
Noel: I’ve lived at the base of Pikes Peak my whole life and I’ve never known how the Cripple Creek Mining District on the far side of America’s Mountain from Colorado Springs, became one of the richest gold deposits ever discovered anywhere in the world. So I went to talk to Christine Siddoway.
Christine Siddoway: My name is Christine Soloway. I'm a geologist at Colorado College.
So, for geologists who think in terms of deep time, one of the oldest time marks is the time of formation of the Pikes Peak granite. But the granite itself is not gold producing.
Noel: The gold, says Siddoway, came in the wake of the geological forces that created Pikes Peak and the mountains around it. First, tectonic plates deep below the surface smashed into each other at their fault lines, pushing the earth up into mountains along those cracks. And second, volcanoes formed under those faults. And in the place that would become the Cripple Creek Mining District, there was also a massive underground lake that filled all the cracks in the earth with water. And the volcanoes beneath that lake erupted.
Christine Siddoway: And it's those fluids, water and magma that brought gold. So we had a situation of very, very hot magma interacting with groundwater. It immediately flash-heated the groundwater to steam and it blew the rock to smithereens, and those smithereens, fractured, broken rock that was hurled up in the air in a steam erection and then collapsed back down into a deep hole, made cavities in the rock where the precious metals have precipitated. So where did the gold, silver, tellurium come from? They came from hot water that migrated into these empty spaces, experienced a pressure and a temperature drop, and they left these exceptionally concentrated deposits that contain these precious metals.
Noel: I’ve always been a bit vexed by the idea of gold – by how powerful a sway over the human imagination a metal can have. I mean, I get it. I get the idea of agreed upon value, and how scarcity can make something more valuable, and how money can make otherwise complicated trade possible. And I get that people find it beautiful, and the seemingly infinite aesthetic possibilities of such a stable, malleable metal. But how much misery is there in our lust for this soft yellow element formed in the nuclear furnaces of stars? The Spanish conquest of the Americas, the American colonization of the West. How many gallons of blood per ounce does it cost? I ask Christine Siddoway if there’s a specific geological reason why gold is so precious to humans that we’re willing to hollow out mountains and base entire economies on it.
Christine Siddoway: In geology, it's paradoxical because the rocks that contain gold in high concentrations are very, very ugly. They look tortured, and they're full of violent arrays of colors like mustard gold and rust red and violent crimson and green, and things that would make an aesthetic observer kind of nauseous. But there really is something central to human nature, I think, that color, the malleability, it can be readily formed into beautiful shapes, and it does not rust, it doesn't corrode, it doesn't break down under day-to-day circumstances. It retains its color and shape without tarnish. And that seems to be part of the appeal that makes it so precious.
Noel: Not long after Colorado College was founded in 1874, Christine says, Winfield Scott Stratton came here to study and learn where to look for the very, very ugly, violently nauseous rocks that held the color he longed to find.
Noel: So much of the rapid early settlement of what’s now the American West is tied to frenzied quests for gold. Beginning in 1848, hundreds of thousands of people flooded into California almost before the ink on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had dried. In the agreement that ended the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded most of what is now the American southwest to the United States, never mind the fact that all of it was already inhabited by dozens of indigenous tribes. The California Gold Rush was followed by the deceptively named Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859, which actually began around Denver, Golden and Boulder and then spread to the mountains around Breckenridge.
It was during these first two big rushes that many of the techniques used in gold extraction were developed – from panning to sluicing to mechanized hard rock mining and toxic chemical methods that used mercury and, later, sodium cyanide.
Where gold was found, indigenous tribes were displaced or killed outright. And if they weren’t killed by white settlers, they often caught their contagious diseases, or starved as the colonists occupied their hunting grounds and systematically eliminated their food sources. Here’s CU professor and mining historian, Thomas Andrews.
Thomas Andrews: Then in the late 1860s, 1870s, the economy really transitioned. Gold remained important, but people were finding less and less of it and silver discoveries became increasingly important. The most famous of these would be at Leadville and at Aspen in the late 1870s and early 1880s, respectively.
Noel: The good thing about silver was that there was lots of it. There’s just a lot more silver in the earth’s crust than gold, by a ratio of about 19 to 1. And when gold started to get scarce after Colorado’s 1858 gold rush, silver was seen as a way to expand the money supply if the US Government would back it as a currency. Without government backing, silver just wasn’t profitable to mine. There was the 1873 legislation called the Bland-Allison Act and the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act that guaranteed that the government would buy more than 8 million dollars of silver from western mines. The towns of Leadville and Aspen became silver boom towns. But with so much silver on the market, its value began to shrink, and people got nervous. There was a run on the US Treasury’s gold reserves, and in response, President Grover Cleveland convinced Congress to repeal both the Bland-Allison and the Sherman Silver Purchase acts in 1893, and he restored the gold standard. The silver economy immediately crashed. Colorado, and the entire country, spiraled into a major depression.
Thomas Andrews: I mean, it's easily the worst depression that the state has ever faced. It makes the Great Depression look relatively moderate, which, of course, it wasn't. Unemployment was way over 25% statewide, and in the silver industry, it was just decimation.
Noel: It lasted four years, and unemployment rates in some parts of the US would rise above 40%. It also left a few wealthy silver magnates looking for new investments.
But few could imagine that some holes being dug in the mountains southwest of Colorado Springs would provide the way out of that abyss.
Noel: The first, and one of the few believers in Cripple Creek was a part-time prospector and full-time lush named Bob Womack, who’d been poking around Pikes Peak for years.
Cripple Creek wasn’t like other gold fields. The creek itself, which was named for its alleged tendency to break the legs of the grazing cattle when they tried to cross it, didn’t have gold in it, which was usually the most telling sign of a larger lode hiding somewhere above.
Remember what geologist Christine Siddoway pointed out: high concentration gold ore on the surface almost never comes wrapped in bright white quartz.
Noel: In other words, there was very little gold-bearing rock on the surface, and what could be found was heavily camouflaged by the unusual textures and colors of the stones at Cripple
Creek. And that's what made Stratton's gold-bearing boulders such a wild streak of good luck.
Noel: By the time the 4th of July, 1891 arrived, Winfield Scott Stratton had spent half his life questing for gold: prospecting, doing carpentry to pay for prospecting, taking courses in mineralogy and metallurgy. He was consumed by gold. And yet he found nothing in all those years. And now, 43 years old, he was tired. Perhaps he’d just been unlucky. But now Old Bob Womack’s ravings about gold at Cripple Creek had given him one last hope, and he’d had a vision: there among the manure of a summer cattle pasture on the far side of Pikes Peak from the genteel little town where he spent his winters: the strike he’d been searching for his whole adult life. And if this didn’t pan out, he’d put away the pan forever.
It was mid-summer, and he’d already spent most of the money he’d saved over the winter. So a plasterer named Leslie Popejoy he’d worked with in Colorado Springs grubstaked him 500 bucks for half of anything he found.
Stratton set out with his horse, loaded down with picks and shovels and provisions, into the crisp, dry mountain air and through the wide open, rolling hills above treeline to stake his claim to the last solid ground beneath his own hopes and dreams. He wasn’t the first. There were already claims just about everywhere, marked by the sounds of steel on rock and the grunts of men, young and old, in sweaty cotton blouses and long underwear, already stained into dusty maps of their own fantasies.
With the methodical care of a carpenter studying blueprints, he checked the puzzled lines of the map he’d bought from the surveyor in Cripple Creek, the new little town of tents and timbers to the west. Then he bit the tips of his long, graying mustache, and looked up at Battle Mountain. Not much more than a hill compared to the surrounding Rockies. But there at the base on the map, an open and unclaimed space. Why? he wondered. He rolled the map up and put it back in his satchel, took his horse’s lead, and walked uphill through the clumpy summer grasses, crushing flame orange Indian paintbrush and low mountain bluebells beneath his leather boots and trod toward that unmarked spot, now filled with his final hopes.
There. There on that unclaimed ground: ugly, ugly rocks.
Winfield Scott Stratton’s twenty years of prospecting and study had finally paid off. He recognized the breccia and phonolite, just sitting there on the ground. No one had ever been so happy to see such ugly rocks. They had guarded this spot for him, kept it hidden from eyes greedy for the glitter of gold.
He sucked his mustache and removed a bundle of stakes and a hammer from his pack.
“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise,” wrote William Blake.
And perhaps rich, too.
Whether it was the vision or just dumb luck that led him to this place, he had stubbornly persisted in his folly for half his life; he had methodically made his own dumb luck.
When Stratton staked those claims, which happened to be two of the best claims in the district, he was hardly a naive tenderfoot, and hardly just lucky. But he’d have to be plenty shrewd, and earn a lot more luck to get the gold out of the ground before other prospectors, neighboring stakeholders, lawyers, and much larger mining companies could pick him apart like vultures.
Just because there was gold on your claim, says Thomas Andrews, didn’t mean it was yours.
Thomas Andrews: Figuring out who owned what was extremely difficult, right? I mean, you know, given the irregularity of these mineral deposits, the fact that they're completely crazy and the federal laws that developed in the 1870s pertaining to this were nonsensical. The main thing was something called apex law, and if you could demonstrate that the apex of the vein or lode was on your property, then you had a kind of claim to the entire, to that entire body.
Noel: So if it emerged?
Thomas Andrews: If it emerged.
Noel: Okay. That makes sense.
Thomas Andrews: Kind of. But, you know, I mean, any of these deposits emerged in all sorts of different places.
Noel: If you’ve ever seen a bird’s eye map of old mining claims, you can get some idea of how complicated things could get. Claims were supposed to be rectangular and staked out on a grid, like plots in a new town. But if you look at the old color maps of the Cripple Creek Mining District, it looks more like a tower of colored building blocks knocked over by a toddler. Claims overlapped, got consolidated, and boundaries were always in question.
This meant lawsuits galore when gold was discovered.
Thomas Andrews: First of all, it meant that mining law was incredibly lucrative. Every mining camp had huge numbers of lawyers. And then the second thing that this meant was that there was a tremendous impetus to compete in court.
Noel: Even if you were lucky enough to strike a vein as long as a bolt of lightning and fend off the lawsuits from your competition, you still had to get it out of the ground, which wasn’t cheap.
Noel: Matt Mayberry:
Matt Mayberry: Cripple Creek mining is so capital intensive. Everything about it is expensive. The mines are deep, the mines are wet, the mines produce ore that is difficult to mill and most of it is milled outside the district, which means freighting costs.
Noel: In other words, few prospectors who discovered gold on their own had the resources to develop a mine without major financial backing. And that meant rapid consolidation.
Thomas Andrews: There are huge incentives for basically figuring out arrangements, for collaborating, for buying other people out. If you look at, like, photos of old mining areas or if you look at, like, old mining maps, the word “consolidated” is all over the place, as is the word “amalgamated”. The whole reason that those words are everywhere is that a consolidator or an amalgamator put together a bunch of competing claims, and it was only in putting these competing claims together under one set of ownership that you could justify and protect, you know, the tremendous amount of capital that you had to invest in these mines.
Noel: Bob Womack, the drunk old prospector who found gold in nearby Poverty Gulch, was forced to sell his claim for $500 and a case of whiskey when he couldn’t raise the funds to develop it. But again, Stratton’s smarts and luck helped him avoid Womack’s fate. All his many decades of Herculean labors had been redeemed by those violently ugly rocks on the surface of the Independence. And without much digging, he found a vein that seemed to apex there on his claim. But he knew that if he kept digging and hauling ore out, it was only a matter of time before word got out and the lawsuits would begin. He needed to think fast.
Maybe it was greed, misanthropy, pragmatism, or all three, but he lied to Leslie Popejoy about the claim, and bought him out with some of the money from a property in Denver he sold. Then he started gathering up all the ore he could from near the surface and carrying it out at night to sell.
By the time word finally got out about his gold strike, Stratton had put together a nest egg of more than $70,000 to fend off the lawsuits from adjacent claim holders and other deep-pocketed investors who might try to sue him into selling it.
Then, where luck was concerned, two tenderfeet named Jimmy Burns and Jimmy Doyle found another vein on their nearby claim above Stratton’s on Battle Mountain. They named it The Portland after their hometown in Maine. Stratton liked them. They were working class men like him. But he also knew they didn’t have a clue what they were doing. They’d already given away a third of their claim to another miner named Jimmy Harnan, a coal miner by training who pointed out that they were digging in the wrong place. When they started digging in the right place, they struck what would prove to be the richest vein in the entire Cripple Creek Mining Camp. And, being tenderfeet, they hadn’t put much thought into concealing their great fortune. Word about the Portland spread quickly throughout the camp. So Stratton made his move, and offered to use his $70,000 nest egg to help fend off their lawsuits in return for a majority stake.
Thomas Andrews: Burns feels like Stratton can probably cause him significant difficulty. And so, rather than fight him, they develop a kind of alliance.
Noel: Stratton also bought up and consolidated as many of the other nearby claims as he could for fair prices, then incorporated The Independence and The Portland. For his quick thinking and considerable investment, they named him President, and he became the first millionaire in the Cripple Creek Mining District. The Portland mine, after Stratton took control of it, produced 62 million in gold over the next decade – more gold than any of the other mines owned by far wealthier individuals and corporations. That’s more than 2 billion dollars adjusted for inflation.
Noel: I love all the lore about Stratton, how clever and quick-thinking and shrewd he had to have been during those early days at Cripple Creek. How he outwitted the larger mining interests and struck the biggest veins after all those lonesome summers in the mountains.
And then, even after he got rich, he was generous, if not exactly kind. Curmudgeonly and generous is better than an outright Scrooge.
He built lots of buildings around Colorado Springs, including what’s now the Pioneer’s Museum and the beautiful old Post Office on the corner of Pikes Peak and Nevada Avenues downtown.
He bought the local trolley system, The Colorado Springs Interurban Railway, just so he could expand it and keep the fare cheap so poor and working-class people could get around town. He extended one of the trolley lines all the way up into a park he donated to the city at the mouth of Cheyenne Canyon in the Broadmoor so the working classes could picnic there on the weekends. He even bought bicycles for all the laundry girls in town. And if that wasn’t enough, he put the bulk of his money into the Myron Stratton home, named after his father, that still provides housing and care for the poor in El Paso County.
I also love that he never bought a house on Wood Avenue, the so-called “Millionaire’s Row” in the old north end of Colorado Springs where his partner in the Portland mine, Jimmy Burns, eventually settled.
Burns also felt a noblesse oblige toward the working class, says Matt Mayberry. But…
Matt Mayberry: Burns was more of a socialite. He liked being out with people. He enjoyed being wealthy.
Noel: But Stratton was never comfortable with his money, or anyone else’s for that matter. He continued to live with his housekeeper and cousin in a modest home off Weber Street, and famously, he didn’t even bother to show up to a banquet held in his honor.
What a guy!
So much of Stratton’s legend has the kind of folksy rags-to-riches, working-class charm that we Americans like to believe. We like the myth of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, driving around in the same old beat up truck he always had even after he got rich. We like to believe that money, no matter how much of it or how badly we want it, won’t change us if we could just get our hands on some to prove it.
And it gets better. For me, at least. Not only did Stratton do nice things and not change, he regretted his wealth.
According to one of his biographers, just before he died in 1902, he said: “Too much money is not good for any man. I have too much, and it is not good for me. $100,000 is as much as the man of ordinary intelligence can take.”
A self-made man of humility and seemingly infinite generosity, Stratton became a myth in my mind, a grumpy hometown superhero.
But the problem with heroes and their myths, even when they’re mostly true, is that they’re often oversimplified stories descended from history, but with all the hard and complicated edges smoothed over by time and retelling. The nuances of actual events and the real people who lived them can get flattened out into tidy narratives and moral lessons. And the more I dug into Stratton’s life, the more I found the often ugly realities of history.
Betsy Jameson: Do you want to be Elizabeth or Betsy?
Noel: It is entirely up to you.
Betsy Jameson: I'm usually called Betsy. I publish as Elizabeth. And I am professor emerita of History at the University of Calgary.
Noel: This is Dr. Elizabeth Jameson. While I was at the Pioneers Museum doing research on Stratton, Matt Mayberry showed me her book, All That Glitters: Class, Conflict, and Community in Cripple Creek.
It’s an incredible book. To write it, Jameson painstakingly scoured census records, newspapers, membership lists of fraternal organizations, union rolls, and oral histories to put together a fascinating and comprehensive portrait of Cripple Creek and the surrounding towns during the gold boom years between 1891 and 1904. In spite of the enormous amount of wealth being produced in the mines and the brutal economic depression, the Cripple Creek District during this time was home to 54 different local unions covering almost every industry from mining to bartending and laundry. It was nearly the opposite of a company town; it was ten union towns, run by the workers. And Winfield Scott Stratton and Jimmy Burns seemed to have been among its biggest supporters.
Betsy Jameson: A lot of the way that hardrock miners thought about their rights really could be traced back to those old mining camps because the miners developed a system of law that was later recognized, in effect, on federal land, at least, that said that if you wanted to own a claim, you had to occupy it and you had to work it in good faith. If you didn't live on your claim and you didn't work it, you didn't own it.
Noel: Again, the problem with working your own claim was that the gold on the surface and in the streambeds got harder and harder to find and extract as you followed it underground.
Betsy Jameson: You had to sink shafts and dig tunnels and you needed hoist machinery and you needed railroads to get the ore out. And that ore was not pure gold, it was usually in some compound and it needed to be milled or smelted. You needed heat and chemicals. The original chemical processes used chlorine and then later cyanide to get the gold out of the ore. And all of that took a lot of capital.
Noel: And to do all that, you needed workers. And by the time gold was discovered in Cripple Creek, the Supreme Court had declared that corporations were people for purposes of law under the 14th Amendment, which had originally been passed to guarantee the freedom of the enslaved.
Betsy Jameson: So very rapidly, ownership moved to wealthy people who could afford to hire a workforce and sink the shafts and put up, buy the machinery that was necessary. Ownership moved to people who neither worked their mines nor occupied them.
Noel: Once this absentee ownership by large corporations or conglomerates began, hardrock miners started to form unions early on to protect their wages, their hours, and their safety at work.
Betsy Jameson: It was dangerous work. It required knowing how to handle dynamite. It required sometimes being able to timber shafts to set up supports to keep the rock from falling on your head. There could be gas in the mines sometimes. And if you, heaven forbid, set off a blast in a gassy mine, the whole thing would blow up. So it required considerable skill to do this work underground. And it was really very dangerous work.
Noel: After a series of labor standoffs between workers and owners at some mines in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene, the Western Federation of Miners was formed at a convention in Butte, Montana in 1893. John Calderwood was one of the miners who attended that convention. He’d been an organizer at one of the silver mines in Aspen that shut down after the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the economy crashed.
Betsy Jameson: He was a Scots Catholic, an immigrant who believed that labor created wealth, as did most miners.
Noel: Calderwood went to Cripple Creek as an organizer in early 1894 after the miners asked the newly formed WFM for help unionizing.
Betsy Jameson: He was very rapidly elected the president of the first union there, which was the Altman Miners Union, WFM local number 19, which was centered around the mines at the top of Bull Hill, and that union became the center of the most militant unionism in the district throughout its history.
Noel: Unions at this time in American history were still relatively young, and so was the absentee ownership of mines with large pools of workers.
The owners of coal mines had quickly figured out effective ways to control recent immigrant workers from southern and eastern Europe, Mexico, and elsewhere with a whole array of anti-union tactics. They’d force these workers – who weren’t citizens, had no rights, and often didn’t speak the same languages – to live in company-built towns as a condition of their employment. Then they’d stoke racial animosities and mistrust between the different ethnic groups using spies. They’d pay them in company scrip that could only be spent at company stores. They’d bring in scab labor if they threatened to strike. And they’d hire armed guards to intimidate anyone who didn’t like it.
Betsy Jameson: It was much more policed in company towns, where there was always scrutiny about who was coming in and out, control of where you can shop and who your doctor was and even where you could pray or where your kids went to school in a company town.
Noel: But hardrock mining camps were different. The majority of hardrock miners were the descendants of western and northern European miners, and they saw themselves at the top of a racialized hierarchy. Many were American-born Welsh, Cornish, English, German, Scandinavian, and now Irish miners who believed they’d paid their dues and earned the right to work in the hardrock camps where pay was by the day, not by the ton. Some African-American workers were tolerated, but the more recent waves of immigrant miners from southern and eastern Europe, Mexico, and sometimes Asia, were kept out of their camps.
Thomas Andrews: Cripple Creek is proudly declaring itself a white man's camp. That's not me, as a historian, applying a label retrospectively; that is a label that Cripple Creekers touted proudly that it was a white man's camp and whiteness for them was really restricted.
Noel: The miners who became members of the local WFM unions also had long traditions of sticking together both for safety and job security. All of these factors made it hard for owners to hire scab labor, and more difficult to control the miners in general.
Noel: Also, unlike coal fields, which were often owned by one or two major companies, gold camps could have dozens of owners competing for veins of gold that might eventually cross over each other beneath a claim. And so work stoppages meant you might not get to those veins first, which could be costly. All these factors meant that it was difficult to set up company towns or to bust unions in hardrock mining camps.
Of course, that didn’t mean that mine owners in Cripple Creek didn’t try. But when they did, the strike that followed would usher in one of the longest lasting experiments in local union power in the history of the United States.
Noel: Betsy Jameson says mine workers’ wages had been declining for years, and continued to wane even after the boom in Cripple Creek in 1893 and ‘94.
Betsy Jameson: They came from a heritage that had begun with a tradition of a $4 day for working 8 hours underground. And that was a pretty good living in the 1870s, ‘80s, ‘90s.
Noel: The first strike at Cripple Creek – the second would come a decade later in 1903 and ‘04 – began as most strikes do: with owners wanting more work for less money. Miners were willing to work 8 hours for $3 a day. But with the economy in shambles, a small group of mine owners led by David Moffat, his partner Eben Smith, and J.J. Hagerman thought they could push harder, and did in early 1894.
Betsy Jameson: So there was a move by some of the mine owners to lengthen the work day to 9 hours or even 10 hours and to cut wages to $2.50 a day.
Noel: Moffat and Hagerman had both made significant fortunes in banking, railroads, and silver mining during the booms in Leadville and Aspen. When Cripple Creek took off in 1893, Hagerman, Moffat and Smith already had the capital, equipment, and know-how to start buying up mining claims, and they shifted their interests from silver to gold. By 1894, the three of them owned nearly a third of the whole district. Hagerman also owned the Midland Railroad, which would soon connect the Cripple Creek Mining District with smelting operations in Colorado Springs. And Smith and Moffat were building their own railroad, the Florence and Cripple Creek.
Thomas Andrews: They know that they're in a superior bargaining position, essentially. They can push their luck with workers, they can extend hours, they can cut pay. And this is something that miner owners periodically did. When they felt like they had the chance, they knew that the potential gains for them were immense because labor really was their major cost.
Noel: They had also learned the lessons of the 1880 Leadville Silver Strike first hand. Miners there had formed a local union under the banner of the Knights of Labor and took to the streets to demand higher wages. The mines took a financial hit in the short term. But the small union didn’t have enough money or support to resist for long. And local businesses hurt by the strike quickly turned against them. Then-Governor Fredrick Pitkin declared martial law and ended the strike by force, and the mines made more money that year than they had in the year before. At Cripple Creek, the owners had every reason to believe the script would play out in much the same way when they announced the wage cut and extension of hours on February 1st, 1894. But the miners had learned their lessons, too.
Betsy Jameson: They knew that it took a hell of a lot of their labor to create wealth out of a bunch of rock, to get that gold out.
Noel: They also knew they couldn’t go it alone. Not for long. But now, with the recent formation of the Western Federation of Miners in Butte, Montana, they could tap into a much larger base of financial and organizational support. And John Calderwood had connections, all the way up to the Colorado Governor’s office.
Betsy Jameson: He had been a leader of the miners’ union in Aspen, where he had known a guy named Davis Waite, who was elected Governor of Colorado in 1892 as a Populist.
Thomas Andrews: Davis Waite, he was an Aspen newspaper editor and an ardent populist. And you have a man in the state House who has a different view on labor and on labor activism than really any of his predecessors had. This is important because, in addition to just the importance of the Governor, the Governor was also effectively the commander-in-chief of the state militia, which is the precursor to the Colorado National Guard.
Noel: And when the mine owners refused to reinstate the $3 pay for an 8-hour work day, the new local unions organized under the Western Federation of Miners’ banner –Altman No. 19, Victor No. 32, Anaconda No. 21, and Cripple Creek No. 40. And all of them were counting on Governor Waite’s support when they struck on February 7.
Noel: At first, the strike played out mostly as Hagerman, Moffat, and Smith had planned with one major exception: True to their working-class roots,Winfield Scott Stratton and Jimmy Burns immediately broke ranks with the other mine owners. They recognize the union, and honor their demand for $3 pay for an 8-hour workday.
Thomas Andrews: They don't like a lot of the other people who are heavily invested in the mining industry. I mean, they look at, like, David Moffatt or Eben Smith or some of these other, you know, folks who'd, you know, oftentimes made millions in Leadville and in railroading and that kind of thing, who are already large capitalists. And they don't like these guys and they know that these guys look down on them. And so, I think that there's already this sort of antipathy.
Betsy Jameson: You had guys who at least recognized that the people they were employing had skills, and who respected those skills. And some of the other owners really saw an undifferentiated, uneducated first or second generation immigrant masse who they didn't respect particularly, and who the mine owners saw them as interchangeable. There was a saying, for instance, in the mining west, men are cheaper than timber. And it encapsulated what they saw as the disregard of capitalist mine owners for their safety because they would be unwilling to invest in the timber and the labor time to timber properly to keep a shaft from caving in.
Noel: Recognizing the unions and paying them fair wages didn’t make Stratton and Burns saints or heroes, says Andrews. But they knew where they came from, they knew that it was the workers, not the other owners, who were mining their gold. But it did make them part of the culture in the district that helped the unions thrive and stand up to ownership when it was necessary. And the miners weren’t afraid to play rough.
Thomas Andrews: They were sort of operating from a context where violence was a part of miners’ everyday lives on the job, in the saloon afterwards. Cripple Creek. I mean, all these mining camps, these are really rough and tumble places.
Noel: Knowing the unions weren’t to be taken lightly, and that the newly-elected Governor was a union sympathizer, the mine owners turned to El Paso County Sheriff M.F. Bowers, who sent more than a hundred deputies to arrest the strikers. But when the deputies rushed Bull Hill where the striking miners were encamped, they blew up the shaft house of the strong mine to make their intentions clear. Here’s Matt Mayberry again:
Matt Mayberry: I think a learning lesson from this is, you know, you ought to be careful. When you're trying to force the will of people who know how to use dynamite, it might be better to take some caution, but, you know, it's that's, that's an example of how violent it became, as people use the, the tools of the trade, dynamite, to try to to get their will.
Noel: The miners knew they had to be ready to use violence to protect themselves because the state militia had used violence against them in previous strikes.
Thomas Andrews: The state militia had always come out on the side of the mine owners because of pro-business governors.
Noel: But this time, Davis Waite sent the militia to keep the peace. And he withdrew them when negotiations resumed. The mine owners offered $2.75 for 8 hours of work, but the union refused, and tensions escalated. So the mine owners paid Sheriff Bowers in Colorado Springs to bring in even more men – a small army of 1,300 deputies, says Matt Mayberry:
Matt Mayberry: He deputized a bunch of what I have seen referred to in one account as hooligans, you know, toughs, essentially, who would try to, through various means, both violent and not, to force the will of mine owners. In other words, keep, intimidate or, through violent means, silence the union representatives, in some cases shipping them out of town.
Noel: Governor Waite sent the state militia back in on June 6 under the command of General E.J. Brooks, and the striking miners quickly surrendered. But Sheriff Bowers and his newly-minted deputies weren’t going to leave without flashing their badges. They ran amok in the town of Cripple Creek instead, beating and arresting citizens and journalists without cause until Governor Waite threatened martial law.
For all the money they’d spent, Hagerman, Moffat and Smith knew they’d never break the strike without the State’s military power behind them. And on June 11, 1894 under what was known as the Waite agreement, they reopened the mines at $3 for an 8-hour day.
Thomas Andrews: The thing that in a lot of ways is most notable about the 1894 strike then is that Waite brings in the militia on the side of the strikers and in the process, helps them secure a really significant victory.
Thomas Andrews: It really shows that the Western Federation of Miners is a force to be reckoned with, and so the WFM grows significantly as a consequence of the Cripple Creek strike. So this makes the WFM's reputation throughout the Mountain West.
Noel: For as much as I knew about Winfield Scott Stratton, I’d never heard one word about the Western Federation of Miners when I was growing up in Colorado Springs, a town that was built, in many ways, by the wealth they helped create in Cripple Creek. And how do you tell stories of the collective in a culture more interested in the myths of so-called rugged individuals like Stratton?
The story of the Western Federation of Miners and the many other unions at Cripple Creek during those years is a long, complicated, sometimes boring story of the many people who extracted the wealth and the people who housed them, supported them, fed them, washed their clothes, and cared for them over the next ten years, from 1894 to 1904. And it’s not a myth. Like the rocks on Stratton’s claim that hid the gold, it’s ugly. And it involves a lot of people working hard to realize its value.
To tell the whole story of Cripple Creek and the many unions it supported during the gold boom at the turn of the 20th Century, Betsy Jameson had to mine a decade’s worth of data: census records, newspaper accounts, social club membership lists, and oral histories with survivors and descendants. And her exhaustively researched book, All That Glitters, tells that story. But, she says, it isn’t the stuff of myths or heroic individuals; it’s the story of the whole culture.
Betsy Jameson: What I mean by culture is a space in which people with shared interests work out and sometimes contest what it means to say, be Christian or working class or Irish or whatever, and come to sometimes some agreement about shared values and symbols and history.
Noel: Union culture dominated the entire Cripple Creek Mining District, its ten towns, its economy,and social life at a time when the balance of power between workers and owners was already tipping toward corporations.
But hardrock miners knew their value, and took pride in it.
Betsy Jameson: It was gold, and it was pretty easy to figure out the difference between the value of what you mined and what you were paid, and to know that the rest went in profits to people who weren't there and weren't sharing the danger, who didn't have those skills, but who had access to capital.
Noel: The camaraderie and social cohesion that came with the union culture was a different kind of wealth.
Betsy Jameson: There are any number of miners who I've interviewed who love the mines, they love being underground, they love the darkness, and they value the strong bonds that develop among people who work together underground and who are responsible for each other's safety. The idea of union grew very naturally out of that work. The idea that you needed to support each other collectively was absolutely inherent in working underground. If you didn't really look out for each other, you're going to blow each other up. Or the shaft was going to cave in on all of you.
Noel: And that culture of solidarity, says Jameson, was crucial to the balance of power between the Western Federation of Miners and the owners . That balance, she says, created prosperity for all of them during the decade that followed the 1894 strike.
Betsy Jameson: So what happened after that first strike, just most concretely, was that once the miners were organized and they'd organized the hoist engineers and the related mining workers, they used their leverage to organize most of the rest of the workers in the district. By 1900, I think there were, by my count, at least 54 local unions who had organized everyone from bartenders to waitresses to barbers to hod carriers and so on.
Noel: And the owners, meanwhile, made hundreds of millions of dollars without having to deal with costly strikes.
Betsy Jameson: A lot of disagreements simply got settled by, the miners would go down to Colorado Springs and talk to the mine owners. I don't know how many minor kinds of issues got headed off because they were comfortable talking to Burns, for instance.
Noel: The absentee owners had to weigh how much money they were willing to lose on fights with the unions when compromise led by Stratton and Burns meant the mines kept operating and everyone had more than enough.
Noel: Despite the strength of the unions around Cripple Creek, and the balance of power that Stratton and Burns helped maintain during that decade, the mine owners in the District continued to accumulate power and control. They built, or bought up and vertically integrated as many mines, railroads, mills and smelters as they could. Matt Mayberry:
Matt Mayberry: There's further consolidation of the main ownership. Fewer big conglomerates owning more of the land and employing more of the labor. And that that means there's less of this ability to negotiate and work with individual owners. And there's more wealth in the ownership class.
Noel: Then, on September 14, 1902, Winfield Scott Stratton died. Though he’d sold his shares of his Independence Mine for 11 million in 1899 and spent much of his time and money after that on the legacy projects and infrastructure for the working classes of Colorado Springs, he’d maintained his interest in the Portland mine. His death was one of the final blows to the delicate balance of power between the unions and the owners in Cripple Creek.
Betsy Jameson: And that, in effect, destabilized what had been fairly amicable working relationships between owners and miners for the ten years between the two strikes.
Noel: Then, two months later, Colorado elected a pro-business, anti-union governor named James Peabody. Unlike his Populist predecessor, Davis Waite, Peabody was a Republican banker from Canon City who ran on a platform of law and order. The mine owners knew they had an ally in the Capitol. And when the WFM tried to organize the workers in their mills, a detective got the names of all the smelter men who joined the union. They were fired and blacklisted. And in support, the WFM unions in Cripple Creek called for a strike among the mines that provided ore to those refineries in Colorado City in August, 1903.
Governor Peabody was more than happy to send in the state militia on behalf of the owners. And the owners were more than happy to allow the militia to settle it with force.
The Colorado Labor War that followed is its own story. But it marked the end of that decade-long period of relative peace and prosperity for both labor and owners during the boom years in Cripple Creek.
Thomas Andrews: The outcome is really a disastrous defeat for the Western Federation of Miners.You don't need a union card to work in Cripple Creek anymore. And this vision of the WFM of organizing across smelters, even coal mines by this point, that's really shattered.
Noel: Before I leave the Pioneers Museum, Matt Mayberry shows me one of his favorite artifacts from their collections. It’s a gold pocket watch with exquisitely engraved photos of Jimmy Burns’s wife and son on the face, and it has an inscription. It was given to him by his employees during the strike while both the Portland mine and mill continued to operate with union labor. Burns was later forced to resign as President of the Portland in the brutal aftermath of the strike when the militia occupied the Portland mine as retribution for his support of the unions.
Matt Mayberry: So, this is dated January 28th, 1904, and it is to the Honorable James F. Burns, President, Portland Gold Mining Company, Colorado Springs. The undersigned address you as a committee of employees of the Portland mine appointed for the purpose of selecting and presenting our employer with a fitting token of appreciation and esteem, something fashioned out of fine gold from Colorado's richest, greatest, excuse me, gold mine and a gift that may always be kept and treasured by yourself as a memento of regard from 500 mine employees.
Noel: Wow. You don't see that every day.
Matt Mayberry: No, you don't. And you don't see that even in Cripple Creek very much because of the different class of mine owners that were up there. There's kind of the working class mine owners versus the wealthy, the socialites, as they were called, mine owners who were much farther removed from the life experience and day-to-day challenges of a mine employee.
Noel: It’s difficult to imagine the employees of Twitter, none of whom currently belong to a union, giving CEO Elon Musk anything so much as an engraved FitBit. Though his Tesla stock has since plummeted, he was recently worth as much as 300 billion, close to the Gross Domestic Product of his native South Africa. Then there’s Jeff Bezos with wealth well over a hundred billion, who recently pledged to give away all his money before he dies. But Amazon has resisted at every step as employees have tried to organize and unionize. He’s no Stratton.
But even Stratton, the first millionaire at Cripple Creek, was no Stratton. Not in the way that I’d mythologized him, at least. As I finish this story and look at him through the far more complicated, nuanced, and, yes, uglier lens of history, he seems… tragic – less working-class hero, more King Midas whose touch turned everything to gold, including, much to his dismay, the food he could no longer eat.
The more gold that Stratton gave away, the faster he drank himself into his boozy tomb. Oh, and that quote that “$100,000 is as much as the man of ordinary intelligence can take” that he supposedly said? It captures his seemingly Spartan charms almost too perfectly. (Pity the man who regrets his millions!) But let’s not forget that $100,000 adjusted for inflation in 2022 is about 3.5 million. And however miserable his money may have made him as he tried to give it all away, the one thing he never tried was giving it back to the workers who’d made him rich.
People of immense wealth – people like Stratton and Burns, or Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos, no matter how they came into their money, or who they might have exploited to make more of it – will probably always have a mythic place in American culture as heroes of their own supposedly self-made success.
But I hope we’ll find a way to mythologize the collective culture that creates such wealth, and some of its mythical figures and their heroic deeds. One of Betsy Jameson’s mythic heroes while she was researching her book, for example, was a woman named May Wing. The daughter of an Irish immigrant who mined in Leadville and Cripple Creek, May grew up in the District and later married a hoist engineer.
Betsy Jameson: He wanted to be remembered for starting the first hot school lunch program in Victor and for making them put plumbing into what was the old union hall, actually, so that the boys didn't have to go outside. They played basketball there upstairs, and the boys were having to go out into the alleys to pee at halftime and they were getting colds every winter. So she organized the mothers to go to the school board and persuade them to put in plumbing and hire a custodian to live in the building so the pipes wouldn't freeze.
Noel: May Wing died before the book was published. But Jameson says she’ll never forget one of the last things May told her:
She said: "And of course, the history today, in books that's written a lot, is not really the true thing, as it was lived."
[Theme Post & Credits]
Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.
If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: Tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Speaking of Collective Action, many thanks to our Producer, Dustin Hodge, and Assistant Producer, María José Maddox.
Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for newspaper and periodical research; to Tyler Hill, our story editor; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.
Thank you also to the entire staff of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, but especially to Hillary Manion, the Archivist at the Starsmore Center for Local History.
Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at historycolorado.org/losthighways.
Devin James Fry composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.
Many thanks to our editorial team:
and Zach Werkowitch
And to our Advisory Group:
and Cara DeGette
Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.