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  • History Friday – The Tireless Mr. Colt

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on September 20th, 2013 (All posts by )

    (Part the second, first part here.)
    The redesigned and improved revolver – the Walker Colt – turned out to be a nearly five-pound brute of a weapon, and returned Sam to the arms-manufacturing business with renewed zest. He subcontracted production of them first with Eli Whitney Blake (nephew of Eli Whitney) at Blake’s Whitneyville armory. The contract specified that the machinery used would revert back into Colt’s ownership at completion of the contract – for Sam had set up shop in a former cotton mill in Hartford, Connecticut. He incorporated the company as Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. He held most of the shares; trusted friends and relatives held the remainder.

    Orders poured in for the Colt-Walker model, later improved as the Dragoon, even after the war ended. Sam was the man, and a man it was good to be friends with. One of those friends was the newly-elected governor of Connecticut, whom Sam had supported politically. As the commander of the state militia, the governor could bestow a military commission as a lieutenant colonel on a man of his choice – and he chose to bestow it on Sam. For the rest of his life, Sam took pride in being Colonel Colt – and was often referred to as ‘the colonel’ by friends and associates. His fame as an industrialist and inventor was spread even more widely when he showed off the output of his armory – five hundred pistols and a number of experimental rifles – at the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition was intended to show off the very latest in industrial advances, technology and art; a project dear to the heart of Prince Albert, who was one of the primary organizers. The Queen herself formally opened the Great Exhibition, and over six million people trooped through the Chrystal Palace, admiring all. Sam Colt was invited to read a paper on the technology of assembling items – his patent revolvers and rifles – from machine-created parts to the Institute of Civil Engineers, which so cemented his fame that he was invited to be a life-member.

    Success followed on success. He had the respect of inventors and industrialists on two continents, friendships with soldiers whom he admired and politicians who could be useful, He prevailed on the US Congress to extend the patent that he had obtained on his revolving mechanism, he had clients all over Europe and the Americas for his pistols, rifles and carbines, which poured out at a rate which could only be achieved by assembling them from machine-made, interchangeable parts. He had a factory in London, in addition to the splendid new armory in Hartford, for which ground was broken in 1854, on a stretch of easily-flooded swampy meadow-land on the edge of Hartford along the Connecticut River. Sam’s ambitious solution was to have a protective dike built along the river, and planted it with osier willows, whose long roots would solidify and stabilize the dike. Cannily, he planned that effort to pay for itself, by opening a willow-work factory, inventing a machine to split and peel the bark from harvested willow branches, and importing a whole village of German craftsmen to manufacture willow-work furniture.

    The new armory was a massive building of Portland stone, four stories tall, and crowned with a blue-enameled dome topped with a rearing golden colt. The armory building contained the machine shops, a foundry, offices, two enormous boilers providing power, an assembly hall for his workers. It was not the only building in the compound – there were also houses for his workers – at the armory and the willow-ware factory … and on the highest portion of the property, he planned a grand mansion for himself, an Italianate pile surrounded by landscaped gardens, ponds, stables, and greenhouses called Armsmear.

    As the inimitable Jane Austen noted, the only lack in the life of a gentleman with such a substantial income was that of a wife. Sam remedied that in June of 1856 by marrying Elizabeth Hart Jarvis, of nearby Middleton. The Jarvises were a well-known local ‘old money’ family of unimpeachable social standing. They were not anywhere near as wealthy as Sam Colt – very few of the pre-Civil War gentry were. The newlyweds embarked on a lengthy European honeymoon and Grand Tour, accompanied by the bride’s younger brother and sister – a journey which culminated in the pomp and circumstance of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II in Moscow. Sam and his brother-in-law were among the bare handful of non-Russians honored with invitations to attend the coronation ceremony, being temporary seconded to the American delegation as military attaches. Sweet indeed must have been the triumph for Sam – who had a dozen years previous been hitting the circuit giving demonstrations of laughing gas to fund his inventions!

    The intended year-long honeymoon journey was cut short after six months; likely there was only so long that Sam could stay away from his various businesses. By the last half of the decade, they included not just the Hartford Armory and the willow factory but a New Mexico silver mine, a prospective port in Texas and property in Mexico itself. He and Elizabeth settled into Armsmear and pleasant and active life as the leading citizens of Hartford. Elizabeth bore four children in that time; sadly, only one lived to adulthood. Meanwhile tensions between the north and south became acute. As a businessman, Sam had no sympathy for radical method in anything but manufacturing and technology. He viewed the sternly abolitionist Republicans with distaste. He was not alone in this, although the prospect of a shooting war would increase demand for his product immensely. The prospect of war and disunion horrified the Yankee manufacturing elite in Hartford. A large part of Sam’s market was in the South, he had friendships and business connections there, which a war would disrupt.

    But by the end of the decade, Sam’s health began to fail, and fail catastrophically. He was plagued by reoccurring attacks of gout and rheumatic fever, which increasingly confined him to bed. He would obey the doctors then, and recover just enough to return to work … whereupon he would overwork, fall ill and begin the cycle again. The attacks worsened; by Christmas of 1861, he was entirely bedridden at Armsmear, within sight of the towering, blue-domed Armory. He died there on January 10, 1862, at the age of 47. He left a fortune – a considerable one for the time – of $15 million dollars and majority control of his company to Elizabeth.

    (Part 1 cross-posted at my book-blog, where I am also taking pre-publication orders for the next book, The Quivera Trail, and posting chapters of the book after that – a re-imagining of the Lone Ranger. Enjoy)


    One Response to “History Friday – The Tireless Mr. Colt”

    1. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

      }}} Elizabeth bore four children in that time; sadly, only one lived to adulthood.

      One of the wealthiest men in the nation, and only one of four children lived.

      Whiny-assed idiots today have no f***ing idea how damned rich they are, even when they live in a ghetto.

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