A tailing tale of John Rollins

Entrepreneur Extraordinaire and Founder of Rollinsville

By Maggie Magoffin

John Q. A. Rollins was born on June 16, 1816. His father was a Baptist preacher and his mother was a strong Christian woman. John, consequently, received strict religious training and a solid common-school education. By the age of twelve, he was active in a variety of businesses from farming, to milling, to mercantile pursuits. Achieving self-reliance through his education and business pursuits, at the age of eighteen, in 1834, John left his home in Moultonboro, New Hampshire and set out to seek his fortune in the city of Boston.

In Boston, he found employment with Curtis Guild Wholesale Grocers, and within one year he proved himself so capable he was entrusted with receiving and dispersing all the goods of the store. At that time, Curtis Guild was the largest wholesale establishment of its kind in Boston.

Soon, however, John grew restless and in 1835 set out to head west. With his carpet bag in hand he took a boat to New York and Albany, then by train to Schenectady, then by canal boat to Buffalo, then by steamer to Detroit. He then walked from Detroit to Chicago, where he came down with a severe case of the measles and nearly died. Soon after recovering from the dreaded illness, John was robbed of all his earthly possessions, $60 and an old watch.

A man not to be kept down, Rollins worked at investing and sold land in the Chicago area where he amassed a fortune. In1836, he invested in 2,000 acres of land in Belvidere with the former Congressman, R.S. Maloney and his two brothers. Rollins was put in control of the land, from which he broke out 500 acres to establish a farm and was determined to make it his home. In April of that year, John married “the purest Christian woman that ever lived.”

Over the next twenty-four years, Rollins bought and sold property, partnered in a large wholesale business, and was involved in a sizeable lumber business. In one spring, he employed 500 men running lumber and logs on the river while at the same time operating his farm in Belvidere. He also drove cattle, was conductor of state lines, and was mining in Galena, Dubuque, and other points.

In the spring of 1860, Rollins caught the Pikes Peak gold fever, and outfitted at his Belvidere farm with nineteen teams, starting for Colorado with Colonel James McNassor. From Omaha, with machinery and supplies added, they rolled out with about thirty teams and headed for the Colorado gold fields.

Arriving in Denver late in the season, the partners divided their goods and John Rollins sent part of his to a town he and several others had established at the junction of the Platte and Cache la Poudre rivers. Another part he sent to the town of Gold Dirt in Gilpin County where he set up a quartz mill in the winter of 1860 and 1861. (Gold Dirt was a small mining camp on the Boulder County/ Gilpin County line that thrived in the early 1860’s.) The mill was a six stamper, and the first week’s run resulted in a cleanup of $1,475 from six cords of ore taken from his own claim on the Gold Dirt Lode. This encouraged Rollins to enlarge his mill to sixteen stamps, and buy up all the claims he could get hold to be part of the Gold Dirt Mines. He continued to mine until 1864 when he moved to New York and joined several others to form the Hope, Eagle, Perigo and Rollins Mining Company.

The company eventually failed due to mismanagement of funds. However, John Rollins knew full well the value of the Gold Dirt Mines and never lost sight of the district. As soon as mining companies or discouraged individuals abandoned their claims, Rollins acquired them.

Rollins also engaged in a number of other business ventures, including partnering with D.A. Butterfield of the early Butterfield Stage Line. John put $75,000 into the firm of “Butterfield and Rollins,” and lost most of his money. He also invested $60,000 into the salt works in South Park and into mines in Park County. He was among the first of Colorado road builders, being the projector and constructor of the wagon road from Rollinsville, over the Snowy Range to Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park. He then built a bridge across Grand River. The road was forty miles long and cost Rollins $20,000.  At one time, he was also half-owner, and kept in repair the toll road from Denver by way of Golden to Black Hawk and Central City.

John Rollins made a fortune in gold mining in Gilpin County and founded the town of Rollinsville. By 1879, he owned 20,000 linear feet of gold-bearing veins, 300 acres of placer gold mining deposits, and 2,000 acres of farm land. In 1865, at the height of his wealth, he returned home to Moltonboro, New Hampshire to visit his aging parents. There he purchased a 240-acre farm formerly owned by them, thus securing them a beautiful home to live out their days.

A story is told of a billiards contest between Rollins and Denver banker, Charles Cook. As the tale goes, on a day in 1865, Rollins visited a billiard hall over Brendlinger’s cigar store at Blake and F Streets in Denver. He and Cook struck up a conversation that eventually led to a discussion of billiards. When Rollins confidently boasted he could beat Cook, the banker laughed. Rollins challenged Cook and gave him 20 points in each of 100 games. Cook responded by betting $400 on each game. The men agreed they would play until one of them gave up, and the individual quitting would have to forfeit $1,000.

The match began at 2:30 in the afternoon, and rumors of the competition spread through Denver. Soon the billiards hall was filled to capacity with spectators and the score was written on the floor in chalk so everyone could see. At 10:00 that evening the two antagonists were still at it, and Cook was losing game after game. At midnight, Rollins grew tired and the game swung to the favor of Cook. Cook then raised his bet to $800 per game and Rollins agreed.

Cook continued winning until an hour before dawn when Rollins got a second wind. The tide swung the other way and the game continued on until the following day. By noon, Rollins was several thousands of dollars ahead. After thirty-two hours of continuous play, Cook trailed Rollins by $12,000. Finally, one hour before midnight, Rollins gave up, forfeited the $1,000 and took the $11,000 Cook owed him.

Resources: Eccentric Colorado – A Legacy of the Bizarre and Unusual by Kenneth Jessen and History of Clear Creek and Boulder Valley’s Colorado by Brookhaven Press.

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