- Historic Sites
Gunmaker To The World
Samuel Colt’s life was brief but eventful. He was an imaginative inventor and an ambitious pitchman whose legacy included scandal and success—and firearms that were revolutionary in more ways than one
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
By “inside contracting” Colt kept his own employment rolls to less than a fourth of the total number who earned their living from the armory. His thirty-one contractors assumed responsibility for their particular operations or departments, hiring their own men and receiving materials and tools from Colt.
The willow trees grew so well on top of the dike that Colt set up a small factory to manufacture willow furniture, which became especially popular in Cuba and South America because of its lightness of weight and its coolness. For his German willow workers he erected a row of two-family brick houses modelled after their homes in Potsdam, and gave them a beer-and-coffee garden as well. For his own pleasure and theirs, he formed them into a brightly uniformed armory band. His final, most forward-looking contribution to his employees’ welfare was Charter Oak Hall, named after the Charter Oak tree that fell in 1856, the year the hall was dedicated.∗ Seating a thousand people, the hall was a meeting place for workers; there they could read, hear lectures or concerts, and hold fairs or dances. ∗The Charter Oak long had been a symbol of Connecticut’s passion for independence. In 1687 the British royal governor was frustrated in his attempt to take away the colony’s charter when a local resident stashed the document in the ancient tree.
Through it all, Sam Colt had remained a rather bibulous bachelor, a. well-fleshed six-footer whose light hazel eyes were beginning to gather more than a few wrinkles about them. But Colonel Colt was now at the peak of his career, and he needed a wife and home; these he acquired with his usual dispatch and pomp. Four years earlier he had met the two daughters of the Reverend William Jarvis of Middletown, downriver from Hartford. He chose as his bride the gracious and gentle Elizabeth, who at thirty was twelve years younger than he. The extravagance of their wedding, on June 5, 1856, rocked Hartford’s staid society. The steamboat Washington Irving , which Colt chartered for the occasion, carried him and his friends to the wedding in Middletown. They boarded in front of the flag-bedecked armory; there was an immense crowd of spectators, and Colt mechanics fired a rifle salute from the cupola. Two days later the Colonel and his bride sailed on the Baltic for a six-month trip to Europe. On their return, Sam began to build his palatial Armsmear on the western edge of his property.
When Armsmear was finished, Colt’s investment in the South Meadows was close to two million dollars—truly a gigantic redevelopment project for that era (and one that he accomplished without borrowing from the bankers he so roundly detested). Yet its importance was largely lost upon the city fathers, and Colt’s father-in-law complained, “Though he pays nearly one tenth of the whole city tax, yet there has been a determination on the part of the Republicans to do nothing for him, or the many hundreds who reside on his property in the South Meadows.”
Although the city finally gave him some tax relief for his improvements, its only physical contribution was three street lamps. And when Sam started a private ferry from the armory across the Connecticut to East Hartford to convey mechanics who could not be accommodated in company housing, the hostile Hartford Courant accused him of trying to “dodge the rights of the Hartford Bridge Company.” So exasperated did the Colonel become over such treatment—which was undoubtedly aggravated by his own brashness—that he made a major change in his will, depriving Connecticut of what would surely have been a great educational institution. He had originally planned to leave a quarter of his estate for “founding a school for the education of practical mechanics and engineers.”
By the end of 1858 the Colonel, his lady, and young Caldwell were comfortably ensconced in Armsmear. The family saw little of Colt, however; as the North and South raced toward cataclysm, Colt was busy making enormous profits by filling the demands of both sides for what he sardonically called “my latest work on ‘Moral Reform.’ ” He seriously considered building a branch armory in either Virginia or Georgia. The Armory’s earnings averaged $237,000 annually until the outbreak of the Civil War, when they soared to over a million. His last shipment of five hundred guns to the South left for Richmond three days after Fort Sumter, packed in boxes marked “hardware.”
Colt regarded slavery not as a moral wrong but as an inefficient economic system. He abhorred abolitionists, denounced John Brown as a traitor, and opposed the election of Lincoln for fear the Union would be destroyed—and a lucrative market thereby lost. Like many other Connecticut manufacturers, he believed that an upset of the status quo would be ruinous to the free trade on which the state’s prosperity depended. Thus, he took a conservative stand on slavery and supported the Democrats because they stressed Union and the Constitution. But at the same time, he shrewdly prepared the armory for a five-year conflict and for the arming of a million men; the prevailing sentiment in Hartford was that a civil war, if it broke out, could not last two months. During a vacation in Cuba in early 1861, Colt wrote Root and Lord, exhorting them to “run the Armory night & day with a double set of hands. … Make hay while the sun shines.”