Biography of Hon. Jerome B. Chaffee of Denver, Colorado

From whatever point the life and character of Senator Jerome B. Chaffee may be viewed, whether as the head of large and valuable mining interests, the organizer and first president of the First National Bank of Denver, or as a man of public affairs, devoted to the welfare of his state and intensely interested in its progress, it will be readily conceded that he was a great man. His representation of Colorado in the United States senate was of such a nature as to reflect credit upon his own high order of talents and secure for him the regard of his constituents.

Born in Niagara County, N. Y. April 17, 1825, Mr. Chaffee was quite a young man when he came West to Adrian, Mich., where he taught school and afterwards kept a store. Later he removed to St. Joseph, Mo., where he engaged in banking. In 1837 he organized the Elmwood Town Company in Kansas, of which he became secretary and manager. Soon after the discovery of gold in Colorado he decided to come here, and in 1860 he crossed the plains to Gilpin County, where he developed some gold lodes, and, with Eben Smith, erected the Smith & Chaffee stamp mill. In 1863 he sold the interest in the lode he was working, but afterward bought it back and consolidated it with other lodes, the whole forming the famous “Bob-Tail Lode and Tunnel,” the name of which is said to have been derived from the fact that a bob-tailed ox, harnessed to a drag, made by stretching a rawhide across a forked stick, was used for hauling the first paydirt to the gulch for sluicing. Mr. Chaffee became the largest owner of the Bob-Tail Company, which owned the best paying mine, largest tunnels and one of the most complete mills in the state at that time. He became the owner of one hundred or more gold and silver lodes, among them the Caribou silver mine in Boulder County, and he was one of the organizers and principal stockholders in the Little Pittsburg Consolidated Mining Company.

The business energies of Mr. Chaffee found a new outlet in 1865, when he bought the banking interests of Clark & Co., and organized the First National Bank of Denver, of which he was president until January, 1880. Politically he was a Republican from the organization of that party, and he was its leader in Colorado for many years before his death. Though from 1860 to 1888 extensively interested in mining, yet the larger portion of his time was given to public affairs. In 1861 he was elected to represent Gilpin County in the first territorial legislature, two years later was re-elected and chosen speaker of the house. In 1869 the people organized a state government under the enabling act of congress and he and Hon. John Evans were elected United States senators. A bill to admit the state was introduced and passed by the congress and senate in 1865-66, but President Johnson vetoed it. Again introduced in the session of 1867-68, it was again vetoed by President Johnson. This veto and the subsequent controversy are memorable events in the administration of Johnson, nor was Senator Chaffees connection with the matter of insignificant importance.

When elected a delegate to congress and beginning upon his duties in the spring of 1871, Senator Chaffee at once presented a new enabling act. During his four years of service as delegate he labored hard for the passage of the act, but it was not until near the expiration of his term that he was successful. When the news reached Denver there was the wildest enthusiasm, and both parties united in praising Mr. Chaffee, for both Democrats and Republicans wished the territory admitted to the Union, each believing it would have a majority of votes. On the admission of the state into the Union, Mr. Chaffee was unanimously elected to the senate, a well-merited recognition of his efforts in the attainment of the end long desired. Hon. H. M. Teller was elected as junior senator. When they reached Washington, Mr. Chaffee drew by lot the long term expiring March 4, 1879. After his election his first effort in behalf of the state was an arrangement of facts relative to the question of pro rata between the Kansas Pacific and the Union Pacific roads. These he drew up and presented to the senate in a speech that attracted the attention of the ablest men of the country and proved the beginning of the final settlement of the question. He introduced a bill authorizing a treaty with the Ute Indians for the cession of a part of their reservation, thus opening to development the rich mining district of San Juan. He introduced a bill changing the rules of the house so as to give the territories representation in the committee on territories, thus establishing a precedent for permitting delegates to participate in the business of other committees. He drafted and secured the passage of a bill for enlarging, confirming and defining the power of territorial legislature. Largely through his labors an excellent mining code was passed by congress. Under the new state organization he was again elected United States senator and drew the short term, expiring March 3, 1879, when he refused further election on account of ill health. His friends were extremely reluctant to accept his refusal of further nomination, but when he urged his physical inability to discharge the duties of the responsible position, Hon. Nathaniel P. Hill was placed in nomination and afterward duly elected to the office.

Beginning with the convention in Buffalo in 1844, when J. G. Birney was nominated by the Liberal party, Senator Chaffee was a delegate to every national convention of his party. During many years he represented his state as a member of the Republican national committee. He did much for the advancement of the state, giving liberally of his time to promote progressive projects and also contributing with the greatest generosity to matters for the benefit of the people. His talents were of an unusually high order, and he is remembered as one of the most eminent men that the state has ever had among its citizens.

At Adrian, Mich., in 1848, Senator Chaffee married Miriam, daughter of Warner and Mary (Perry) Comstock. Their children were: Horace Jerome, Nellie Virginia, Edward Fenton and Fannie Josephine, wife of U. S. Grant, Jr. In his last years Senator Chaffee divided his time between Colorado and the home of his daughter at Murryweather farm, Westchester County, N. Y. He died there March 9, 1886, and lies buried in Adrian, by the side of his wife and three of his children.

Source: Portrait and biographical record of Denver and vicinity, Colorado : containing portraits and biographies of many well known citizens of the past and present : together with biographies and portraits of all the presidents of the United States.. Chicago: Chapman Pub. Co., 1898.

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