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John Edgar Burton

JOHN E. BURTON is one of the strong men who is assisting in the development of the resources of Seward Peninsula, Alaska. He has had an active and a varied career and has contributed in no small degree to the arduous work that falls to the lot of the pioneer and the man whose endeavors are associated with the frontier and development of our country. He acquired a fortune promoting the iron mining interests of the Gogebic and Penokee Range during the three years succeeding 1885, and expended a part of it in the construction of the Aguan Canal in Honduras to connect the Caribbean Sea at Truxillo with the Aguan River, above the rapids. The object of this enterprise was to make a useless river navigable for 200 miles and by this work control the mahogany markets of the world. Mr. Burton has the distinction of having received mention in Herringshaw's Encyclopaedia of American Biography. This work contains no paid biographical sketches of any kind, and only a few lines are devoted to men who have won distinction or have done something for the progress of our country. It has this to say of the subject of this sketch:

"John E. Burton, miner, was born October 19, 1847, in New Hartford. Oneida County, N. Y. He organized the American Fiber Company, which aims to produce merchantable fiber from any form of vegetation which contains fiber, and became the chief promoter of the Aguan Navigation and Improvement Company, whose object is to connect the Aguan River of Honduras with the Caribbean Sea."

Mr. Burton was educated at the Cazenovia Seminary and at Whitestown, N. Y. He won first prize for oratory in the Cazenovia Seminary, and was graduated from the Whitestown school with high honors in June, 1868. He began life as a school teacher in Cazenovia and during two years following was principal of the public schools in Richmond, 111. In 1870 he became principal of the public schools in Lake Geneva, Wis. In 1872 he established the Geneva Herald and a year later resigned from his school work to fill the position of editor of this paper. He followed journalism for three years when he sold his paper and devoted his time to the promotion of the manufacturing interests of Geneva. He has been identified with nearly every public enterprise in Lake Geneva, and has acquired the enviable reputation of having done more for the promotion of this beautiful city than any other individual.

Mr. Burton's next important work was as general agent and manager of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York for the state of Wisconsin. He was very successful in this field of endeavor, writing $800,000 of business for the company the first year. He was then promoted by the company to general manager for Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northern Michigan and increased the business to $3,000,000 in one year. In four years his total business exceeded $6,500,000.

In 1885 Mr. Burton resigned this position and undertook the work of promoting the iron mining interests of the Gogebic and Penokee Range. He made an exploration of this country in February of that year, traveling by rail to the end of the railroad line and the balance of the journey on foot and snow-shoes. His investigation satisfied him of the great value of some of the properties, which he secured, and their development within three years made him a millionaire and the acknowledged chief promoter of the Gogebic Range. He gave Hurley, Wis., its place on the map. being its pioneer promoter, and erected the Iron Bank Building, thirteen stores, thirty-five dwellings, the big foundry and the Burton Hotel, 200 feet long and four stories high, the latter building alone costing $55,000, and it still stands as the best in the Iron country. Since this period he has followed the business of mining with the exception of the effort diiected to the construction of the Aguan Canal. He devoted five years to mining in Calaveras County, California, developing and operating a crystal mine, taking out the largest rock crystals recorded in geology, the product of twelve tons being sold to Tiffany & Co., New York. He also opened the Green Mountain Hydraulic Mine and extracted from this property gold to the value of over $40,000. Failing health forced him to return home in 1900.

His attention having been directed to the Northern Alaskan gold fields, he obtained all the information he could get about the Nome country, and decided that it was a promising field for exploitation. He accordingly acquired extensive interests of both gold placer and tin properties in this region. The gold mines are situated near Nome in the most promising part of the Nome District, and the tin properties are near Cape Prince of Wales on Cape Mountain. At this place the prospects for obtaining tin in commercial quantities possesses almost infinite possibilities. Mr. Burton's company has shipped a ten-stamp mill and concentrators to its mines on Cape Mountain, and a large quantity of ore will be mined, crushed and concentrated and the concentrated ore shipped out to be smelted this year, it is hoped in Seattle, which will be the first practical tin smelting in America.

This energetic initial move marks the opening, no doubt, of a new world supply of commercial tin, and if the various tin interests of the York District, Alaska, take their keynote from his action, the combination of Alaska tin interests will secure the attention it deserves in future. The capital which controls the tin markets is sensitive, but seldom does pioneer work. If Mr. Burton unites the producers of Alaska tin in the near future, a deserved recognition will come to all; which up to date has been withheld or treated with indifference. I believe that five years hence will see these Alaska interests united and under such leadership, and to the betterment of all concerned.

It is said in the beginning of this story that Mr. Burton is a strong man. He has shown his strength in the successful culmination of the many financial enterprises in which he has been engaged. He has also shown his strength of character in other ways. At the age of twelve years he began to accumulate a collection of coins, and when he was thirty-four years old he had the most valuable collection of American coins ever owned in the Northwest. This splendid numismatic collection was sold under the hammer in New York City to supply Mr. Burton with funds to assist him in paying a security debt of $28,000. The collection was sacrificed for $10,800 — and this was the penalty he paid for endorsing a friend's notes. A writer in referring to this act of Mr. Burton's says:

"This was a sacrifice indeed, view it as you may. It was an act of dauntless courage -- backed by a heroic sense of integrity -- for it required much more than ordinary courage to give up one's cherished possessions and to severely flagellate one's self without flinching. Mr. Burton was now left to face the world empty handed. To begin is a task, but not a severe one, for it is the common lot of all; but to begin over again is what tests the metal of which we are made. The world smiles benignly upon the beginner but not so friendly on him who seeks to retrieve of fortune lost."

Mr. Burton is a thoughtful man and a student. He owns a private library of 11,500 volumes, which is said to be the finest in the state of Wisconsin. This library represents the careful and constant accumulation of more than thirty years. It contains 2,160 volumes on Abraham Lincoln and Lincolniana. Everything that has ever been published about the martyred president may be found in the splendid collection that has been gathered by Mr. Burton. Mr. Burton has written an oration on Abraham Lincoln which is a classic. Regarding him as the best man of history, study- ing his character from every actual and imaginary point of view, and being absorbed with his theme, it is not surprising that his eulogy possesses the strong individuality which entitles it to live with the best thought of the age. I quote a part of a single paragraph which is the climax of this splendid oration:

"With other men it was literary achievement; the triumphs of war; the aggrandizement of conquest; the glory of new discovery; or the flight of imagination in the kingdom of Art and Song; but with Lincoln it was character. Character, CHARACTER. This is why his name grows with each succeeding year."

Mr. Burton's ancestors were natives of Conningsby, Lincolnshire, England. His father and grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1829. His father married Ruth Jeannette Allen, the daughter of a soldier in the war of 1812. She was a devout woman. Her son's (John E. Burton) religious training was in accordance with the Methodist Episcopal Church. For sixteen years he was a member of this church, but drifted into agnosticism. He has been all of his life a worker in the Republican party, but in the Bryan-McKinley campaign both his judgment and sympathy were in favor of bi-metallism. Mr. Burton is a Royal Arch Mason, and also a life member and vice-president of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. At the society's request in 1888 his portrait was painted by Frank B. Carpenter, the painter of Emancipation-Proclamation fame, and hung in the society's gallery. This was in recognition of his contribution of many specimens to the society collection which he had gathered in Cuba, Yucatan, Honduras and Mexico, but chiefly in recognition of his efforts as the leading promoter in developing Wisconsin's iron interests.

December 7, 1869, John E. Burton married Lucretia Delphine Johnson, of Killawag, Broome County, N. Y., his schoolmate at Cazenovia. The issue of this marriage is four children -- Howard E. and Warren E., both graduates of the University of Wisconsin, and now in business, and Kenneth E. and Bonnie E., Kenneth being superintendent of the Madonna Mine, Monarch, Col., and the daughter is the wife of Prof. Edmund D. Denison.

John E. Burton is a man of strong convictions and unswerving honesty. He is very practical, and yet he is an idealist. The success he has won in business enterprise is a manifestation of the practical man; his love of books, his idealization of the strong and masterful men of history, his work in the subtle realm of thought are evidence that there are times when he is an intellectual dreamer. He has no use for the tawdry tinsel of society, or for the sham and hypocrisy of the world. If he has been assiduous in gathering gear, it has not been entirely "for the glorious privilege of being independent," but for the gratification he would derive from using wealth for the accomplishment of something that will be helpful to others.    

Source: Nome and Seward Peninsula by R. S. Harrison. Seattle: The Metropolitan Press, 1905.




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