NARRATOR: In 1863 Elizabeth commissioned a monumental
postmortem portrait of Sam Colt from Charles Loring Elliott,
the leading portrait painter of the period.. She was so taken
by the results that she commissioned Elliot to paint an equally
imposing portrait of her and her beloved son Caldwell.
Then in 1866,
Elizabeth commissioned a magnificent monument for the newly
purchased Colt family burial plot in Hartfordís new rural cemetery, Cedar Hill, where she, Sam, and their children are now
HOSLEY: And that
is a big project that cost the equivalent today of $800,000. It
is a tour de force of art and sculpture. I mean, it's big, big, big and it's
loaded with visual iconography and power and it's just a really
ambitious work of art.
losing four children and a husband within five years, Elizabeth
had begun to emerge from a year of mourning. Then on February
5th, 1864, with the nation at war, Colt's armory bursts into
flame and burns to the ground. It is suspected, but never
proved, that Confederate sympathizers torched the building.
HOSLEY: And she stands in her boudoir window
and watches his vision go up in flames. And as the flames engulf
the onion dome with the rampant colt, the personal symbol of
her husband, engulf that in flames and as the roof collapses
and the onion dome collapses into the core of this towering
inferno, wow. I mean that is just way over the top.
"To think that the magnificent, noble
structure is in ruins...it seems so identified with the Col.
It seems like burying him again...Elizabeth bears it...with
calmness...When the beautiful dome fell she burst into tears"
--Rev. William Jarvis, Elizabeth Coltís father, 1864
BLANCHFIELD: She had the choice of either rebuilding
it or taking the insurance money which was about $17 million
at that time and which would be a lot more today, and she could
have just incorporated that money into her already large inheritance
from Sam. She inherited today's equivalent of $200 million.
NARRATOR: Elizabeth would make sure that the
Colt legend would survive. She and her board of directors resolved
to rebuild the armory, while continuing wartime operations in
an unburned wing of the building.
HOSLEY: She does
it in the style of the original Colt's armory but she introduces
fireproof construction. Instead of brownstone, it becomes brick.
Instead of three stories, it becomes four. And itís more
decorative, it's got more ornamentation on it. So it is more a
work of art, it is a more practical building, it is a bigger
building, but for all intents and purposes it is the same. The
onion dome goes back on, the horse goes back on, another one
remade, and Colt's empire lives again.
SMITH: She picked up the pieces after Sam died
and arguably in a way the Colt company became even more successful
after Sam's death than it did during his lifetime. Between 1862
and 1890 the Colt company was considered to be one of the most
sophisticated manufacturers of firearms in the world and she
was the one that was sitting at the helm.
NARRATOR: In 1865 Elizabeth decided to build
a picture gallery, a private art gallery that is eventually
installed at Armsmear. It becomes the premier art experience
in the state of Connecticut and another memorialization of the
values that the Colts and fellow Victorians held.
larger-than-life portraits of Sam and Elizabeth bookend each end
of the gallery, staring at each other across this encyclopedia
of Victorian art.
picture gallery becomes not only one of the earliest intact fine
art collections in the United States but the first believed to
have been assembled by a woman patron.
HOSLEY: At the same time she is gearing up to
build her masterpiece which is the Church of the Good Shepherd.
The Colt Memorial Church built at the north end of Coltsville
as a memorial to Sam and the deceased children but also as a
parish church, if you will, for the factory workers and as another
embellishment of what has now become her empire, Coltsville.
church features an elaborate hierarchy of entrances: including
the "Armorerís Door," decorated with Coltís
Revolvers cut in stone. Gun parts are used as additional
ornamentation. The interior of the church is decorated with a
series of stained glass windows that memorialize the Colts,
including a rendering of Samuel Colt as the Old Testament
character of Joseph of Egypt.
HOSLEY: It really is far and away the grandest
example of ecclesiastical church architecture in a city filled
with churches and sort of eclipses everybody and everything
and is big and outsized like the Colts and it's kind of her
debut as a public figure. People know she's got the money but
this is a pretty audacious thing in its own right.
NARRATOR: After 1869 Elizabeth turned her attention
to charitable work and institution building. Good works mixed
with good times, as Elizabeth and her only surviving family
member, Caldwell spent time traveling together and mixing with
American Victorian society.
HOSLEY: Caldwell Hart Colt was the second son
of Sam and Elizabeth and he was born in 1858 and he is the sole
heir that lived really past the age of 2. So Caldwell is the
crown prince of Coltsville. And there was a brief sort of flurry
of optimism that young Caldwell was going to like take the reigns
of the rampant colt and lead it to greater glories and it just
never happened. He was more interested in hunting, fishing,
sailing his yacht. He sounds like he was almost the antithesis
in some ways of his father. He is eventually lionized in the
American yachting community as one of the great yachtsmen of
his era. And he, eventually at the age of 35, was sailing in
Florida, gets tonsillitis and dies. Lots of things that don't
kill us today killed the Victorians. And it's 1894, Elizabeth
is now 72 years old. She resolves to build yet another memorial
it's the Caldwell Colt Memorial House the parish house of the
Church of the Good Shepherd. This building is way off the scales.
It is a really big, in-your-face, dramatic statement about this
yachtsman who Elizabeth doted on and loved.
1901, after nearly 40 years at the helm of Coltís Armory, and
facing a major wave of labor unrest, Elizabeth Colt, now 75
years old, sold the company, ending the Colt-family era.
BLANCHFIELD: She died in 1905 and she left the
estate of Armsmear, the grounds, to the city as Colt Park, which
it is today. And she left the house, Armsmear, to the Colt Trust,
and it still functions today as a home for widows and other
female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other qualified gentlewomen.
also left $50,000 to the Wadsworth Atheneum to build the Colt
Memorial at the Wadsworth Atheneum to house the
one-thousand-plus objects that she left to the museum.
story of the Colt company after Colt family ownership continued
to be one of innovation in weaponry Ė the Gatling gun , the
Colt .45, Browning rifles and machine guns, the M-16 Ė they
and other models led to booming sales and huge profits during
But with increasing competition, employee strikes,
and periods of peace, the Colt company in the 20th
century was beset with declining sales and failed attempts at
In 1981, the company vacated its old armory
and moved to the suburb of West Hartford, where it struggled
to survive through various owners and economic bailouts.
Today, 160 years
after Sam Coltís first patent, a diminished and renamed Coltís
Manufacturing Company ties its future to the kind of
technological innovation that propelled Sam Coltís company to
the top of the American industrial pyramid..
Colt era transformed both Connecticut and Hartford. Once the
regionís leading manufacturing center, today, Hartford is one
of Americaís poorest cities, trying to redefine itself in a
post-industrial era. The Hartford of the late 20th
Century has fewer factory jobs than in Sam Coltís time.
Connecticutís long reliance on armaments has made for periods
of boom and bust.
the survival of many prominent buildings, much of Coltís
industrial empire is today lost or difficult to see. Sam and
Elizabeth Coltís physical legacy has faded in some ways, and
been redefined in others..
The once-abandoned armory building is today
the centerpiece of an industrial park for small business, residential
apartments, and studios for artists and craftsmen.
No longer owned
by the company, the worker housing 278-21572survives as
"Colt Estates," in one of Hartfordísí most
historic residential districts.
beer garden and wicker furniture factory are gone, but the
Swiss-style cottages remain, although greatly altered over the
In Colt Park,
Armsmearís ponds, gardens, greenhouses, and statuary are
long-gone, replaced by a city-owned recreation complex.
surviving Colt family buildings in the park are a handsome brick
Carriage Barn, the Gothic cottage residence of Coltís English
gardener, and a long wooden building Elizabeth Colt used to
store ice harvested from the estateís ponds.
At the entrance
to the park is Elizabethís last memorial, the Colt Memorial
Statue, which she built in 1906 on the site where Sam Colt and
their infant children were originally buried. The monument
depicts Sam Colt, the "boy genius," and Colonel Colt,
the master of Coltsville, together with scenes of Coltís
The Church and its Memorial House remain active
in the community, still used for services, public programs,
and parish activities..
The Wadsworth Atheneum opened the doors of its
Colt Memorial Wing in 1910, eighty years after the revolver
king conceived the invention that made him rich. In 1996, the
museum mounted its most extensive exhibit yet based on the Colt
has inevitably changed with the passage of time. Coltís
lasting legacy, however, remains entwined with one of the
critical issues of today Ė the proliferation of guns.
HOSLEY: Sam Colt, for better or for worse, did
for pistols what Eli Terry did for clocks - he made it possible
for middling folk to own one and suddenly these things become
not exactly a household commodity but much more common today.
There are, you know, there are almost as many guns as there
are people in the United States.
SLOTKIN: I think
that Colt is part of the 19th Century culture of the gun which
for all kinds of reasons which were perhaps inescapable made gun
ownership a critical and really a normal aspect of American
life. Couple this with the spread of armaments after the Civil
War and what you have as a kind of inheritance passed from the
19th Century to the 20th, is the notion that gun ownership --
widespread gun ownership -- is normal and not to be questioned
as a normal aspect of American life.