The Bordens Struck It Rich in Leadville

                When $1 Million Was Real Money




In 1884, $1 million bought William Borden a Richard Morris Hunt French Renaissance mansion on Lake Shore Drive—with a chunk of change to spare.





By Megan McKinney


The Bordens struck it rich—literally—with a late 1870’s silver mining venture in Leadville, Colorado, the stuff of 19th century legend. The family had been well entrenched in Chicago for four decades, since John Borden’s arrival from New Providence, Indiana, two years prior to Chicago’s 1837 incorporation as a city.  


Leadville, Colorado.


By the mid-1870s, Chicago pioneer John Borden was a real estate attorney of some standing and father of mining engineer William Borden. Before the decade was out, the two had connected with a pair of Chicago’s wealthiest tycoons and initiated the Leadville adventure, where they found themselves in the midst of such fabled figures as Silver King Horace Tabor and the real life heroine of the mid-century opera The Ballad of Baby Doe.


Silver King Horace Tabor.


The two Bordens’ partnership with Marshall Field and Levi Leiter made each of the four more than $1 million. For Field and Leiter, it was just another venture with a happy outcome. It transformed the lives of the Bordens for generations.


Tabor’s paramour—and later his wife—Baby Doe.


Following the strike, John Borden lost no time in contacting the emerging firm established by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. And, in 1880, nearly a decade before the two great architects erected the timeless Auditorium Building, they presented him with their first residential design.


The John Borden mansion, designed in 1880 by Adler and Sullivan, at 3949 Lake Park Ave.


Within the handsome red brick and white stone exterior were 26 stately rooms and 22 fireplaces. During the next 38 years, Borden would entertain such national and local dignitaries as President William McKinley, Potter Palmer and his Leadville colleagues, Marshall Field and Levi Leiter. He would also personally hoe, sow and reap in the sizable vegetable garden on the estate until his death at 93 in 1918.  


A winter view of William Borden’s mansion at the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Bellevue Place, where The Carlyle stands today.


John’s son William went into a partnership with Potter Palmer and parlayed his stake into a fortune in Lake Shore Drive real estate. He built a fabulous mansion on the Drive and Bellevue Place at the same time the Palmer Castle was being erected. The house was made of smooth-faced Indiana limestone and featured a slate roof articulated with turrets and dormers.

Summers were spent at Lake Geneva, where William and his wife, the former Mary Whiting, leased a series of estates while rearing four extraordinary children. They spent the summer of 1887 at Shadow Hill on the east shore, beginning a succession of seasons in the house.


Shadow Hill.


When Shadow Hill was sold, the William Bordens leased Bonnie Brae and then The Knoll. Although William bought the 40-acre Manning’s Point, he never built there or anywhere else in the area.


Bonnie Brae.


The Knoll.


William and Mary’s four children were all remarkable—whether as products of extraordinary genes or exceptional parenting, we’ll never know—because each was notable in a unique way. The lives of the four will be explored individually in a series of segments over the next several weeks; however, here is a preview.


 Professional adventurer and explorer John Borden II.


William and Mary’s eldest child, John, was an adventurer and explorer by profession; one of his escapades was such a cliff-hanger, it captivated Chicago newspapers readers for weeks. Another exploit was in partnership with the Field Museum. And, when he participated in World War I, so did his yacht; both were commissioned, the yacht as a submarine chaser and John as its commander.

His first marriage to a Waller—of a clan recently explored in a Classic Chicago Dynasty series—produced a daughter who may have—twice, and quite publicly—caused the man she married to lose a valid bid for the U.S. presidency. Then, John’s second marriage was to a member of the Lake Forest “Big Four socialite beauty quartet,” a glamorous little group that fascinated both TIME magazine and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


May Borden aka Mary Borden Spears.


Next there was May, who began as a teenage golfing whiz at the new suburban clubs, Charlie MacDonald’s Chicago Golf Club and Hobart Chatfield-Taylor’s Onwentsia.

She married a Scottish missionary, had three daughters and plunged into World War I by opening her own 100-bed field hospital in France and earning the title “Florence Nightingale of the Great War.” It was her affair at the Front that cost both her marriage and children but gained a title and marriage to a member of Parliament; in the process, she became a best-selling English novelist.


Joyce Borden Baloković.


Then there was Joyce, an opera singer, who married the Croatian violinist Zlatko Baloković and toured Europe with him, performing before royalty, before the two became involved with Yugoslav President Tito and named “fellow travelers” by the House Un-American Activities Committee.


William Whiting Borden.


Finally, we have the charismatic William Whiting Borden, who spent a year before college traveling through Europe, Asia and the Middle East, during which he became so touched by the world’s misery, he decided to devote his life to the mission field. During his first year at Yale, he began praying before breakfast with one other student; they were soon joined by another and another—by Bill’s senior year, 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students were praying with him each morning.

After graduate studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, young Borden’s missionary calling focused on converting Muslim Kansu people in China; on his way to China, he stopped by Cairo to study Arabic, where he contracted spinal meningitis, with tragic results.

Stay with us in the coming weeks for their full stories . . .


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series on the Bordens will continue next week with the segment Spending the Borden Fortune.


Author Photo

Robert F. Carl