Teller County, named for former US senator and railroad mogul Henry M. Teller, covers 559 square miles of the high country west of Pikes Peak in central Colorado. It is bordered by Douglas County to the north, El Paso County to the east, Fremont County to the south, and Park County to the west. Cripple Creek, the center of the 1890 Cripple Creek gold rush, is the county seat. In addition to its prominent mining history, the county is known for the Florissant Formation, a 34 million-year-old bed of shale and mudstone that has yielded hundreds of well-preserved plant and animal fossils, now known as Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Teller County has a population of 23,389. Its most populous town is Woodland Park, which sits along US Route 24 in the northeast section of the county and has a population of 6,515. Florissant is home to 3,536 residents while Cripple Creek has 1,189. Other towns include Divide (population 127) and Victor (population 450), which are linked by State Highway 67.
The US Forest Service manages much of the land in the northern and eastern parts of Teller County as part of the Pike National Forest. Mueller State Park, in the central part of the county, also offers outdoor recreation. The county is crisscrossed by many small streams, including Beaver, Cripple, Fourmile, Rule, and Wilson Creeks—some of which have been dammed to create reservoirs such as Catamount and Skaguay.
By the time the Spanish laid claim to present-day Colorado in the mid-sixteenth century, Ute Indians had occupied Colorado’s Rocky Mountains for nearly two centuries. The Utes in the Pikes Peak area knew the iconic mountain as “Sun Mountain” and called themselves “Tabeguache,” the people of Sun Mountain. The Utes were hunters, subsisting on elk, deer, and other mountain game. They also gathered a wide assortment of wild berries and roots, including the versatile yucca root.
The Utes moved with the seasons, traveling between higher and lower elevations along a route north of Pikes Peak known as Ute Pass. In the summer, they ascended the pass at present-day Divide and followed elk, bison, and other game into South Park. Just before winter, the Utes retreated down the pass to spend the coldest months camped near present-day Colorado Springs. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Utes obtained horses from the Spanish, and some Tabeguaches began hunting buffalo on the plains.
The Arapaho began frequenting the Pikes Peak area by the early nineteenth century, calling the mountain “Heey-otoyoo,” or “Long Mountain.” They developed a fierce rivalry with the Tabeguaches and other Ute bands, competing with them for hunting territory in South Park and other areas. To keep an eye on their enemies, the Utes built small stone fortifications on hillsides overlooking well-known routes through the mountains.
Native American Removal
Following gold discoveries near Denver in 1858 and other strikes during the 1860s, the Front Range suddenly became a crowded place. White immigrants set up mining camps in places like South Park and supply towns such as Colorado City, east of Pikes Peak. The newcomers used up timber supplies and competed with Utes and Arapaho for game.
During the 1860s, in exchange for promised rations and supplies from the US government, both the Utes and Arapaho signed treaties forfeiting land around Pikes Peak. However, because government rations were often delayed or failed to arrive, many Native Americans found themselves starving, and some resorted to stealing provisions from white communities. Most Arapaho left the Pikes Peak region after the Treaty of Fort Wise in 1861. The Tabeguache continued to frequent the area until about 1880, after the Meeker Massacre in northwestern Colorado prompted their removal to a reservation in Utah. Today, less than 1 percent of the Teller County population is Native American.
Cripple Creek and Victor
With the removal of Native Americans, the region west of Pikes Peak became little more than a huge cattle pasture. But during the winter of 1890–91, after several years of luckless prospecting, cattleman Robert Womack found a small deposit of gold ore near present-day Cripple Creek. News of his find brought more prospectors, including Winfield Scott Stratton, who discovered gold on Battle Mountain. Stratton subsequently located the Independence Lode, one of the richest gold deposits in American history, above present-day Victor. By the following spring and summer, the area produced about $200,000 worth of gold.
Production more than doubled in 1892, reaching $500,000. That year, the town of Cripple Creek was laid out around a cattle ranch and incorporated with about 500 residents. The investment-savvy Woods family—father Warren and sons Harry and Frank—platted the town of Victor in 1893, when the area was already known as “City of Mines” because the largest and most productive mines were located nearby. In March 1894, the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad arrived in Victor, and with about 8,000 residents, the town became a city in July.
Thousands more residents arrived in the Cripple Creek-Victor area over the next two years, as gold production soared to about $2 million per year. In 1896 two devastating fires reduced Cripple Creek to rubble, but it took only a few months for its resilient residents to rebuild—this time with brick instead of wood. Victor residents suffered a similar inferno in 1899, but they too rebuilt their city with brick in a matter of months. By the turn of the century, mines in the Cripple Creek-Victor area were producing almost $20 million worth of gold per year. Cripple Creek had grown to a population of 10,000 and Victor claimed to have 18,000 residents.
Florissant and Fossils
Gold was not the first geologic treasure unearthed from the rocks of Teller County. In 1870 Judge James Castello, a native of Florissant, Missouri, built a cabin at the intersection of several trade routes west of present-day Divide. Castello and his wife, Catherine, established a trading post that became popular among the Tabeguache, including the famous leaders Ouray and Colorow. In addition to trading with the Utes, the Castellos would trade for the tired oxen and mules of white travelers, acquiring a sizeable herd for their ranch. By 1876, the town of Florissant, named for the Castellos’ hometown, had a population of around 70 as well as a school, a blacksmith, and three sawmills.
The trove of fossils near Florissant did not escape notice by its first residents. Newspaper reports from the 1860s and 1870s mentioned the area’s petrified trees and prehistoric leaf imprints. Paleontologist Theodore Mead was the first scientist to study the fossils in 1871, followed by Samuel Scudder, the nation’s premier paleontologist, in the 1880s. In 1887 the Colorado Midland Railway began bringing tourists to the fossil beds, and since there were no laws to protect the fossils, many tourists broke off chunks of petrified wood or took other fossils home as souvenirs. By the turn of the century, visitors had depleted most of the petrified forest.
Woodland Park was founded as the town of Manitou Park in 1887, before it incorporated in 1891 under its current name. The town began as a community of ranchers and loggers that also catered to tourists arriving on the Colorado Midland Railway. Some of the town’s earliest buildings were hotels, including the Crest Hotel, built in 1889, and the Woodland Hotel, built in 1892.
Five lumber mills converted the area’s dense timber stands into boards for houses in Colorado Springs and mining structures in Cripple Creek as well as ties for railroads across the state. By 1892, timber was being extracted at such a frantic pace that the federal government established the Pike Forest Reserve to protect the remaining trees. The reserve was one of the first of its kind in the nation and became part of the Pike National Forest in 1905.
Strike of 1894
As suggested by the federal government’s curtailing of Woodland Park’s timber industry, the great surge of wealth and development in Teller County at the end of the nineteenth century had consequences. Among them were the violent labor disputes that rocked the Cripple Creek and Victor area throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In January 1894, in the midst of skyrocketing production, mine owners in Cripple Creek and Victor announced a wage reduction. The local chapter of the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), a national hard-rock miners’ union formed the previous year, initiated a strike, and in March Colorado governor Davis Waite sent in the state militia to keep the peace. The troops left without incident at the end of the month, but El Paso County sheriff M. F. Bowers was apparently determined to break the strike himself. He illegally deputized more than 1,000 men and in May led them to a clash with armed strikers at Bull Hill, east of Cripple Creek. The skirmish prompted Governor Waite to visit the miners and seek a resolution.
In a rare move, Waite sided with the miners, who authorized him to represent them in negotiations with the owners. The governor won back the wages and other concessions from the owners. Waite’s intervention on behalf of the WFM was frowned upon by many other Colorado politicians and residents, who saw the governor’s move as supportive of anarchist unions. His decision to support the miners cost Waite the governorship in the November 1894 election. After Waite’s political demise, never again would a governor or state militia enter strike disputes on the side of organized workers.
The tensions surrounding the WFM strike in 1894 led directly to the formation of Teller County. At the time of the strike, present-day Teller County made up the western part of El Paso County, which was deeply divided by class. Working-class miners and their families lived in the Cripple Creek District to the west, while wealthy mine owners and businessmen such as David Moffat, J. J. Hagerman, and Eben Smith resided in Colorado Springs to the east. Wealth—and thus, political power—emanated from the east, breeding resentment among miners in the west.
Democrat Charles Thomas won the governor’s office in 1898. Although he had sided with the owners in the 1894 strike, he had working-class supporters to appease and authorized the splitting of Teller County from El Paso County in 1899. A participant in the 1894 strike, James Gaughan, wrote the bill that created Teller County and was appointed by Thomas to serve as the first county clerk.
Strike of 1903-4
The gains of the WFM from 1894 to 1899 were short-lived. After the turn of the century, owners consolidated power by assuming control over not just mines but also smelters and mills. In response, the WFM attempted to bring mill and smelter workers near Colorado Springs under its umbrella. The tension that built up during these power plays culminated in another mining strike by the WFM in 1903. This time, the state government, led by anti-union governor James Peabody, was firmly on the side of big business. Peabody sent in the state militia and National Guard to arrest union leaders and break the strike, but it went on throughout 1903, crippling the Teller County economy.
On June 6, 1904, a local railroad depot in Independence, near Victor, was mysteriously bombed, killing fourteen men and releasing months of mounting tension between the strikers and groups aligned with the owners. With accusations flying on both sides, Governor Peabody declared martial law, and several skirmishes between militia and strikers resulted in deaths, injuries, deportations, and mass arrests. Eventually, the WFM was forced out of the district and the mine owners secured victory over the strikers.
The depot bombing remains unexplained to this day. At least one man involved claimed that members of a group sympathetic to the mine owners carried out the bombing, but he never testified in court. Nonetheless, the station bombing was a catalyst for one of organized labor’s biggest defeats in Colorado history.
Frequent mining accidents helped illustrate why workers fought so hard for better pay and safer conditions. In 1896 accidents killed twenty-six miners in the Cripple Creek Mining District alone. But perhaps the most tragic accident occurred at the Independence Mine during the strike of 1903–4, when faulty machinery and a snapped cable sent fourteen non-union miners plummeting 1,500 feet to their deaths.
The battle between miners and mine owners was not the only geologically tinged struggle in Teller County during the twentieth century. Florissant’s fossils continued to garner scientific interest, with significant studies taking place between 1906 and 1908 and from the 1930s through the 1960s.
But even though it was the subject of continuous and important scientific study, the Florissant fossil beds remained unprotected and open to depredation by tourism. Private tourist enterprises, such as the Singer family’s Colorado Petrified Forest, operated near the fossil sites from the 1920s to the 1960s. Walt Disney even extracted a large petrified stump and shipped it to California for inclusion in his Disneyland theme park.
By the late 1960s, however, many scientists, including Harry MacGinitie and paleobotanist Estella Leopold, began organizing efforts to protect the fossil beds. Leopold was the site’s most active and preeminent lobbyist, helping form the Defenders of Florissant, a coalition of concerned citizens, scientists, and politicians. In August 1969, the group succeeding in convincing Congress to pass a law, signed by President Richard Nixon, declaring the Florissant fossil beds a national monument.
While some in Teller County mined fossils during the twentieth century, others continued mining gold. Between 1891 and 1998, the district’s mines produced some 22 million ounces of the precious metal. The process was not always easy—for instance, as miners bored deeper into the flanks of Pikes Peak, they struck the water table, which threatened to flood mines and block future extraction efforts. To address this, miners built a series of drainage tunnels that allowed gravity to flush the water out to the valleys below. The largest of these tunnels was the Carlton Tunnel, completed in 1941.
However, the Carlton Tunnel was completed right as the United States became involved in World War II, and the federal government halted all gold production to encourage the production of metals more useful to the war effort. By May 1943, nearly all of the mines in the Cripple Creek Mining District had closed. Mining resumed after the war but fell off in the early 1960s.
Tourism and Casinos
As mining declined in the latter part of the twentieth century, Teller County began looking for other ways to support its economy. Tourists were eager to visit the ghost town of Cripple Creek and Victor’s historic mining district, and other attractions such as the Cripple Creek District Museum, the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, Jack Schwab’s Cottage Inn, the famous Imperial Hotel and Melodrama, and the continuation of Donkey Derby Days—founded in 1931 to honor the loyal animals that helped power the glory days of the gold rush—helped maintain a robust tourist industry.
In 1990 Colorado voters approved limited-stakes gambling in some former mining towns, including Cripple Creek. Bronco Billy’s and the Brass Ass casinos were among the first to open in October 1991. But while gambling invigorated the local economy to an extent, a 1992 study documented disadvantages, including increased traffic congestion, overcrowding of recreation areas, and higher property taxes.
Though it did not provide the economic salvation that some residents and officials hoped, gambling remains a large part of the Cripple Creek, Victor, and Teller County economies today. In addition to attracting tourists, casinos help preserve the county’s heritage, as gambling revenue is funneled into the State Historical Fund, which pays for the restoration of historic buildings in Cripple Creek, Victor, and other places throughout Colorado. Additionally, many of Cripple Creek’s nine casinos, including the Brass Ass, are housed in historic buildings, ensuring that the buildings will be properly maintained.
The county still has one active gold mine—the Cresson Mine—currently the largest gold producer in Colorado and the largest employer in Teller County. Cresson’s gold deposits were projected to expire in 2000, but recent reports predict that the mine can operate until 2025. The Cresson Mine produced 210,921 ounces of gold in 2014.
The Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company (CC&V), based in Victor, continues to mine gold and silver from the historic properties. In 2015 the company celebrated the mining of the 5 millionth ounce of gold since the birth of the district. In 2013 CC&V donated several ounces of gold used to refurbish the state capitol dome in Denver.
Outdoor recreation opportunities also draw tourists to Teller County. In addition to hiking around Pikes Peak and Florissant, Mueller State Park offers camping, hiking, and fishing during the summer and snowshoe and cross-country ski trails in the winter. Skaguay Reservoir is a favorite fishing spot and the Trails of Gold offer a glimpse of the historic mining camps.