Cripple Creek was the site of the last and greatest mining boom in Colorado, attracting tens of thousands of people to the western flank of Pikes Peak in the 1890s. After it was destroyed by fire in 1896, the town and surrounding mining district reached peak production and population in the early twentieth century before experiencing a long decline. After World War II, the town turned to tourism as its primary economic engine, but since the 1970s the giant Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine has also provided steady production and employment. In 1990 Colorado voters approved an amendment that allowed Cripple Creek to build casinos, which have generated millions of dollars for the local economy and historic preservation across the state but have also transformed the town they were supposed to help preserve.
Before the Boom
The Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 was often called the “Pikes Peak Gold Rush,” but all the major mining activity at that time was many miles away from the peak. Ironically, it was not until the last gold rush in Colorado, in the early 1890s, that prospectors flocked to the Pikes Peak region, where a volcanic eruption about 35 million years ago heaved minerals to the surface.
While those minerals were still hidden under the soil, Tabeguache Utes long used the region’s rolling hills and mountains as a summer hunting ground. The first sign that there might be rich mineral deposits around Mount Pisgah came in 1873, when Ferdinand Hayden’s survey passed through the area. One of Hayden’s geologists, H. T. Wood, returned the next year to investigate his hunch that the region was a promising gold district. He worked with a team of men to open a tunnel into Lone Tree Hill (now Raven Hill). The tunnel yielded good samples, and the Mount Pisgah Gold Mining District was organized in September 1874. But the timing was not right for a gold rush. No one wanted to invest in an unproven area when mines around Central City and Georgetown were booming—especially not when much of the country was still reeling from the Panic of 1873.
Around the time of Wood’s discovery, white settlers such as Levi Welty, Ben Requa, and William Womack started homesteading and ranching the area that is now Cripple Creek. One legend claims that Welty named the creek after a string of accidents and injuries took place there, but it is more likely that the Womack family named it after Cripple Creek, Virginia, which was not far from their former home in Kentucky. In 1885 Horace Bennett, Julius Myers, and Alexander Houseman started the Houseman Cattle and Land Company and acquired hundreds of acres of land in the area for their Broken Box Ranch.
It looked as though the rolling hills on the west side of Pikes Peak would remain large cattle ranches, but William Womack’s son Robert stubbornly pursued the dream of mining riches. In 1886 he filed a gold claim in the area, but Colorado was in the middle of a long silver boom and he could find no investors, even among the few people who believed in his discovery. Nevertheless, he kept trying. In October 1890 he took some of his ore samples to Colorado College to be assayed, then left them in Colorado Springs. People began to take notice of Womack’s samples, and by early 1891 prospectors were heading up to Broken Box Ranch. Eighteen claims were filed between February and May, and the Cripple Creek Mining District was organized in April. Winfield Scott Stratton became the district’s first millionaire when he staked the Independence Mine on July 4. That fall the owner of the Broadmoor area, Count James Pourtales, invested in Cripple Creek mines, giving the area a dose of legitimacy and opening the floodgates to further development.
It did not take long for Bennett, Myers, and Houseman to notice that about 100 prospectors were camping on Broken Box Ranch. They doubted whether anything would come of the gold claims but figured they might as well plat a town site and start selling lots. The two main streets were named for Bennett and Myers. Their town, called Fremont, started in November 1891, and it was soon successful enough to inspire an imitator. A group of Colorado Springs investors platted 140 acres just northeast of Fremont and in February 1892 started the rival town of Hayden Placer. Liquor and gambling were prohibited in Hayden Placer, so it developed as a residential district while Fremont attracted more businesses.
Throughout 1892 the towns of Fremont and Hayden Placer—soon renamed Cripple Creek—developed and grew. In March 1892 the Florence & Cripple Creek Free Road opened for stage traffic, making it easier for the area to ship out ores and bring in construction materials and mining supplies. Electricity arrived that spring, as did the first telephone and telegraph. Soon the district claimed a population of 1,500, which quickly grew to 3,500. Fremont and Cripple Creek merged to form a single town called Cripple Creek, which boasted several hotels and banks, a log schoolhouse, and a Congregational Church.
Cripple Creek’s growth took off in 1893. When Colorado’s silver mines declined sharply after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, miners and investors saw Cripple Creek gold as a life raft in the middle of a storm. New towns and camps sprouted up throughout the mining district; the most important of these was Victor, a working-class town that took shape near the district’s largest mines. By 1894 the town of Cripple Creek was the social and economic capital of a large mining district that had 150 active mines and produced more than $3 million that year. The town’s 6,000 residents were served by four newspapers and five churches. That year the town ordered its brothels to move from Bennett Avenue to Myers Avenue, turning the formerly respectable street into an infamous red-light district that was home to more than 300 prostitutes.
The arrival of the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad in 1894 and the Midland Terminal Railroad in 1895 spurred the district’s already rapid growth by making it much easier and cheaper to ship ore. The Portland Mine developed into the largest mine in the district; it ultimately produced $60 million in half a century of operation. Cripple Creek’s population hit 8,000 in 1895 and 10,000 in 1896.
The 1896 Fires
Cripple Creek was thriving in 1896, but two fires that April left it a smoldering ruin. On April 25, a fire started in a Myers Avenue dance hall and spread quickly through the nearby wooden buildings, burning about a quarter of the town and leaving 3,600 people homeless. Just as residents were starting to reckon with the destruction, another fire started on April 29 in the kitchen of the Portland Hotel. This second fire proved even more devastating because Cripple Creek had already exhausted its firefighting resources. Firefighters resorted to dynamiting buildings to try to prevent the blaze from spreading. Much of the town was flattened, especially the downtown business district, and half of the residents lost their homes.
The fires transformed Cripple Creek. Before the blazes, the town had been a large but somewhat ramshackle mining camp full of log and wood-frame buildings. After the fires, the town council banned wood construction for new downtown businesses. The town rebuilt quickly, and soon there were 170 new businesses under construction. Bennett Avenue became lined with substantial brick and stone commercial structures.
Peak of Prosperity
The Cripple Creek area had been part of El Paso County since the first Colorado county lines were drawn in 1861. But in the 1890s, miners west of Pikes Peak had grown tired of being governed by wealthy mine owners and businessmen in Colorado Springs, especially after a contentious strike in 1894. In March 1899, the west side of Pikes Peak successfully broke away from El Paso County to form Teller County, with Cripple Creek becoming the county seat.
The opening of the Teller County Courthouse in 1901 marked perhaps the high water mark in the history of the Cripple Creek district. At the time, the district as a whole had at least 30,000 people (perhaps closer to 50,000) and roughly 500 active mines, and it had already produced more than $77 million in gold. The Golden Circle Electric Railway operated two trolley lines, the High Line and the Low Line, to connect the district’s towns and mines. The High Line reached an elevation of 10,487 feet, making it the highest interurban system in the United States. Cripple Creek itself was one of the top five cities in Colorado by population. It boasted sixty-eight saloons, fifty-two stockbrokers, and forty-nine grocers. A new railroad, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railroad, opened that year to provide cheaper rates and a more direct connection than the Midland Terminal offered.
Strike of 1903–4
In the early years of the twentieth century, Cripple Creek’s prosperity gave rise to arguments about how that prosperity should be shared. Mine owners tried to consolidate their power by taking control of local smelters and mills, while the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) worked to unionize smelter and mill workers near Colorado Springs.
Tensions came to a head in 1903 over the issue of working hours. In August the WFM went on strike in Cripple Creek, sparking a bitter fifteen-month struggle with mine owners. Across the state other workers also went on strike to try to secure shorter hours and better conditions. A decade earlier, Governor Davis H. Waite—a Populist—had called out the militia to support a strike in Cripple Creek. But now Governor James Peabody called out the Colorado National Guard on behalf of the owners. Many people were killed as the military consistently overstepped its authority, and more than 200 union members were deported from Teller County in what became one of the bloodiest and most violent strikes in state history. The ultimate result was a ban on organized labor in the area.
The strike marked an important turning point in the history of the Cripple Creek district. It slashed gold production in half and scared off investors. Mining continued to produce strong returns after the strike ended, but the district no longer had the same optimism. Mines were getting deep and filling with water, making production increasingly expensive. Miners and investors started to eye new opportunities: gold strikes in Nevada and oil fields in California and Wyoming. The effects of these changes could be felt across the district; post offices at smaller towns such as Anaconda, Cameron, and Clyde closed by 1909.
From Mining Gold to Mining History
By 1920, when the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railroad stopped running, more than half of the district’s mines had closed. Mining experienced a brief revival in the mid-1930s, when lower labor costs and higher gold prices made it profitable again. In 1935 production hit $3.5 million. But the federal government suspended all gold mining during World War II, and many Cripple Creek mines never reopened. After the war many houses were abandoned or turned into summer homes as people moved away. The Midland Terminal Railroad stopped running in 1949, and by 1950 the Cripple Creek district’s population dropped below 2,000. Nearly all of the district’s towns and camps were abandoned, leaving only Cripple Creek, Victor, and Goldfield remaining.
Like other declining mining towns across Colorado, Cripple Creek turned to tourism to stay afloat. Efforts to attract tourists had already begun before the war, with the launch of the annual Donkey Derby Days celebration in 1931, but the Depression and the revival of gold mining forestalled further tourism developments until the postwar period. In 1946 Colorado Springs residents Wayne and Dorothy Mackin acquired the empty Imperial Hotel and made it into a destination for good food and well-appointed rooms. In 1947 they hired an Idaho Springs melodrama troupe called the Piper Players to provide entertainment when the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce held a convention at the hotel. The melodrama was so successful that the Mackins decided to start a Victorian melodrama theater in the hotel basement. The Gold Bar Room Theater opened in July 1948 and soon became an iconic Cripple Creek experience.
The Cripple Creek economy was shifting from mining gold to mining history. This happened most clearly at the Mollie Kathleen Mine, which stopped its mining operations in 1949 and started offering underground mine tours. But similar changes occurred throughout the city. In 1953 the Cripple Creek District Museum opened in the former Midland Terminal Depot. Part of the old railroad grade was redeveloped in the late 1960s as the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, which took tourists from Cripple Creek to Anaconda and back. Perhaps the most unique historical project was the Old Homestead Parlor House Museum, which opened in 1958 as one of the only brothel museums in the country. In 1961 Cripple Creek was named a National Historic Landmark.
But large-scale gold mining was not completely dead in Cripple Creek. The district experienced a short-lived revival in the 1950s, after the Carlton Mill opened near Victor. More substantial production returned to the area in the mid-1970s, when the US government allowed the price of gold to go above $35 per ounce and the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company started working the old Cresson Mine. By 1990 the Cripple Creek district had yielded a total of more than 23 million ounces of gold.
A century after prospectors flocked to Cripple Creek, a new gold rush was about to begin. In 1989 repairs to a tunnel on the main route into Cripple Creek caused a huge drop in tourism. Locals began to consider new ways to develop the area’s economy. Inspired by the example of the infamous Old West town of Deadwood, South Dakota, where gambling was legalized in 1989 to generate revenue for preservation, Cripple Creek joined Central City and Black Hawk to push for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow limited-stakes gaming. The original idea was that existing businesses might add a few slot machines and a card table, with half of the revenue going to the state, 28 percent to the State Historical Fund, 12 percent to Gilpin and Teller Counties, and 10 percent to the three towns. In November 1990, 57 percent of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4, which was billed as a preservation measure, and the first casinos opened on October 1, 1991.
Twenty-five years later, gambling proved to be a mixed blessing. Advocates pointed out that casinos had saved Cripple Creek by attracting visitors and generating money for local improvements and statewide historic preservation. But opponents noted that gambling, like mining before it, had crowded out other businesses and fundamentally changed the towns it was meant to preserve. In 1998 development threats led the nonprofit Colorado Preservation Inc. to name Cripple Creek among the most endangered historic places in the state. Since then, strong preservation and design guidelines have helped maintain much of the town’s historic look and feel, but in 2008 a large modern casino opened on the edge of town.
In recent years Cripple Creek’s twelve casinos have generated about $10 million in taxes annually, or roughly 9 percent of the statewide total. Gambling money has allowed for the restoration or renovation of many important historic buildings in town, including the Bell Brothers Building, which now houses the police department; the Colorado Trading and Transfer Building, which is the only remaining wooden commercial structure in town; and the Butte Opera House, whose Thin Air Theater Company continues the town’s Victorian melodrama tradition.
Meanwhile, Cripple Creek remains one of the few boomtowns in Colorado where mining still has a hold. In 1994 the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine started large-scale pit operations, and by the 2000s it was producing hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold and silver per year. The massive mine, which employs more than 500 workers, was expanded in the mid-2010s and acquired by mining giant Newmont. In 2014 it produced roughly 211,000 ounces of gold and 110,000 ounces of silver. Gold from the mine was used to re-gild the State Capitol dome when it was restored in the early 2010s.