In April 1896, the mining town of Cripple Creek was devastated by two fires within four days. Frigid winter winds and scant water supply caused both fires to spread rapidly and created difficulty for volunteer firefighters who attempted to extinguish them. The fires leveled the central business district, causing an estimated $3 million in damages, and left roughly 5,000 residents to seek refuge on the hills above town, with only tents and blankets for shelter. While donations of food and supplies from Denver and Colorado Springs helped displaced residents, it took the town almost a year to rebuild. Cripple Creek residents built back with sturdier brick buildings, many of which stand today, and implemented new practices for firefighting, which ensured that the 1896 blazes were the town’s last major fires.
A Prosperous Gold Camp
In the 1890s, Cripple Creek became the site of the last and most prosperous gold mining boom in Colorado. Located on the west side of Pikes Peak, Cripple Creek grew significantly in 1893 as a direct result of the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, with former silver miners and investors seeking new opportunities in gold. By 1894 the Cripple Creek district had more than 150 mines, and annual production exceeded $3 million. The town’s growth continued with the arrival of two railroads in 1894–95. By 1896 the town’s population hit 10,000 people.
Despite its prosperity, Cripple Creek retained the look of a hastily built mining camp. Many buildings were poorly constructed using wooden boards and shingles. Given the dry climate and surrounding forests, fire posed a constant threat.
The First Blaze
Around 1 pm on April 25, 1896, fire broke out on the second floor of the Central Dance Hall on Myers Avenue in the middle of Cripple Creek’s central business district. The fire probably started when a gas stove was overturned, but it was unclear whether that resulted from a fight between a bartender and a prostitute or from a drunk woman kicking it over.
Volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene and managed to control the blaze for short time, but they were hampered by poor water pressure, bursting hoses, and small water mains. Within an hour, the water ran out, allowing the fire to consume several gambling dens and parlor houses on Myers Avenue. Firefighters resorted to demolishing other buildings with explosives in order to block the fire’s path, though several explosions were set off inadvertently because of dynamite and black powder stashes in buildings all over town.
The fire was finally extinguished around 5 pm, four hours after it started. More than 300 buildings lay in ruin—about one-third of the central business district—resulting in about $700,000 in property damage. Two people were confirmed dead.
Disaster Strikes Again
Rebuilding started the next day and was well under way when disaster struck again on April 29, only ninety-six hours after the first fire had been extinguished. Again, the blaze started around 1 pm, when Frank Angel, head chef at the Portland Hotel, jostled a pan in the hotel kitchen. The pan splashed hot grease onto the stove, causing a flare-up that ignited the grease-soaked wallboards behind the stove. The flames spread rapidly through the kitchen and traveled up the stovepipe. The town did not have a traditional fire bell, so six shots were fired to raise the alarm, rousing several volunteer companies to the scene.
Strong winds caused the fire to jump from the Portland Hotel to the surrounding buildings. Within fifteen minutes, the blaze had traveled to the Booth Furniture Store on Myers Avenue, then continued to the El Paso Lumber Yard and the Harder Grocery Store. At the grocery store, the fire ignited 700 pounds of dynamite, worsening the blaze. Firefighting efforts were hindered by a lack of water; though hydrants were located throughout town, they relied on water from a creek-fed reservoir that was still dry from fighting the first fire.
With the flames out of control, residents loaded wagons to flee to the outskirts of town. Some people charged up to $100 per load for desperate residents to use their wagons, but many were willing to pay the exorbitant fees to escape with their possessions. Refugees set up tents in the hills above town and watched as the flames were eventually extinguished hours after the fire had started. That night, looters returned to the smoldering ruins to steal whiskey and other valuables.
The damage from the two fires was immense, estimated at a total of $3 million, with forty blocks of businesses destroyed. More than 1,000 houses were leveled, leaving some 5,000 residents homeless. At least six people were presumed to have died, but the exact number was unknown because some bodies were believed to have disintegrated in the blazes and explosions. Many other people suffered severe injuries.
News of the disastrous blazes soon spread to the surrounding towns and cities. On the night of April 30, 1896, trains loaded with food and provisions, as well as building supplies, arrived to aid Cripple Creek residents. Rebuilding began immediately, though it took a year for construction to be completed.
Despite the disaster, few people left Cripple Creek. Some residents claimed that the fires were a blessing in disguise, allowing the town to be rebuilt with sturdy brick buildings while destroying many of the saloons and brothels that were believed to foster crime. In addition, the streets were paved and the water-supply problem was solved. Residents’ enthusiasm for rebuilding was probably rooted in all the gold that remained in the nearby hills; Cripple Creek mines ultimately yielded more than $400 million worth of gold, producing a new generation of Colorado mining millionaires.
Cripple Creek’s new brick buildings and improved firefighting technology, such as new hydrants, allowed future fires to be more effectively contained and extinguished. Notable fires broke out in Cripple Creek businesses in 1898, 1919, and 1936, but none of them spread to the town as a whole.
Today mining continues at the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mine. Cripple Creek’s main draw, however, is its gambling industry, which started in the early 1990s as a way to save the town and generate revenue for historic preservation. The town’s historic appearance is still defined by the brick buildings put up in the aftermath of the 1896 fires. Now home to casinos, they stand as evidence of the resilience not only of the buildings themselves but also of the residents who built them after their lives were turned upside down by the disastrous blazes that nearly destroyed Cripple Creek.