By Brook & Gaurav Bhagat
The story of Cripple Creek, some say, starts with the story of Bob Womack, a cowboy and dollar-a-day carpenter who lived alone on a ranch in the Colorado mountains. A small stream bisected his land, so rocky that a few cattle injured their feet and legs crossing it, earning it the name Cripple Creek.
For ten years Bob spent his spare time on a seemingly fruitless obsession-- digging for gold. Then, in 1890, he found what he was looking for, and staked a claim in 1891 in another area of his land called Poverty Gulch.
In 1893, two years after he discovered gold, the city was given the same name. The news of Bob’s find spread like wildfire, and the three-mile area referred to as “the district," encompassing Victor, Cripple Creek, Goldfield and other small towns began to boom, and boom big. Before the Womack discovery, the District was home to less than two dozen people; by 1900 the population had risen to more than 50,000.
Poverty Gulch became just the opposite. Old Bob, unfortunately, sold his claim for $300-- then saw its value rise to $50,000 in just a few months. The mine from the site eventually raked in over $5,000,000, and he died with nothing.
It was once believed that precious metals like gold and silver do not occur in lava complexes-- Cripple Creek Mining District, located in a six-square-mile crater of an extinct volcano, changed this myth, and the history of Colorado, forever.
Cripple Creek became the world’s second-greatest gold-producing region. In today’s dollars it is estimated that Cripple Creek has produced $7 billion worth of gold. It produced two-thirds of the gold from Colorado and one-fourth of the gold of the entire country.
The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, as it was called, escalated for only twelve years, changed the destinies of hundreds of thousands of people. 31 men became millionaires, and tens of thousands of others moved here to work in their mines, for a few dollars a day.
There were two sides of the new-found wealth in Cripple Creek. High-society Bennett Avenue boasted world-class opera houses, the stock exchange and other luxurious places; Myers Avenue, also known as Sin City, was only a block away, offering dance halls, “women of the half world" for almost any budget, gambling, 24-hour saloons, and even opium dens.
Gambling and prostitution were legal, and the city took a pretty penny from the saloons, gaming and parlor houses in taxes. High-society folk resented having to walk through the red-light district to get to the Grand Opera House to see attractions; they directed their children not to look at the “painted ladies," who hawked their services from windows and doorways.
The name Poverty Gulch took on a new irony as it became the worst slums in Cripple Creek. Newspapers, of which there were five daily, reported frequent brawls, overdoses and suicides from the area.
One such fight, supposedly between a prostitute and her boyfriend, was the cause of a fire in a Myers Avenue parlor house in 1896. A gas stove was tipped over, and in just four hours, 300 buildings, about a third of the town, had burned to the ground. Less than a week later, a second blaze destroyed most of what was left of Cripple Creek.
The second fire did double the damage the first one had, claiming every hotel and restaurant, the lives of twelve people, and leaving literally eighty percent of the residents of Cripple Creek homeless.
Many communities, some as far away as Denver and especially Victor, usually Cripple Creek’s biggest rival, helped in the quick rebuilding of the town, largely in brick. Millionaires like Winfield Stratton donated generously from their own pockets.
New railroads raced to cash in on the boom. The first to arrive, in 1894, was the narrow-gauge Florence and Cripple Creek which called itself the “Gold Belt Line."
The turn of the century brought vicious labor wars. The biggest strikes were in 1894 and 1903. Many lives were lost and the mining industry was never the same again.
As mines went deeper to extract the gold, the cost of production rose. Cripple Creek began to decline until World War II, when mining stopped almost completely.
By 1990, Cripple Creek had almost become a ghost town. The population had shrunk from an official count of 35,000 (estimates of “the district" run as high as 100,000) to less than 300 within city limits. Struggling for survival, residents voted to jump-start the economy by legalizing limited-stakes gaming in 1991.
Gambling and tourism have revived what once was one of the liveliest spots in the Old West, and the population of Cripple Creek is nearly 1500 again. The casinos are required by law to keep up the historical theme and flavor of the town; one of the biggest is called, of course, Womack’s.
Besides the casinos, however, there are plenty of other things to do and places to go in Cripple Creek. If you’re a history buff, your first stop should probably be the Cripple Creek District Museum, once the site of the Midland Terminal Railroad Depot, which is right on the way into town. The museum tells the story of Cripple Creek with historical photographs, maps, and artifacts.
Then, if you want to explore on your own, you can take a driving tour of some of the most famous mines in the District-- maps and guide books are available at local businesses, the Cripple Creek Welcome Center and the museum. Or, for less than $10 for adults, you can hop on the Cripple Creek and Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, which leaves from the depot at the museum (every 35 minutes in the summer). The fully narrated, 45-minute ride is a wonderful way to journey into the heart of the gold camps of the Wild West.
After riding around, journey down-- at the Mollie Kathleen, a mile North of Cripple Creek on Highway 67, you go 1000 feet down into the earth. Here, you experience a real, operational gold mine, and hear actual miners tell about the process.
Inside Cripple Creek, restaurants, gift and souvenir shops abound, some of which offer the opportunity of trying your own hand at panning for gold (and you get to keep anything you find).
The most unique historical tour, however, is the Old Homestead, a famous Myers Avenue parlor house. Once the heart of the red-light district, it has been converted into a museum. Guided tours offer a rare glimpse of the underside of the Old West, and will highlight your visit to Cripple Creek with unforgettable stories.
In the summertime, there are plenty of special events, like concerts, art shows, a rodeo, live melodrama, and even the famous donkey races. In Donkey Derby Days, locals ride and “race" wild (and a few domestic) donkeys through town.
For kids, there is a new skateboard park. Remind your children to stay on marked trails and roads, and never explore an old mine shaft or ruins-- sudden drops can be deadly.
For nature lovers, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and camping are all around. Cripple Creek’s elevation of 9,464 feet makes it, and the drive to it, one of the most breathtaking in the Rocky Mountains.
For more information, current calendars of events and more go to www.cripple-creek.co.us or call the Cripple Creek Welcome Center at 1-877-858-GOLD to check on seasonal attractions and events.
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