The following excerpt is from the book Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and arcadiapublishing.com.
Who would have thought that a cow pasture could yield millions of dollars in gold and spawn a city so large it rivaled Denver for the state capitol? Bob Womack did, and it is his determination we have to thank for the historic Cripple Creek District we see today.
Upon arriving during the 1870’s, Robert M. Womack’s family established a cattle ranch near what is today Cripple Creek. Wandering the hills daily, Bob’s prior prospecting experience led to his discovery of gold. Womack’s dream of a booming gold camp was finally realized in 1891.
By 1893, the city of Cripple Creek was in a constant state of progress with new construction, new stage roads and a growing population. Telephones, telegraph lines and even electricity had been installed, making Cripple Creek one of the first cities in the nation to have such modern amenities.
Within three years, Cripple Creek’s population had grown to 10,000 residents. Several more camps, towns and cities were springing up in the District. Passengers on the newly constructed Midland Terminal Railroad rolled into a typical frontier town at both Cripple Creek and Victor. Both towns were filled with wooden false-front buildings containing banks, mercantiles, saloons, churches, opera houses, schools, boarding houses, restaurants, mining and real estate offices, hardware and furniture stores, laundries, news stands, drugstores, bakeries, brothels and assay offices. Every imaginable business prospered in the District, and the wise investor stood little chance of losing money.
Fire, an ever imposing threat on boom towns across the country, was inevitable in the Cripple Creek District. Of Cripple Creek’s three early fires, two stand out as crucial turning points in the city’s development. During a four day period in April of 1896, two separate conflagrations nearly destroyed the town. In the aftermath of the first fire, over 3,600 people lost their homes and businesses as 15 acres went up in smoke. During the second blaze, all but two buildings on Bennett Avenue burned, as well as a good portion of the residential District. Thousands more were homeless and seeking shelter in makeshift tents and neighboring towns.
What could have been the demise of any other town was a mixed blessing for Cripple Creek. Within four years a bigger, better city rose from the ashes. The town rebuilt in solid brick and the city lost its rough and shabby frontier town look. A random stroll down any avenue revealed a city bustling with business. Here, one could purchase fine china at the May Co. or the best meal in the state at the National Hotel. A number of saloons, gambling halls, dance halls and parlor houses fairly seethed with life.
The District’s second largest city, Victor, also suffered a fire in August of 1899. In its wake, residents of Cripple Creek and other nearby towns came to the rescue. This time, Frank and Harry Woods hired a variety of builders, including Denver architect Matthew Lockwood McBird. Within just a few months, Victor also rebuilt into a fine working class city. By 1900, investors from around the world were flocking to the Cripple Creek District as mines produced more millions than anyone had imagined.
By the turn of the last century, the Cripple Creek District had become a household word not only across America, but all over the world. Everyone knew where Cripple Creek was, and many yearned to seek their fortunes there. Among those celebrities hailing from the District were boxer Jack Dempsey, travel writer and radio personality Lowell Thomas, Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, and nightclub queen Texas Guinan. Famous visitors to the District included Theodore Roosevelt, Groucho Marx, Lily Langtree, and a number of musicians and movie stars.
Two labor wars occurred in the Cripple Creek District. The first, in 1893, settled in favor of the miners. The second labor war was much more violent. Riots and gunfights broke out as striking miners were deported by train to the state borders. There were deaths, injuries and inhumane acts. At one point, a Gatling gun was temporarily installed in the middle of Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek as a deterrent to violence. By the time the strikes were settled statewide in about 1907, the mines were thought to be playing out and people began leaving the District in search of greener pastures.
Thankfully, some of the pioneer families who called the District home for decades chose to stay, living in what was left of the District even as it decayed under their feet. Through both World War I and II, the cities and towns continued to shrink as buildings were dismantled for use in reconstruction or firewood. Others simply sank into the ground under the weight of winter snows and age. As a result, only three towns exist today: Cripple Creek, Victor and the District’s third largest city, Goldfield. Each are roughly about 1/5 of their original size. Roughly four ghost towns remain visible to the naked eye, with several others either completely gone or buried forever under mine tailings.
Beginning in the late 1940’s and continuing into the 1980’s, the District evolved into a quaint tourist destination. Then in about 1989, Cripple Creek and other towns like it began considering legalized gambling to save their historic integrity. A century after its birth, Cripple Creek’s rebirth came in the form of limited stakes gaming. Alongside the gaming came the Cripple Creek & Victor Mine, which is currently the largest open pit mine in the state.
Today, fifteen casinos line Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek, and the city is ten years into its second boom in 100 years. The city of Victor is surviving as a non-gaming tourist attraction with a healthy residential population, while Goldfield has melded into a quiet bedroom community with no commercial businesses. Live music, street festivals and a series of other events take place regularly within the District. Many of them, such as Donkey Derby Days and Gold Rush Days, are traditions dating back as long as 70 years; others are new events spawned out of the need for tourism. True to its heritage, the Cripple Creek District continues to be a wonderful year-round destination for residents and visitors of all ages.