Altman, the Wickedest Town in Colorado’s Cripple Creek District

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article are from Jan’s book, Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County, Colorado

Nobody seems to agree about the exact altitude of Altman, one of the more notorious towns of the Cripple Creek District. The 1894 Cripple Creek District directory located the town at 10,500 feet. Author Robert L. Brown reported that Altman sat at 10,700′. Historian Allan C. Lewis more accurately calculated the town’s height at 11,150′. Newspapers of the day claimed the town sat at 11,650′. The Colorado State Business Directory of 1908 guessed the altitude to be 11,146 feet. The Cripple Creek District Directory for 1915-16 claimed an altitude of 10,728 feet. At the very least, everyone agrees that during its heyday, Altman was the highest incorporated city in the United States. Altman citizens, and later historians, also liked to claim the town was actually the highest in the world. It wasn’t, according to Brown, who said that honor actually went to La Paz, Bolivia.

What is known for sure is that Altman, situated at the top of the Cripple Creek District with a clear view of Pike’s Peak, was platted on September 25, 1893 by Samuel Altman. In 1891, Sam owned the Altman Mill in Squaw Gulch a mile or so away. He also owned two local mines. Further away, Sam also operated a sawmill in Park County’s town, Lake George, during the 1890’s. Altman had purchased the Free Coinage Mine on Bull Hill before founding his namesake town nearby.

In its infancy, Altman grew very quickly. The population may have soared as high as 1,200 in 1893. The main thoroughfares included Main, Baldwin and Brown Streets. Business buildings were of the wood, false fronted variety. Four restaurants, six saloons, six grocery stores, a schoolhouse and 200 homes already dotted the hillside by the time the town was platted. Almost immediately, a few roughnecks moved into town. On October 10, 1893 four newcomers, Felix Parrow, Robert McCullough, Harry Cavanaugh and Jim McDonald showed up at W.R. Goodey’s saloon. The men spent a most pleasant night playing cards for drinks. Around 4 a.m., however, the men suddenly broke into a fight as a ruse to rob the place.

During the fray, barkeeper John Ashby was whacked in the head with a gun and “laid out”, while faro dealer J.S. Bush was disarmed. In all, the robbers took $610.00 in cash and another $350.00 in checks, along with five gold watches and a pair of bracelets. Within a day, however, one of the robbers had already been arrested. Next, in November, ex-prizefighter George Lear was labeled a “Green Monster” by newspapers when he shot and killed a dance hall girl named Irene Goode in a jealous rage. Lear got his; a short time later, Altman bartender Sam Jones killed Lear at Kilday & Sullivan’s Saloon.

As of January 1894, Altman’s population was guessed to be around 2,000 residents. Prominent citizens included Peter Hettig, who was credited with opening the very first store in nearby Cripple Creek when that town was founded. Likewise, Hettig also opened the first store on Bull Hill near the Pharmacist Mine. Altman’s authorities likely hoped for the best as a post office was established on January 18, 1894 in what was then El Paso County. But even this news, was soon overshadowed as Altman unwittingly became a major player in the labor war of 1893-94. Beginning February 1 local mine owners, including Sam Altman, changed their employees’ work day from eight to nine hours per day—for the same daily wage of three dollars. Rather than bow down, however, the miners took matters into their own hands and simply walked off the job on February 2.

As word spread through the District, the residents of Altman decided to drive their point home—by leaving altogether. “The entire population of the camp packed up their effects,” reported the Aspen Daily Times on February 7, “and a motley procession was formed, including miners, saloonkeepers and their outfits, merchants with their stocks and the denizens of the brothels. The hilarious cavalcade moved to Cripple Creek and within a few hours the camp was deserted.” Other miners expressed their desire to follow suit, and a walkout from every mine in the camp was planned for February 8.

Failing to get a proper response to their actions, the population of Altman was soon back, openly declaring their hometown a union town. Most of the residents were pro-union anyway and before long, the Free Coinage Union Local No. 19 opened its doors for the first time. In the meantime, mine owners succeeded in procuring court orders to cease striking, but they were to no avail. As the highest town in the District, Altman afforded views in all directions and offered relative security from invading forces. The Western Federation of Miners (W.F.M.), led by John Calderwood, soon found a home in town and successfully closed Altman to all but union men. Union membership cards were required of anyone wishing to enter town.

Angered mine owners next hired a number of temporary deputies to disperse the miners at Altman. During one encounter in March, six sheriff’s deputies on their way to Altman were accosted by the town’s own police staff. A fist fight broke out and shots were fired. One deputy was wounded, and two others were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. El Paso County Sheriff Frank Bowers was enraged and sent a message to Colorado Governor Davis H. Waite. He claimed a deputy was actually killed, Waite later said; hence, the governor allowed fifty special sheriffs to be deputized and sent up from Colorado Springs.

Embellishments such as Bowers’ fib to Governor Waite continued. Adjutant General Thomas J. Tarsney also received word that the strikers were rioting and causing mayhem. Tarsney hurried to the Altman but encountered only “disheartened but dedicated miners” and was ready to rescind his offer of assistance by the time Bowers secured numerous warrants against the men. Tarsney also played witness as the men surrendered. Only one was tried and acquitted, the others released without going to trial. Bowers’ actions incensed the strikers. On May 25 a group of men attacked the Strong Mine above Victor, disarmed the guards and blew the mine to smithereens. Only three men who were in the mine at the time suffered no more than shock from the explosion. A short time later, during a clash of mining strikers versus Colorado Springs deputies and a number of anti-union men, two strikers were killed and five were arrested.

More violence followed; in June another scuffle broke out as deputies cut the telegraph wires at Altman, arrested reporters who were covering the event and were exchanging gunfire with miners on Bull Hill when a fresh militia was sent by Governor Waite. But so many lies were being told by men on either side of the war that Waite ultimately visited Altman himself and called for a civil mediation in Colorado Springs. On June 11, the strike was finally settled.

Altman recovered nicely from the labor war, but continued on its raucous path. By late 1894 the population was said to have soared to more than two thousand people. Businesses were flourishing. They included the two-story Hill Top Hotel, the Altman Oyster and Chop House, the Belmont Restaurant, a watchmaker and jeweler, and several general merchandise stores, restaurants, laundries, books and stationary stores, bakeries, liveries and boarding houses. There were also six saloons where hard-working miners toasted their town on a regular basis. Adjacent Towns. Cripple Creek, CO: Hazeltine & Co., publishers, May 1, 1894 p. 148-149)

When authorities announced plans to close the growing community’s post office and move it to the town of Independence down the mountain in 1895, the citizens protested at an “indignation meeting”. The problem, postal authorities explained, was that Altman was simply too darn high to be lugging mail up and down the mountain. It was a hard point to argue. In the end it was agreed that all mail for Altman would be directed to Cripple Creek. From there, the mail would be delivered to Altman by Faharbeck Brothers express company, and distributed by M.L. Dowling. A telegraph was also sent to the House of Representatives, explaining the situation and requesting an investigation into the matter. The post office was indeed moved to Independence during the investigation, but a month later it was re-established at Altman. The citizens had conquered once again.

With their post office back in place, the outlaws around Altman felt free to start their shenanigans once more. In March of 1895 a four-horse stage was coming down the hill from town when three men jumped out of nowhere. In their attempt to stop the stage, one of the men grabbed the lead horse’s bridles. Instead of slowing down, however, the stage driver simply snapped his whip. The horses “made a jump and rushed down the road, throwing the would-be robber to the ground and apparently running over him.” As much as Altman’s citizens declined to put up with much, however, the town did gain a reputation for being a rough-and-tumble sort of place. History buffs over time have sometimes stretched the truth, stating that the local undertaker even offered to give group rates for funerals on Saturdays. When poet and Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph columnist Rufus L. Porter wrote a ballad about the town’s first marshal, Mike McKinnon, dying after a gunfight with six Texans (but not, allegedly, before he killed all six outlaws), people accepted the story as fact.

Porter may have actually been recalling a real scenario which played out in May of 1895. In that case, outlaw gangster “General” Jack Smith dueled it out with Marshal Jack Kelley. Smith had been running amuck for some time, and had been warned by Kelley to stop trying “to run the town in his usual style.” On May 14, 1895, Smith wrapped up a night of drinking by shooting the locks off of the Altman jail. Inside were two of his buddies, who had already been arrested for drunkenness. Smith wisely left town as soon as his friends were free, but the next day a constable named Lupton and one Frank Vanneck located him in a Victor saloon. “I want you Jack,” Lupton said, to which Smith replied, “If you want me, then read your warrant.” As Lupton began reading the warrant, Smith appeared to go for his gun. The constable quickly pinned down the outlaw’s arms while Vanneck shoved a gun to Smith’s chest. Smith was taken to court and a hearing was set with a bond of three hundred dollars. The angry outlaw bonded out immediately and was next seen riding towards Altman “with the open declaration of doing up the marshal who swore the complaint.”

Lupton made a quick call up to Altman (presumably by telegraph) to warn of Smith’s threat. Then he mounted his own horse and headed for the town with Victor Deputy Sheriff Benton. Meanwhile, Smith had made it to Altman where he gathered a small force of men including one named George Popst. The bunch headed to Gavin and Toohey’s Saloon, where Smith started ordering one drink after another. Outside, Lupton and Benton met up with Marshal Kelley and set out in search of the “General”. Kelley “had just lifted the latch of Lavine and Touhey’s [sic] saloon, when ‘crack’ went a gun from the inside. The ball struck the latch and glanced off.” Kelley threw the door open and shot Smith just below the heart. From the floor, Smith emptied his gun and Kelley continued shooting him. Outside, Deputy Benton fired a shot through the window that hit Popst. “The latter may recover,” predicted the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper, “but Smith is certain to die.” Popst also died, about a week later.

Marshal Kelley had barely recovered from the ghastly shoot out with General Jack when a bartender at another saloon was killed and robbed in early September. This time, two men entered the place which was occupied by the barkeep and two other men. The robbers abruptly shouted “Throw up your hands!” even as one of them shot the bartender three times. “And this is after he had thrown up his hands,” it was noted, “a signal which even bandits respect.” The bandits only netted seventy dollars for their trouble, because the bartender had wisely hidden the bulk of his nightly proceeds in a safe place before he was killed. The robbers remained elusive to authorities until two men fitting their descriptions turned up in the El Paso County jail for robbing a Wells Fargo Express. Kelley lost no time in visiting the jail to see the men, Lloyd Marye and Pete Wilson. The men were indeed the ones Kelley was looking for.

Surprisingly, the gritty events at Altman were not enough to deter the Denver Chamber of Commerce from coming through for a day visit later that month. And when the Miners Union Ball was hosted in Altman in December, an advertisement promised the dance would “be the event of the season.” Residents around Altman, including families, miners and business folk, clearly learned to work around the rowdy outbursts of certain citizens. In January of 1896 Mr. and Mrs. H. Wolf were driving the road up to Altman from Goldfield when two men stopped them. The gentlemen bandits relieved Mr. Wolf of his valuables, but let Mrs. Wolf keep hers. A short time later the men, identified as Mike McMillan and Jack Haggerty, were arrested in Goldfield.

Altman was finally incorporated on July 25, 1896 and David B. Rhoads was declared the first official mayor. Within a year, the population was said to have doubled to 1,000 people. Serving the citizens of Altman were an assayer, bakery, drugstore, general merchandise store, grocery, hotel, jeweler, shoemaker and tailor, also two dry goods stores, two liveries, two meat markets, two physicians and two restaurants. Four barbers were also on hand. Six saloons served thirsty miners at all hours of the day and night. They included the Thirst Parlor, The Mint, The Silver Dollar, and the Monte Carlo. Newcomers and visitors to town could choose from eight boardinghouses. Around the town, approximately thirty seven mines employed miners and other blue collar workers. Their children attended the Altman School, overseen by schoolmaster Thomas Roundtree. For the ladies, Mitchell’s Millinery offered stylish hats. And, Altman’s own Weekly Champion newspaper reported the goings-on through the whole town.

In June, Sam Altman began suffering financial woes starting with a lawsuit against his Free Coinage mine. Back in January of 1896, he had already sold his interest in the Free Coinage mine to fellow mine owner Sam Strong. Altman eventually moved to Colorado Springs, where he died in 1922. Long before that, Altman’s town carried on swimmingly. In April of 1896 it had been announced that a new water works plant was being planned. And in October, the Florence & Cripple Creek railroad announced plans to build a spur to Altman. Soon, Altman had grown large enough to begin calling a portion of it “South Altman”. Amongst the fancier hotels at Altman during 1897 was the Altman Hotel and the Hill Top Hotel.

Altman was just starting to look like a real first class city when another shooting occurred, in April of 1897. The perpetrator in this case was Jack Cox, who had been in Cripple Creek since 1895 after being pardoned for murder. Cox had been gambling and drinking all night at McElroy and Coll’s Saloon. With him were his best friend, Bob Daily, also another friend, Sam Loshey. At 10 a.m. the next morning, Cox and his friends were still at it when a fight broke out. Said to be “crazed with liquor”, Cox opened fire and killed Daily. He shot at bartender J.C. McElroy too, but missed. His third shot killed Loshey, too.

Following the shootings, Cox ran for the door. On his way out he encountered Harry Miner, another friend whose mother ran the boarding house where Cox lived. Miner was also shot, which fortunately only broke his arm. Out on the street, Cox saw Town Marshal Ed O’Brien coming and fired yet again. This time the marshal returned fire, seriously wounding the murderer. Cox lived to stand trial, but three witnesses on the stand didn’t seem to know why the fight broke out. After some confusion, Cox finally explained that the “witnesses” were actually his gang members, and the argument had been over stolen goods. The men were arrested. In the end, Cox was found guilty of murder. He was lucky, as Colorado’s death penalty had only recently been abolished by the legislature. 

By August of 1897, Altman’s baseball team was playing other District teams regularly at Mt. Pisgah Gardens outside of Cripple Creek. Later that same month, Miss Marie Nelson, a professional singer and former student at Altman’s school, returned to perform for her home town. By September, however, the natives were restless yet again. This time, miners Pat Gildea and Jerry O’Donnell had a round at Goodley’s Saloon. The two had been at each other since an altercation during the Corbett-Fitzsimmons boxing match clear back in March. At Goodley’s, Gildea was arguing with saloon manager George Savadge when O’Donnell decided to chime in. “Maybe you want some of this yourself,” sneered Gildea, striking O’Donnell twice in the face and knocking him down. Then he gave him a kick for good measure. O’Donnell rose to his feet. He was covered in blood, and mad. “You wouldn’t do this if I hadn’t been drinking, and I don’t believe you can whip me anyway!” he retorted. The fight was on. This time, when Gildea hit O’Donnell in the face again, the latter pulled a knife and sliced his opponent right across the guts. Gildea was able to run outside, bring in a rock and clobber O’Donnell again before onlookers broke up the fight. By the next day, Gildea was suffering terribly with internal bleeding and died soon after. O’Donnell was arrested.

During 1898, Altman’s bad boys seemed to calm down a bit. In its New Year’s Day edition, the Cripple Creek Morning Times noted South Altman was “a place worthy of commendation”, and explained that “more miners make their home in Altman than any other town in the district.” The town appeared to be doing just fine with a population of 2,000, electric lights, a telephone company and a postal telegraph company. The Florence & Cripple Creek apparently concluded there was no way to lay tracks to the high town, but residents were still hoping that David Moffatt’s Golden Circle railway would come there instead. Meanwhile, Altman continued living up to the Morning Times‘ expectations. By February the city had its own Bull Hill Literary Society, a French club and a Ladies’ Aid Society. Crimes were still being committed, but they were half hearted efforts at best. When two men robbed Mutterer and Blass’ Saloon, they only got four dollars and nobody was even hurt.

The dwindling crime element took an even stranger turn one night in October when Edward Callahan ran into police headquarters at Cripple Creek. He told officers he was turning himself in for shooting two men at Altman. Callahan was out of breath, he said, because “he had started to this city on horseback but could not ride fast enough, so he had jumped off the horse and run. [And] it was very evident that he had run,” according to the Cripple Creek Morning Times. After some investigation, Marshal O’Brien finally found a witness to the shooting. The man said he had seen Callahan fire his Winchester twice at hillside, but he hadn’t shot at anybody. Meanwhile, Callahan “told a marvelously bloody tale of how he had shot the two men all to pieces, but every time he told it, the story took on new phases, until it was clear that he was non compos mentis.” The police put him in jail until they could take him to Colorado Springs and “care for him.”

Another rather comical event was said to have taken place in December of 1899. The Denver Times reported that Mayor Thomas Ferroll decided the people of Altman had no need for that newfangled contraption called a telephone. When the Colorado Telephone Company attempted to install telephone poles in town, Ferroll retaliated by chopping two poles down. The mayor was made to pay for the poles, as well as the wages of the telephone workers. Ultimately, Altman did succeed in obtaining a single telephone located at Morrison & McMillan’s store.

Although the population had dropped in half by 1900, Altman still retained its school and city hall. In addition to the usual saloons, there were also two restaurants, a drugstore, assay office, two mercantiles, and four boardinghouses. There was even a Justice of the Peace and a volunteer fire department. As promised, the Golden Circle railroad was providing transportation to a station just west of Altman. Citizens could also frequent a number of organizations including the Home Forum Benefit Order, and two chapters of the Red Men. Two unions prospered as well: the Free Coinage Miners’ Union, and the Stationary Engineers’ Union. And as usual, there were four saloons in which to whoop it up on Saturday night. There were two churches too, and one of them oversaw the marriage of mining millionaire Sam Strong to Altman resident Regina Neville. The couple had barely been pronounced husband and wife, however, before one of a string of lawsuits were served on the philandering Strong by various women. The suits were settled, but Strong was later killed by Sherman Crumley’s brother, Grant, at Cripple Creek in 1901.

it was the 1902 Cripple Creek District Directory that first boasted that Altman was the highest incorporated city in the world. The population of 1,500 was comprised of citizens within the city limits, but also those “who receive their mail at that point as well as those who have no regular postoffice address, giving locations where possible.” Businesses in town had dwindled to three barbers, three dressmakers and three saloons, but only one each of such important places like assayers, drugstores, general merchandise stores, hotels, meat markets, restaurants and shoe stores. There was only a single physician remaining as well. Then, in 1903, a fire destroyed most of the town.

The conflagration broke out in the early morning hours at Mrs. Ollie Davisson’s Altman Hotel. The fire had been raging for some time before it was discovered, and when firemen tried hooking their hoses to the hydrants they found the faucets had been “tampered with”. It took four hours to fix the hydrants, during which some buildings were dynamited in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading. All was for naught. By the time surrounding fire departments had arrived to help, the entire business district and numerous homes were in ashes. In the wake of the fire, it was noted that this was the second time someone had tried to set fire to Mrs. Davisson’s hotel, also that red pepper had been spread around the scene to deter bloodhounds. Soon it was discovered that Mrs. Davisson had set the fire herself. She was arrested, along with her housemaid, miners Neal Osborne, Thomas Deetson and a man named Johns, and even Altman Water Company manager J. W. Dumpee.

Further news of Altman’s fire was lost in the shuffle as the Cripple Creek District launched into a second labor strike. The labor strike of 1904 was even worse than the one ten years before. Altman had no time to set up a fortress like before, and the militia plopped down in the middle of town before anyone could do anything. Eventually, the union lost the war and their members were forced to leave town at gunpoint.

Altman’s population continued to fall, totaling only 900 people by 1907. “While many of the rich mining properties of the District are located in the neighborhood,” explained the Cripple Creek District directory that year, “the facilities for reaching the valley towns are so excellent that many of the miners prefer to travel back and forth rather than to reside at so high an altitude.” Only a dozen businesses remained. A year later the population was reported at 150 residents, with only eight business men and women appearing in the Colorado State Business Directory. The post office closed on May 20, 1911.

For a few more years, one or two businesses clung to life at Altman. By 1915 those left at Altman began receiving their mail at Independence, and were considered residents of that town thereafter. Even so, Altman’s Mayor, Frank Dorethy, and other government officials were listed separately in the directory. John Giblin was still mayor pro-tem in 1917, but no businesses appeared in the Cripple Creek District Directory at all. The town was eventually vacated for good. Most of the buildings were gone by 1937, although some buildings on Main Street still stood as late as the 1960’s. Among these was the city hall, still containing a large safe. The remaining buildings swayed with time, and a few even survived into the 1980’s when the road to Altman was closed by a modern mining interests. Today the mine, recently acquired by Newmont Mining Corporation, let visitors up a graded road to the American Eagles Mine. A gate up top used to lead to Altman. But finding Altman is literally impossible today, for even the mountain where it once stood no longer exists.

Image: A colored postcard shows Altman circa 1899. Pikes Peak is visible in the background. Courtesy Jan MacKell Collins

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