c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.
From the haunted rooms of historic structures to the wanton spirits of the mountains, Colorado has always been alive with ghosts of the dead. They roam the places of their former lives, invisible to most. Some seem to no longer know why they are in that half-world, wandering aimlessly and hopelessly forgotten. Others, in their quest to be remembered and finish tasks they left behind, make their presence known to a selected few of the living. Or do just a selected few choose to see what many will deny is there?
It is true, every camp, fort, village, boomtown and city in this state has its own ghastly group of tragic and sometimes frightening apparitions. The historic Cripple Creek District of Colorado in particular seems to have its own ethereal share of manifestations and specters. Random inquiries during a stroll down Bennett or Victor Avenues inevitably unearth a plethora of twisted tales, both old and new. Most natives of the district, as well as the newcomers of the last 30 years or so, can be enticed to tell of some experience they’ve had, or some experience someone else had, or even some experience they simply know of.
Some of Cripple Creek’s ghost lore can be attributed to nothing more than a promotional gag, told again and again until most believe such rot. Other of the tales, however, have an eerie ring of truth, accompanied by a chill down one’s spine. Hundreds of ghost sightings have surfaced over time, with new ones popping up regularly. The district fairly seethes with its overpopulation of the undead. This makes a most curious aspect of the ghosts and goblins in the Cripple Creek District. Why are there so many?
The answer may lie in Cripple Creek’s colorful and incredibly fascinating past. For some 130 years, people have come here seeking wealth and success that was guaranteed by promoters, developers, idealists and even friends and family. Especially in the old days, fantasy often turned to an ugly reality by way of bad mining claims, bad decisions and bad habits. Within the high rolling hills of the district, dreams were won and lost in a day. The violent and cruel hands of death visited often, and many a heart shattered beyond all repair from a variety of ailments.
It is no wonder then, that the Cripple Creek District seems rife with spirits. When the mining boom began its decline, folks who had clung so hopefully to their dreams here finally dispersed. But they didn’t do it in droves like in many other boomtowns. Rather, abandonment of the Cripple Creek District was slow and gradual, spanning over a period of ten years. As families scattered to the winds, they left behind mere shells of their former lives here.
For many decades, the numerous ghost towns in the district remained as silent sentinels. The empty buildings seemed so badly to want someone to come in and use the goods and furniture left there. But only the ghosts remained, wandering the empty rooms and treading the quiet streets, determined that the occasional visitor or remaining resident might take notice of their frustrating plight. Homes were said to be haunted, and some found themselves crossing the street to avoid walking by certain abandoned buildings.
Even those residing in business buildings were not safe from the occasional unearthly visit by a former occupant. The handful of year-round citizens came to know of certain places inhabited by spirits. During Cripple Creek’s tourist resort years beginning in the late 1940s, ghost stories became as well known as stories stating historical fact. The folklore merely added to Cripple Creek’s charm, and everyone, including several specters, seemed agreeable to this chapter in the city’s wonderful history.
Then came legalized gaming in 1991. Almost over night, Cripple Creek and the district around it was crawling with real live humans. They were excited with anticipation of what this new enterprise might bring. Old buildings were entered for the first time in decades. Their innards were removed as new carpet was laid and fresh paint stained the walls. One of Cripple Creek’s former favorite past times, gambling and drinking, was revived with vigor. Surely some spirits rejoiced as folks resumed doing what they themselves had done a century before.
This time, however, the gambling houses and sampling rooms were quite different in atmosphere. Accompanying the Victorian bar setups, glass chandeliers and flowing staircases were machines, wonderful colorful slot machines operating on electricity and making enough noise to indeed wake those of the dead who were still sleeping. The electric energy which burst into life on Bennett Avenue was enough to send Cripple Creek’s spirits into a frenzy. At last, someone was waking up the past and remembering those who had been forgotten.
Before long, casino workers were reporting unexplained incidents left and right. Tip jars were moving, sometimes dashing right to the floor in a terrific bloom of glass and money. Voices, footsteps, squeaks and grunts were being heard. Fleeting glimpses of unknown creatures were constantly caught from the corner of one’s eye. There were cold drafts in hallways and unseen physical forces on stairwells. Perfume wafted up in empty rooms, and music was heard when there was none playing. One casino even caught an incorporeal visitor on a security camera, sitting at a slot machine in the wee hours of the dawn!
Now, some 30 years after gaming has come to Cripple Creek, the city is slowly changing. The ghost town look of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is evolving back into an appearance more like the city had a century ago. Notable is that some historic structures have fallen in the wake of this progress, with newer buildings taking their place. But one thing is sure: Cripple Creek will not disperse its ghostly residents. They’ve already been rattling about for over a century, and the clanging and banging of a newly awakened town can only strive to bring them out even more. The spooks and spirits are here to stay, and they will remain long after we are gone. It is only when we pass to that other mysterious world ourselves that we might get a taste of what it’s like to be a ghost in Cripple Creek.
Image: Look closely at this photo of modern day Cripple Creek, and you might just see some ghostly folks from the past. Image enhancement by Jan MacKell.