c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
One email, one phone call and one video, and I’m right back where I was in 1960-something and beyond.
It was summer, and my family was visiting Cripple Creek, the “World’s Greatest Gold Camp.” The high altitude made the air drier than the Arizona desert, but the sky was lapus lazuli blue and the sun warmed my skin. All four of us bore the markings of typical tourists with our ’65 white Chevy station wagon, our best ratty tennis shoes for walking on dirt, mismatched outfits and lightly sunburned faces, a tell-tale sign of campers who have been out and about for a while.
As we piled out of our car in a parking lot, a train whistle blew. Dad was barking orders while Mom guided us to the safety of a dirt path that served as a sidewalk. My sister and I were of course a couple of young swivel-necks, hopped up on candy and wandering off in every direction as Mom grabbed our shirts and hustled us along. I had a stomach-ache, but was helpless as I was guided past a large, 3-story building with a balcony at the top and on towards a charming looking little train station. I had just started reading, so the word “museum” on a sign we passed meant nothing to me.
The three of us—my mom, my sister and me—huddled in a little wiggly group as my dad went into the little train depot and came out with some tickets in his hand. We stepped up onto a little train, which took off within minutes. My mom warned me to keep my hands inside, which was no problem since my hands were busy holding my aching belly. Mom tried to interest me in the ride and the beautiful scenery, but I started crying. She held me close for the duration of the ride, after which we left Cripple Creek in a hurry and headed towards Canon City.
The year 1982 or so marked the first of many returns to Cripple Creek. I loved the town with its Victorian air and gorgeous old buildings. I remembered the train, and Mom reminded me how I cried with my bellyache while riding it. I had forgotten. I did remember the big 3-story building, with a sign above the door reading, “Cripple Creek District Museum.” There were other old looking buildings nearby and some shops, but our trip was hurried since we had driven all the way from Colorado City south of Pueblo. Besides, the streets were incredibly crowded. I vowed to come back, which I did soon after making Colorado my permanent home in 1984.
The Cripple Creek of the 1980’s was marvelous to behold. Just 90 years before, the city and the district around it was the scene of the last great gold boom in Colorado. Thirty-three millionaires came out of this place, where dreams were realized as often as they were dashed as people crawled all over the hillsides making homes in camps, towns and cities. For some 30 years, the Cripple Creek District reigned as one of the best-known places in America, as well as other parts of the world. Groucho Marx, Tex Guinan, Jack Dempsey and a host of other early day celebrities came here at the beginning of their careers. And then it began getting harder or more expensive to dig or blast the hardrock ore out of the mountains, and people began drifting away.
For a time, the whole area saw a huge downsize in population, but the remaining property owners realized the benefits of tourism beginning in the late 1940s. Now, Cripple Creek’s Bennett Avenue was lined with shops, ice cream stores, restaurants, bars, and plenty of other interesting places. You could pan for gold, sit on a bench and watch the world go by, take your picture with an old miner named Nugget and his donkey, explore the ghost towns around town, or take a trip to nearby Victor—the only other city that was home to live people, shops, restaurants and another museum. Back in Cripple Creek was the biggest museum of all – the Cripple Creek District Museum. It was the largest museum in Teller County then, and now. That 3-story building I saw as a child was the former Midland Terminal Railroad Depot, now part of the museum, which has proudly sat at the head of Bennett Avenue since 1895.
Cripple Creek and Victor became an escape for me from the dreariness of Colorado Springs. It was hard to get a decent job (military wives from Fort Carson south of town were willing to work cheaper than the rest of us), and I bounced around a lot. For me, lover of all things historic and buildings that told stories, Cripple Creek and Victor were the “it” places to be. I fantasized about what it would take to be able to move there. Where would I work? In one of the shops, or seasonally for the melodrama theatre at the old Imperial Hotel? Could I make it there? Probably not, but then something happened that was both a boon and a curse to Cripple Creek: in 1991, the city was one of three in Colorado to legalize limited stakes gambling, and much of the proceeds would go to historic preservation throughout the state. A second boom began.
By working for various casinos as they opened, I was finally able to realize my dream of moving to Cripple Creek in 1994. My first home was actually a small A-frame perched precariously on a hillside seven miles from town, but I loved it there for a dozen glorious years. Four years later, I chanced to get a job at the Cripple Creek District Museum selling tickets. By now I was aiming for a life at a professional author, and the museum provided plenty of pictures, documents and artifacts to learn about. The longer I worked there, the more I fell in love with the place. There was of course the depot, but there was also a turn-of-the-century assay office in another building, and the Colorado Trading & Transfer Building – the only structure to survive two great fires Cripple Creek experienced within days of each other back in April of 1896.
The depot might have perished in the fires also, I later learned, but for the fire department wisely placing a train car on the tracks between the building and the adjacent hillside, and shooting fire hoses over the top of it to douse the flames as they burned part of the roof and began licking at the rafters. The depot had only opened the previous December, and it’s standard-gauge cars were integral to transporting millions of dollars of gold ore to Colorado Springs for processing. The only other train service at the time was the Florence & Cripple Creek, with narrow-gauge cars that ran a precarious route through today’s Phantom Canyon. The canyon was so steep that the trains required what they called “helper engines” to make the grade.
During the years I worked at the museum, I learned a lot about the Midland Terminal Depot. I learned that the railroad superintendents and their families once lived on the top floor. One of them, the Evans family, had a son who had been recruited to play for the Chicago Cubs – until he fell off the back loading dock and broke both of his arms. I loved to imagine what it was like for the families to open the door to the top floor balcony, giving them a birds-eye view of the city and the mountains beyond. How many feet, I wondered, had trudged up and down the gorgeous cantilever staircase snaking its way up through the middle of the building? I knew that between 1953 (when the museum opened) and 1967, a million museum visitors alone had walked those stairs, admiring the thousands of items on display. The true number then, must have been double, maybe even triple.
In honor of the Evans and the others who called the depot their home, the third floor was furnished as it would have been during the 1890s and early 1900s with a parlor, dining room, bedroom and an office that looked out over the railroad tracks. The office, once the working place of the superintendent, was and still is, dedicated to Ralph Carr, who was raised in Cripple Creek and was elected Colorado’s governor in 1939. The second floor was filled with mining memorabilia, a glass cases with Native artifacts, information about the tumultuous labor wars of 1894 and 1903, the switchboard for the telephone company in the original freight room, and mineral displays that the Smithsonian called “one of the finest collections in Colorado.” There also was a wagon belonging to Winfield Scott Stratton, the district’s first millionaire whose mines once brought in $12,000 a day.
The first floor also contained a freight room, as well as another room which was once displayed as a kitchen but became the Melodrama Room dedicated to the Mackin family. Dorothy Mackin (one of the founders of the museum) and her husband, Wayne, were the ones to begin producing melodrama shows at the Imperial Hotel & Theatre, and incidentally raised their family there. Their son, Steve Mackin, once told me that until he went to spend the night at a friend’s house as a child, he believed everyone had a lobby in their home. The other room on the first floor contained displays about Cripple Creek’s early gambling history, as well as its saloons and bawdy houses—including the original wooden grave marker of Madam Pearl DeVere.
We had a lot of visitors back then, people from out of town who had never been to the Cripple Creek District, but also locals who had been coming there since they were kids. Some of them, in those early years, remembered and knew the history of the old depot and the other buildings in the museum “complex” (I use that word lightly, since it implies we were some modern museum with sterile buildings. That was certainly not the case). One day, while I was sitting at the ticket desk researching bawdy Myers Avenue in one of the city directories, a lone gentleman came in, bought a ticket, and quietly made his way upstairs. It was over an hour before he came back down, and he asked me what I was reading. I explained about the red-light district and that I was looking for women from Myers Avenue. He asked me a few more questions before a family barged in. They did not want to pay the paltry $2.50 each to go through the museum. They did, however, want to know where there was a cheap place to eat in town. I was giving them a list when the gentleman left.
A little while later a woman, who saw that $2.50 was well worth the price to see the museum, came down. “I see that Steven Spielberg was here,” she quipped. My eyebrows went up and I asked her how she knew this. He had signed his name on the guest register on the second floor, she said. We went up together and viewed the signature. But anybody could write that name even if they weren’t Steve Spielberg, I reasoned. Then the woman said she had just seen him herself, at a wine tasting in Aspen the day before. I asked her what he was wearing. She described my inquisitive visitor to a tee. It was all I could do to keep from closing early and going in search of him, but he had apparently purchased a couple of books at our gift shop and gone on his way.
We had more than just city directories in the way of a library, much more. A door from the gambling room led to the office, which became my very favorite room since that is where most of the documents, photographs, maps, newspapers and other important ephemera were kept. As I got to know my boss, Erik Swanson, and the man who founded the museum, Richard Johnson, I was able to talk my way into working in that room. Soon I was Erik’s “right-hand” woman, and graduated to archivist of the museum. People wanted to know about the history of the 25 or so towns of the Cripple Creek District, important events, and their ancestors. It became my job to help them find out all they could. A few years later, I became Director when Richard died and Erik left after working at the museum for nearly two decades.
Maintaining a museum with five historic buildings (eight floors combined), expansive grounds, hundreds of thousands of artifacts, and everything else that goes with the largest historical depository in Teller County is difficult – yet we managed to do it with ten staff members, seven board members, and slew of volunteers. We cleaned and repaired artifacts, and tried to identify those that had not been accessioned in previous years. When a miner’s cabin and the former home of French Blanche were donated to us, we had great fun furnishing them the way they would have looked a century ago. Our gift shop also reflected a time long ago, with Victorian and Edwardian reproductions of dishware, old-fashioned candy, Native jewelry, and the largest book selection in the entire county.
Our parking lot was the finish line for the annual Donkey Derby Races. We thought up fun events to host, like fundraisers for other non-profits, art shows and holiday celebrations, and even public appearances by Wyatt Earp’s nephew at the Imperial Hotel. We made unique parade floats and were in at least two parades each year, where we often won first place ribbons. The floats were the cheapest way for us to advertise by getting out into the public and reminding people that this stellar museum was right in their midst.
It was, at the very least, positively refreshing, exhausting and time-consuming to work at the museum, but I loved every minute of it. Much like an addict, I ate, drank, breathed, slept and talked history (which I still do). Working at the Cripple Creek District Museum was truly my fix. And by the time I left there some ten years ago, I regarded the museum in its entirety as a grandmother, someone who needs you to help them stand now and then, whose shoes needed to be polished occasionally, or their old wardrobe patched to make it look new, or their hair smoothed back to look perfect under a feather hat.
Even though I have been gone for a long time, I still maintain a loving relationship with my “grandmother,” the museum. Like I did with others before me, people occasionally contact me wanting to know something about the place and its expansive displays. Or what all those keys go to. Or how, when or why we did something or other on the museum’s behalf. When you know an elderly relative for a long time, you learn everything about them from their mannerisms and preferences to what is inside their cupboards and closets. That is how I feel still about the Cripple Creek District Museum, my once-upon-a-time solace as the one place I could find my footing. You should go visit it. The admission fee is a little higher, but you won’t be sorry. Just be sure to take enough time on your tour for the spirits of the past to warm you and make you feel just like I did so many years ago.