Author Archives: Jan MacKell Collins

About Jan MacKell Collins

Jan MacKell Collins is an historian, author and researcher. She has written several books on the history of the west, including nearly a dozen books and numerous articles about historical prostitution in the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. Ms. Collins gives presentations and programs; also, she writes for such notable magazines as All About History, True West, Colorado Central and New Legends. She has appeared on Rocky Mountain PBS, Adam Ruins Everything and other radio and television shows as one of the most knowledgeable historians regarding historical prostitution in the west. Ms. MacKell Collins and her husband enjoy traveling in search of history and its unending stories.

Jack Haverly and His Colorado Towns for Suckers

c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County and Colorado Central magazine.

For Jack Haverly, life was truly an up and down affair. The man who gained fame and fortune on the theater circuit during the mid-to-late 1800’s was well known throughout America over his long career. But he also filed bankruptcy so many times that newspapers truly lost count of just how often Haverly found himself broke. It could be said that in his day, Haverly was a force to be reckoned with, an idea man who tried everything once and twice if he liked it. He was also said to be quite lucky, for as much as he was down, Haverly nearly always bounced back up. His many friends never hesitated to loan him money when he needed it, knowing he would pay it back the next time fortune smiled upon him again. “Jack Haverly was a fine man and a lovable character,” wrote Edward Le Roy Rice in 1911. “None did more for minstrelsy than he, and some of the greatest names in theatricals were once associated with him.

John H. “Jack” Haverly was born Christopher Heverly in Pennsylvania in 1837. As a young man he worked as a “train boy”, selling peanuts and candy on passenger trains. He also worked as a “baggage smasher” for the railroads, and did a brief stint as a tailor’s apprentice. By 1864 he had moved to Toledo, Ohio where he opened his first variety theater. A misspelling on a poster changed his name from Heverly to Haverly, and the new moniker stuck.

Acquisition of the theater in Toledo was subsequent to the formation of “Haverly’s Minstrels”, which gave its first performance on August 1 that year. Within a short time, Haverly was partnering with other promoters and visiting grand places across the United States and as far away as Toronto, Canada. During his travels, Haverly married Sara Hechsinger, of the famed singing duo known as the Duval Sisters. When Sara died in 1867, Haverly married her sister, Eliza, later that year. Neither marriage resulted in children.

Theater life appeased Haverly greatly. Over time he bought and sold numerous theater houses, and also headed up a number of traveling troupes. The man was also remembered by some as “a compulsive gambler and speculator” who sometimes threw his money away as quickly as he made it. Somehow, however, Haverly made it work. At the height of his career, he owned six theaters and an amazing thirteen road companies.

Haverly’s greatest achievement was probably in 1877, when he merged four of his minstrel companies to form “Haverly’s United Mastadon Minstrels.” After the fashion of P.T. Barnum and other entertainment promoters of the day, the “Mastadons” consisted of some forty performers and a marching band. Upon arriving in town for a show, the troupe would march up and down the streets, spreading themselves out as thinly as possible so that while performers marched through one part of town, the band played in the other. The Mastadons became so famous they even performed seventeen shows in London during 1880 alone.

It is unlikely that Haverly was with the performance in London, for he was busy discovering the mining boomtowns of Colorado around 1880. Folks around Gunnison remembered him as “famous theater and minstrel millionaire,” and a “colorful and key figure in the development of early Gunnison.” Indeed, Haverly “bought up fine ranch land just east of Gunnison, had a town named for him, invested heavily in silver mines at Gothic and Irwin, bought coal land up in Washington Gulch, and purchased several ranches and a sawmill up Ohio Creek.” The town of Haverly proper consisted of a group of claims, which the entrepreneur advertised “extravagantly.”

Although Haverly was initially welcome in Gunnison country, others took his claims of fortune with a grain of salt. At the nearby town of Irwin the local newspaper, the Elk Mountain Pilot, had nothing good to say about Haverly’s investments. “Take a man from his line of business and place him in a business entirely foreign to his own,” sniped the paper, “and he will surely make a wreck of it.” True to the newspaper’s prediction, Haverly’s first namesake town in Colorado ended up being “essentially a promotional scheme.” Newcomers almost immediately started squabbling over who owned what claim. Eventually, the forty or so miners at the camp “‘jumped’ the town and left Mr. Haverly ‘out in the cold.'” The town of Haverly survived for a few more years, taking on different names and residents until the place faded away altogether. Jack Haverly, however, had long ago moved on.

Haverly continued to conduct a successful theater tour in Colorado. Not only was he continuing his minstrel shows, but he began forming opera companies as well. The names of his shows generally changed as much as his address. In 1880, “Haverly’s Church Choir Opera Company” performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at Barnum Hall in Greeley, the Central City Opera House, the Denver Opera House and the Tabor Opera House in Leadville. The outfit came complete with its own orchestra and starred such celebrities of the day as C.M. Pyke, Dora Wiley and Pauline Hall. Like everywhere else, Haverly’s show received rave reviews. Success was sweet; an 1881 article in the New York Clipper commented on sixteen of Haverly’s minstrel shows and opera companies. In addition, Haverly’s company had offices in Boston, Chicago, Denver and New York.

With so many troupes on the road, it was impossible for Haverly to travel with each one. Instead, he hired capable theater managers and road agents. In 1883, manager J.H. Mack accompanied the Colorado circuit. In February 1883 alone, the troupe—under the name “Haverly’s English Opera Company”—performed Strauss’s Merry War at the Colorado Springs Opera House, the Fort Collins Opera House, the Tabor Opera House in Leadville and the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver.

Keeping up with his many traveling troupes could not have been easy, and Haverly often spread himself too thin to conduct his businesses well. In spite of the success of the Colorado circuit, his finances were soon taking a dive. Throughout much of 1883, the New York Times was full of articles regarding Haverly’s many legal and financial troubles. Haverly carried on, however, borrowing money to invest in various endeavors, paying back the money to his lenders, then losing everything all over again on a bad risk. By 1884 his fortunes were said to be beginning “their final collapse”. The enterprising man, however, wisely decided to start investing in mining as a means to make additional money. It is true, his love for speculation in the mines often proved costly, but at least he remained successful with his shows.

Throughout 1884 and 1885, Haverly’s shows continued performing in London and even Scotland. He was still dabbling in theater and doing quite a good job of it when he visited the Cripple Creek District in January of 1896. According to the Cripple Creek Morning Times, the minstrel man had “bade farewell to minstrelry several years ago, and when his face becomes sooty now it is from a miner’s lamp instead of a makeup box.” Haverly told the reporter that he planned to be in the area for a couple of weeks. “I came here to see if I couldn’t get hold of some property in this district,” he said. His plan was fortified with some extra cash he had lying around from his mining investments in Clear Creek County.

Within a short time, Haverly had purchased “a plateau known as Bull Hill when in the height of its prosperity,” according to the Hoosier State Chronicle in Indiana. Due to his rags-to-riches-to-rags reputation, however, few investors showed much interest in partnering with him. After some fast talking, Haverly was finally able to convince some prospects into having a look at his mines themselves. The properties did look mighty promising, enabling Haverly to acquire partners. The group filed a plat and divided up some town lots. They naturally named the new town Haverly. As reports circulated about the findings on Bull Hill, one hundred miners and several saloon keepers converged on the new town within just four days.

“Jack Haverly is rich again,” announced the Hoosier State Chronicles. The paper went on to illuminate Haverly’s up-and-down financial career, but ended by announcing that Lady Luck had smiled upon him once again. This time, he was said to have made upwards of $200,000 by investing in mines around the Cripple Creek District. Also, “the story has been further told in Chicago that Jack would soon be a millionaire.” The folks of Chicago remembered Haverly well, for at one time he purchased the controlling interest of the Chicago Jockey Club race track for a whopping $150,000.

From all appearances, Haverly was back on top. “Colonel Jack Haverly and associates have a shaft down 20 feet on a well-developed vein in Camp Haverly,” announced the Mining Industry & Review magazine in July of 1896. “A new steam hoist has lately been put in operation and ore is being saved for a shipment, which will be made sometime next week. A double shift of men  will be put to work on Monday.”

One source says that Haverly simply wanted no more than a town named for himself, platting the town, selling lots at high prices and skipping town. If the story was true, it may have been because Haverly was seeking vindication for having been swindled before. Yet no evidence of a swindle at Cripple Creek appears in local papers, although neither does news of the new town. In fact, Jack Haverly’s name is curiously absent from Colorado newspapers until June of 1897 when it was simply noted he was staying at the Sheridan Hotel in Telluride. The next mention of him came in September, when it was reported he was on his way back to New York via Kansas with a plan to get back in showbiz.

Haverly later declared that he had lost $250,000 by investing in the mines of Colorado. But he hadn’t lost faith in the entertainment industry. By 1898 his famed minstrel troupes were on the road again. He stayed in New York for only a short time, bouncing between there and Salt Lake City beginning in 1899. His last endeavor was starting a small museum in Brooklyn, New York in May of 1901. Just a few months later, on September 28, Jack Haverly succumbed to some longtime heart problems. His body was shipped back to Pennsylvania for burial. Newspapers all over the country published Haverly’s obituary, paying tribute to the flamboyant theater man who had entertained the country for decades. One of his good friends, writer Eugene Field, paid tribute to him in the New York Times with a poem titled “Memories of ‘Jack’ Haverly”:

‘Jack’ Haverly, ‘Jack’ Haverly, I wonder where you are.
Are your fortunes cast with Sirius, or ‘neath some kindlier star?
How happens it we never see your wondrous minstrel show,
With its apt alliterations, as we used to, years ago?
All the ebon aggregations that afflict these modem times
Are equally unworthy our prose and of our rhymes.
And I vainly pine and hanker for the joys that used to come
With the trumpets um-ta-ra-ra and the big base drum.
‘Jack’ Haverly, here’s a-hoping that some bright propitious star
Beams kindly down upon you, whereso’er your interests are,
For my heart is warm toward you for the joy you gave me when
I was a little rambling tyke; and I were glad again
To see you marching up the street with your dusky knights of song—
By George, I’d head the gang of boys that whooped your way along;
And I’d stake that all our plaudits and acclaims would over come
The trumpet ump-ta-ra-ra and the big base drum.

Today, theater history buffs fondly remember the man who entertained the world with his minstrel shows and opera companies. In the Cripple Creek District, however, Jack Haverly seems to have had the last laugh.

Goldfield, the Family Town of Colorado’s Cripple Creek District

c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article appear in Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County.

Of the many towns once located within the Cripple Creek District, Goldfield reached third largest in population during its time. While the city is now no more than a bedroom community of nearby Victor, Goldfield is recognized as one of the most active cities in the District during the 1890’s and early 1900’s. The city lies at an altitude of 9903′ feet on the outskirts of Montgomery Gulch, better known now as the Vindicator Valley. To the east, Big Bull Mountain hovers over Goldfield. To the west is the former town of Independence, surrounded by the ghost mines of Teresa, the Golden Cycle, the Portland #1 and #2, the Findley, the Independence, and the Vindicator.

Goldfield’s beginnings date to 1894 when three men, James Doyle, James Burns, and John Harnan struck it rich with the Portland Mine. The Portland’s name was derived from Portland, Maine, where the “two Jimmys,” as they became known, grew up. With the Portland in full swing the partners decided to form their own town. The men established the Gold Knob Mining and Townsite Company on a large pasture where, some twenty years before, a forest fire had left an expansive clearing.

By the time the new town was platted in January of 1895, Burns and Doyle had wisely changed the name of Gold Knob to the more attractive name of Goldfield. Burns was put in charge of the company, laying out the streets and selling lots, starting at $25.00 each. A number of mining claims were also made on the future townsite; because of that, property was sold with surface rights only.

Goldfield’s post office opened on May 5, 1895. Referred to as the “City of Homes”, Goldfield was a family town. Modern, wooden sidewalks graced the streets, and in later years locals said the Sunday school was the longest running institution of its kind in the Cripple Creek District. Indeed, unlike the wild town of Altman just half a mile away, Goldfield’s citizens were far more interested in establishing schools and churches than saloons. Two newspapers, the Goldfield Gazette and the Goldfield Times, set about reporting news of the day.

Not ironically, all of Goldfield’s town officials belonged to the Western Federation of Miners Union. Some of them had already been through a labor war in the district during the previous year. Perhaps the best-known union supporter in Goldfield was the first mayor, John Easter. There is no doubt that Easter was hoping for a civilized, prominent city in Goldfield. Not only did he immediately establish a fire department, but he also hired a city physician at $300 per year. There was even a “pest house” for confining those with contagious diseases (and almost immediately, pest house attendant Albert Pheasants was fired for coming to work drunk.). Everybody, from the dogs of the town to the few saloons, had to have a license and prostitution was strictly outlawed. A town engineer was paid to maintain the roads at $10 per day.

By the end of its first year, Goldfield had a population numbering 2,191 residents. This figure may have included the town of Independence, located across Montgomery Gulch and divided from Goldfield by the tracks of the Midland Terminal Railroad. Two of the main avenues, Independence and Victor, led to those two towns respectively.

By 1896 the population of Goldfield proper was a thousand people. A new mayor, Edward M. Sullivan, was elected as was a new marshal, Allen Combs. As with the pest house attendants, a city ordinance stipulated that the town marshal could be replaced if found too drunk to work. The ordinance was not without merit, since Goldfield had grown to include two assayers, an attorney, two boarding houses, one dentist, three groceries, one hotel, two meat markets, three doctors and three saloons. A reservoir made use of several natural springs in the area, supplying water to ditches under the sidewalks and fire hydrants on every corner in town. The Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad reached Goldfield in November. Passenger service between Goldfield and Victor, a little over a mile away, commenced soon after.

Goldfield continued to progress at a rapid rate through 1897. The F. & C.C. built a new depot, and by 1898 the city had street lights and telephone lines. The latter were provided by the La Bella Power Plant, constructed by railroad tycoon David Moffat. The plant was designed to provide power not just to Goldfield, but also to outlying towns and mines. Street car service was provided at five cents a ride. Those with their own transportation were made to obey the six mile-per-hour speed limit in town. Another city ordinance prohibited loud or profane language in public.

By 1898, Goldfield had reached its status as the third largest city in the Cripple Creek District. Water was supplied to the town of Independence across Montgomery Gulch. But Goldfield appears to be the exception to the typical frontier gold town. Social activities included lots of parades, picnics and concerts versus the usual saloons, shady ladies and shoot outs. In 1899, possibly in an effort to compete for the county seat of newly formed Teller County, Goldfield was officially incorporated. However, the loss of the county seat to Cripple Creek was not surprising.

By 1900, Goldfield’s population had risen to 3500. The Cripple Creek District Directory described Goldfield as a “lively little city,” which it was. Homes ranged from simple miner’s cabins to gaudy Victorian architecture, and were well kept with nice lawns. Each resident was responsible for keeping the sidewalk in front of their home clean of debris and snow. A local junk dealer provided trash service. Seven boardinghouses, a variety of stores, nine groceries, five doctors, nine restaurants and nine saloons served residents. Clark’s Opera House provided nightly entertainment. There were also several societies, including a Masonic lodge and the Red Men. Three railroads: the Florence & Cripple Creek, the Midland Terminal and the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District, afforded transportation. Twenty thousand tons of gold ore were being transported from Goldfield annually. In fact, it was estimated that three fourths of the ore shipped from the District went through Goldfield. With all these amenities, it could be said Goldfield made an exemplary city, save for one tiny incident. A Miss Luella Vance of Goldfield served papers on mining magnate Sam Strong at the close of his wedding to another woman. Luella’s claim was one of many imposed on Strong, a philandering womanizer and a drunk besides. Miss Vance received $50,000 to aid in the mending of her broken heart.

From all appearances, Goldfield retained its union status as a second labor strike loomed on the horizon in 1903. Interestingly, there does not appear to have been much strike activity within city limits. In fact, it would appear that rather than witness messy fisticuffs and battles within its refined city limits, Goldfield chose to handle things outside of town instead. When the National Guard was called to Battle Mountain in the midst of the strike, they quartered just above Victor. Yet a photograph of the settlement is identified as “Camp Goldfield.” Furthermore a “bull pen” was erected to imprison striking miners nearby, safely outside city limits. Even so, a number of citizens left town for safer pastures. One man named Jack Ried, however, worked as the town marshal after being shot during labor war scuffle in Victor. The injury resulted in the amputation of Ried’s leg. In Goldfield, he was fondly referred to as “Peggy.”

By the end of the strike in 1904, about half the homes of Goldfield were empty, just like they were at Altman and Independence. Of the three cities, however, Goldfield alone elected to start fresh. Accordingly, non-union citizens impeached the union city officials. Elected in their place were officers who played neutral parts in mining activities. By 1905, Goldfield was holding steady with a population of 3000. There were still three churches, four social halls and seven lodges, although a number of other businesses had fallen to the wayside. The last of the city’s many newspapers, the Goldfield Crescent, closed down its press in 1909.

As the mining boom of the 1890’s subsided, Goldfield’s population was dropping steadily by 1911. The business district dwindled down to one assayer, one barber, one dairy, four stores, four groceries, two meat markets, one doctor and two saloons. The downsizing was accented by the death of John Easter in 1914. Nearly every citizen of Goldfield accompanied the first mayor’s body to his burial at Sunnyside Cemetery.

Somehow, Goldfield stayed busy during the waning years of the gold boom. By 1915 the population was holding steady at 1,200, and new businesses in town included three auto garages – the start of a whole new era. Two churches and three lodges were still functioning, and little else changed save for the abolishment of the saloons with statewide prohibition in 1917.

With time, however, the whole district slumped as the mines slowly became too expensive to operate. The wooden sidewalks in Goldfield slowly disappeared. As they rotted or fell away, a popular pastime became searching the ditches underneath for long lost money or other items. It is said even a few gold coins surfaced on occasion. But Goldfield was slowly being forgotten. The post office officially closed in 1932, and book chronicling the infamous labor wars neglected to even mention Goldfield. Even the Cripple Creek Times Record stopped publishing Goldfield news after 1939.

By 1954, only 60 people still called Goldfield home. One of them was miner Rufus Porter, aka The Hard Rock Poet. Porter first came to the district in 1917. Now, he was writing a column for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, penning poems about the old days in the Cripple Creek District, and publishing his own set of history booklets. Among the characters in Porter’s Goldfield memoirs was Jack Condon, who once fought Jack Dempsey in Victor. It also was according to Porter that long after Goldfield ceased electing mayors, one Billy Butler became an honorary mayor for a number of years. Butler was also a former miner, and described as having a good heart and being respected by all who knew him. Upon retiring, Butler purchased a mimeograph machine and published his own newsletter.

Thirty-five people, including Porter, still lived in Goldfield during 1969. At that time Goldfield’s businesses had all closed, and it was officially considered a ghost town. Yet the city hall still contained its huge safe with “City of Goldfield” etched in gold leaf on its door. A few years later, however, the City Hall had been relieved of its safe, as well as valuable documents and ledgers, which began appearing for sale on various websites. In the meantime, some of the remaining homes and buildings began swaying with time. Some fell with an unheard sigh into the weeds around them. Still others retained much of their original flavor, lovingly looked after by the residents within.

Today, Goldfield’s city hall and fire station still stand. In the last forty years alone, citizens have garnered support for the preservation of Goldfield in the way of the Goldfield Restoration Association, along with assistance from the Cripple Creek District Museum and the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum. Thanks to their efforts, Goldfield remains as a charming bedroom community, its history intact.

Pictured: The author at Goldfield City Hall, circa 1985

Gillett, Colorado: A Gambling Man’s Town

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article are excerpted from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County

Before it was even a town, Gillett – located high in the mountains on the backside of Pikes Peak near the famous Cripple Creek District – was known by many names. Shortly after the town of Beaver Park was platted along today’s Highway 81 in 1892, a nearby suburb became known as West Beaver Park. Later, the name was changed to Cripple City. As the Midland Terminal Railroad built tracks from Divide, the name was changed again to Gillett.

The new city was renamed for railroad man W.K. Gillett, who, along with Henry Collbran, Irving Howbert and Harlan Lillibridge, were making big plans. The partners created the Midland Terminal Railroad, a spur of the Colorado Midland Railroad which would turn at Divide and head toward the Cripple Creek District (Gillett wanted to name the new railroad the “Cripple Creek and Gold Gulch Railroad,” but when the directors of the Colorado Midland objected to such a whimsical name, the moniker was changed to the Midland Terminal). The new company was officially formed in October 1893.

Early buildings at Gillett included log cabins but also hewn wood structures. The new town attracted such influential men as Albert E. Carlton, who had designs on a new freight company in Cripple Creek, as well as Charles Tutt and Spencer Penrose, two longtime friends from Colorado Springs who had already made much money in the copper mines of Utah. Gillett was the perfect place for the two young wealthy bachelors to build an entertainment mecca. Accordingly, Tutt and Penrose built an exclusive horse track and casino and called it “Sportsman’s Park.”

Gillett was platted on January 19, 1894. Of the budding city, “a site with more picturesque surroundings could not have been chosen,” crowed the 1894 Cripple Creek District Directory. Located in a vast meadow with stunning views all around, Gillett would be the first town reached by the Midland Terminal on its way into the Cripple Creek District. Plans were underway to build a $150,000 “railway hotel station,” meant to be a “resort hotel adapted for the comfort and enjoyment of leisure seekers and tourists, and for the residents of the district.” The main drag through Gillett was named Parker Street after First National Bank president J.M. Parker. The avenue was soon lined with tidy, false-fronted buildings and aspen trees which had been planted for accent. In anticipation of the railroad, a nice wood depot and telegraph office also were built.

The Midland Terminal reached Gillett as planned, chugging gloriously into town on Independence Day in 1894. A month later, the post office opened, on August 29. Since the mountains between Gillett and Cripple Creek were too steep on which to build a railroad, a stage road led to the latter town instead as the Midland Terminal continued building through Beaver Park and toward the city of Victor. On September 11, Pullman sleeper service began on the rail lines between Denver and Cripple Creek. Now, sleeper passengers could disembark at Gillett depot and catch a stage into Cripple Creek, or stay the night in town. Other travelers also stayed the night in Gillett before traveling on, bringing extra commerce to town.

Gillett did suffer minor social issues. Tutt and Penrose soon realized that their wealthy friends were quite content patronizing the elite Broadmoor Casino (the precursor to the fabulous Broadmoor Hotel) in Colorado Springs, rather than making the trek all the way to Gillett. Thus, the racetrack at Sportsman’s Park never opened for more than two days a week and eventually scaled down to just a few Saturdays in the summer. The newly-built Monte Carlo Casino suffered the same fate and was eventually converted to a school for the children of the town. Even budding madam Pearl DeVere initially purchased property in Gillett, but soon moved to Cripple Creek, where she became the city’s most famous harlot. Even so, a city jail was built at Gillett to imprison any lawbreakers who happened along. Outside of town, the newly erected Beaver Park Stamp Mill processed ore from the Lincoln Mine (alternately known as the Lincoln & Gibbons), as well as the King of Diamonds. There was also the Gillett Reduction Works. Additional employment could be found at the shops for the Midland Terminal.

In August 1895, the only “legal” bullfight in the United States took place at Gillett. The event was the brainchild of Joe Wolfe, owner of Cripple Creek’s prestigious Palace Hotel and described as a “sometime confidence man.” Wolfe partnered with Wild West performer and rodeo cowboy “Arizona Charlie” Meadows to form the “Joe Wolfe Grand National Spanish Bull Fight Company.” As a means to secure the support of the town council, Wolfe appointed them as the board of directors of his company. But it was Charlie Meadows who was Wolfe’s ace in the hole.

The six-foot-six tall, long-haired, mustachioed man from Arizona surely made a presence to the citizens of Gillett. Meadows’s career in rodeo began at Payson, Arizona in 1884. In 1888, he hosted a “cowboy contest” in Prescott where he earned a reputation as a “crack shot” and the “fastest man with a rope in the business.” A few months later, he was a winning participant in Prescott’s first rodeo.

Meadows used his skills and accompanying flair for finesse to eventually turn from rodeo cowboy to showman. For seven years, he had toured several countries with a Wild West show, worked with Buffalo Bill’s traveling troupe, and eventually formed his own show. He was well known throughout the West by the time he hooked up with Joe Wolfe. Together, the pair borrowed $5,000 to build a five-thousand-seat amphitheater at Gillett, print tickets and posters, and secure real matadors and bulls from Mexico for the event. Wolfe’s contribution to the town included the purchase of nine and a half blocks of real estate.

Almost immediately, people began voicing their opposition to the upcoming event. The Colorado Springs Gazette in particular published several editorials. “If it be illegal to import bulls for fighting at the Atlanta Exposition, surely it must be illegal to import them across the border for fighting at the Gillett Exposition,” argued one article. “Here is a chance for Francis Hill of the Humane Society to write to the Secretary of the Treasury, informing him that it is proposed to import bulls for the same purpose of fighting and ‘keep them out of El Paso County.’”

The authorities did ultimately stop the bulls and their keepers at the Texas border. But the matadors still came, and Wolfe and Meadows managed to wrangle some local bulls who were anything but the fighting variety. Things took an equally nasty turn when Wolfe invited renowned bunco artist Soapy Smith to set up his games of chance outside the entrance to the event. Soapy took so much money from his victims that some of them could not afford the $5 ticket to get in. Those who did gain admittance on the first day were shocked as the bulls were led to a cruel death. Fewer than three hundred spectators attended on the second day. On the third day, Wolfe and Meadows folded the show and were promptly arrested for animal cruelty. In all, the total proceeds were a mere $2,600.

Gillett citizens quickly overcame their embarrassment over the infamous Gillett bullfights. By late 1895, two daily trains were still bringing plenty of passengers to town, and citizens had their choice of four newspapers to read on the trip. As of 1896, 1,500 residents had access to numerous businesses, including three doctors and an amazing nine saloons. Father Volpe’s Catholic Church and a Congregational Church were built in 1897. By 1899 the Golden Crescent Water and Light Company, owned by the Woods brothers in Victor, was servicing Gillett.

Unfortunately, Gillett proved to be too far from the mines of the Cripple Creek District, and much of the town was eventually vacated. Even with eight trains passing through daily, the population in 1900 was only a little over five hundred people, including those living at nearby Monte Carlo Lakes. At least there were still a few bars, and the school still supported a handful of students with Miss Mary A. Wilson as principal. The Co-Operative Brick Company on the outskirts of town was supplying bricks for surrounding businesses, homes, and mines. Eventually, however, both the Lincoln and King of Diamonds mines played out, and the Beaver Park Stamp Mill became useless.

The 1902 district directory commented that Gillett’s “remoteness from the working mines has told against it, and at the present time its population is at a very low ebb.” A hopeful endnote stated, “It is not at all improbable that something may occur at any time which will ‘boom’ the town and make it one of the largest in the District.” But the numbers didn’t lie; the directory reported Gillett’s population at a mere three hundred people.

Gillett’s last newspaper, The Forum edited by Mayor James Parfet, closed in 1905. Now only 250 people remained in town, and neither church had a minister. The post office, run by Charles Adams for many years, closed briefly in 1908 but reopened six months later. The reprieve was brief, for the 1910 census counted only forty-four people living in town.

In 1911, old Gillett entered a new era as a ranching community when the Vetter family purchased much of the land there, and the post office closed a final time in 1913. Gillett’s once grand buildings sank into the ground, were torn down, or burned. Rufus Porter, the miner-turned-writer of the District town of Goldfield, remembered a man named Greasy Miller who lived at Gillett during its waning years. Greasy “burned down a score of houses by raking the ashes from the stove onto the floor. When the shack caught fire he’d simply move to another one.”

In time, some families moved their loved ones’ graves from the cemetery to other local graveyards. The pews and the pulpit from Father Volpe’s Catholic Church were moved to St. Peter’s Church in Cripple Creek. The old church was used as a hay barn until it burned in 1949, and in 1965 a flood from a dam break above town washed away Gillett’s remaining buildings. Today, Gillett is known as Gillett Flats. The decaying ruins of the church, which sit on private land, can be spotted from the highway.

An Ode to Elkton, Colorado

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

I first dared to trespass over the chain across the road at Elkton many years ago. Creeping up the hillside, I hoped no passing car would see me or my bright red Chevy Nova, parked off the highway between Cripple Creek and Victor. Above me lay a handful of buildings in various states of decay. The empty cabins beckoned me with a whisper, asking me to remember the lives within their cozy depths. Elkton was inviting me in. With a last look around, I cautiously ducked into the first skeletal cabin I reached. Walking over the threshold was like entering a different world.

And so it went, for over a glorious decade. When other ghost towns seemed so far away, when imposing fences and signs created impassable barriers, Elkton was there for me.  Sometimes alone, and sometimes with others, I enjoyed the old town as often as I could. No matter the season or time of day, the thought of Elkton inspired me to grab my coat, umbrella or lantern and explore to my heart’s content. As I came to know the town, I learned to belong there. As I came to know Elkton’s history, I yearned to have seen its lively past.

It was much later that I learned about William Shemwell, an amateur prospector and former blacksmith, who partnered with two other men to register what became the Elkton Mining and Milling Company – so named because Shemwell spotted some elk antlers near his dig. Next, Shemwell talked Colorado Springs grocers George and Sam Bernard, into grubstaking him in exchange for his $36.50 worth of groceries. Later, the Bernards bought Shemwell and partners out, hired the revered Ed De La Vergne to run the mine, and made millions. Long before that happened, however, the town of Elkton grew up near the mine to house local miners and their families.

Elkton’s post office opened in 1895, when the town was very fortunate to be served by all three railroads in the Cripple Creek District: the Florence & Cripple Creek, the Midland Terminal and later, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railway. The Low Line Interurban System also constructed a bridge over the Midland Terminal tracks. A station house and telegraph office were built below the Elkton Mine. In 1896, the railroad built a quarter mile siding on the outskirts of town, just to pick up the ore.

Elkton’s population in 1896 was about 800. There was a barber, a hay and feed store, a laundry, one boardinghouse, a saloon, a cobbler, two hotels, two grocers, and a depot. Meanwhile, tiny houses sprouted all around the business district, and by 1898

Elkton looked about as neighborly as you could get. Neat rows of roads were built along the hillside, with modest miners cabins lined up beside one another. In time, the town would also absorb the nearby communities of Arequa, Beacon Hill and Eclipse.

As of 1900, there were nearly three dozen business houses, from Jennie Allen the laundress to Sam Adelman the shoemaker, from Frank Bernard the assayer to Naufett and Kelly’s saloon. Several merchants felt it was important to put Elkton’s name in front of their business name; the city directory showed shops like the book and stationary store, grocery stores, a drugstore and pharmacy, and even a laundry pointing out how proud the owners were to be a part of the town’s business district. There was also a school and at least five rooming houses to house bachelor miners and the occasional visitor.

Over the next three years, Elkton grew to its peak population of 3,000 people in 1905. Yet the town retained its sense of community, even during the tumultuous labor strikes during 1903 and 1904. Here, neighbors talked freely about the local happenings, traded recipes and tall tales, gossiped about each other, speculated about how well the Elkton Mine was doing, and chatted amiably with each other over the back fence or while walking past the neat rows of little houses. Even when Elkton began shrinking as mining in the Cripple Creek District waned, those die-hards who remained in town went on about their daily business, chins up.

Like some of the other 25-or-so towns and cities in the District, Elkton received a brief reprieve in 1914 when mining engineer Dick Roelofs discovered a gigantic vug in the Cresson Mine about a mile above town. With the discovery, miners from all over the district were summoned to work the Cresson Vug. Roelofs built an overhead tram from the Cresson which extended down through Elkton and ended at Eclipse. Two years after that, the Elkton Mine topped out at $16,200,000 in gold production.

The lifeline of the town got smaller and smaller. By 1919 only a few businesses were left. The school closed down around 1920, and the post office closed six years later. That is when Elkton began its life as a tiny shadow of its former self. Some homes were abandoned, while others remained occupied off and on. Those who lived there treasured Elkton as an authentic, semi-ghost town from the long ago past whose charm included weathering buildings which somehow remained steadfast in the face of harsh, windy winters and pouring summer rains. As late as 1982, a few homes were still occupied. By the time I discovered the town, however, the buildings were empty and only some remnants of those who lived there remained.

During those times I visited, I sometimes used history books as a guide. It was not hard back then to stand in the streets and compare old images of Elkton to the contemporary scene. The history left behind challenged my imagination to picture how Elkton must have been. Wandering from building to building, I saw plenty of signs of a life long before mine. One house was strewn with vintage lingerie and a dressing table whose drawers still contained stationary, cold cream and bobby pins. Another home offered shelves of spices, canned goods and shoe polish. Yet another still had pictures hanging on the walls. In the last twenty years, some woman had left her checkbook on a closet shelf. Later, I saw a mining certificate bearing her name, up for sale at a shop in Cripple Creek. A wonderful old pair of catty sunglasses rested on the sink at that house, as if someone had just come in with groceries and laid them down.

Even the walls of some houses told a story, since many of them were covered with old newspapers for added insulation. Sometimes there was no newspaper, only loose strips of wallpaper reaching out like long wispy fingers on the breeze.  I looked under porches and poked around root cellars. My imagination furnished the empty front parlors and pondered over kitchens. In the house with the spices, a table was still set with a tablecloth and centerpiece.

Often I wished for the means to restore the old piano still reposing dismally inside what was formerly a prim and comfortable home. It was a cheap upright, painted white by some well-meaning housewife and left behind when the housewife departed. In its later life, the piano housed bird nests and rodent dens. Few of its ivory keys gave forth an audible note. My favorite memory about the house with the piano is the day a friend and I were caught in a rainstorm there.

Waiting out the storm gave us time to look closely at the scattered remnants of someone’s past. Magazines and other paper lazed in piles around the house. Pieces of wedding paper and bows also lay about, as if the bride in all her glee had run through the house opening her gifts in a frenzy and strewing paper as she went. Mixed with the bows were letters telling of the marriage—and of an accident following the ceremony which seriously injured the groom. What became of the couple is anyone’s guess, and I suppose I’d rather keep it that way. For imagination’s sake.

Outside of the houses were more pieces of history – old bottles, bits of broken china, chunks of old cookstoves, pieces of a chair. Old clotheslines where clothes once hung, and flower gardens once lovingly tended. Wind, people, and perhaps even animals had scattered other items about. It was not unusual to find a saucepan in the middle of the road, or someone’s shoe, or a discarded license plate. A garage with one door hanging precariously on one hinge and swinging in the breeze revealed an old armoire that was chock full of old magazines. I tell you, visiting Elkton was one of my very favorite things to do. Being there somehow made me feel at home, and I slowly but surely fell in love with that old ghost town.

Then came 1994.

Talk had long been coming about the Cripple Creek & Victor Mine wanting to take out Elkton. The company got their wish, and Elkton, along with the entire mountain upon which it perched, was bulldozed in the frantic search for more gold. Prior to the destruction an archaeological dig was conducted at the town, but any remaining artifacts were sent to an out-of-state university and local museums received nothing. It made me glad that I had picked and saved several items from Elkton over the years. Most of them made their way to the Cripple Creek District Museum, so others could enjoy them and Elkton’s history. But I saved the catty sunglasses for myself.

Still, the destruction of Elkton made me sad. I remembered the bird nests I spotted on porches. During the years that Elkton was left to the elements, plenty of other wildlife made the town their home as well. Then there was the matter of the way the faded yellow paint under the eave of one house shone as the sun was setting on it. And the broken china doll head I forgot to pick up. And the story of the old couple who lived there in the 50’s and proclaimed themselves Mr. and Mrs. Mayor of Elkton. And the memories of people who managed to survive quite nicely in primitive cabins with few modern amenities. All of that was destroyed when Elkton fell to the bulldozer.

There’s a story about a little boy walking down the beach among hundred of starfish that have washed up. The child begins picking them up, one by one, and tossing them back into the ocean. A man sees this and asks the boy, “What are you doing? You can’t save them all, you know.” The boy picks another starfish up, tosses it into the water, and replies, “Well, I just saved that one.” Elkton is my lost starfish, the one I couldn’t save. I know I’m not the only one to feel this way. That is why groups of us historians advocate, sometimes fiercely, to save history before it’s gone. So people will remember how important these places were, and how they got us to where we are now.

You can read more about the ghost towns of the Cripple Creek District and Teller County in Jan’s book, Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County.

Image c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

A Christmas Past: The Wild West Part II

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Although the New York Tribune would comment on how charitable American cities were during “Christmastide,” in the late 1800’s, things in the west were obviously far more bleak. Cyrus Townsend Brady remembered having Christmas dinner during the 1880’s with a poor family who had no presents. Afterwards, Brady went to the local church and filled a basket with items from his own sewing kit, plus his penknife and a bit of candy for the two children at the house. Brady’s gifts aside, Christmas charity was largely relegated to the public in the east. One New York department store, Best & Company, placed an ad reminding Christmas shoppers to choose from their “marked-down goods” for gifts for the poor. That differed from the west, where in 1895 the San Francisco Call reported that local schoolchildren were asked to bring one potato and one stick of wood for Christmas baskets for the poor. The sympathetic kids brought not only these items, but also canned goods and clothing in large quantities.

Survey your friends as to whether they open their presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, and you’re likely to get an even mix of answers for each. But in the olden days, Christmas Eve was the time to give and receive gifts. One 1880 account told of a child in Nebraska who wrote of visiting a Christmas tree the night before Christmas, and receiving a red calico dress, and “strings of candy and raisins” for she and her sister. Other festivities included lighting bonfires. In New Mexico, the bonfires were eventually replaced by paper lanterns or sacks holding candles called luminarias, a tradition that is still carried on today.

Many Christmas Eve fires centered around the Yule log which was traditionally large enough to burn through the night to bring luck to the family. As the log warmed the house, loved ones would gather around the fireplace or the Christmas tree to sing carols. And then, as now in certain households, someone might read “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known today as “The Night Before Christmas,” the epic Christmas Eve poem was penned back in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore for his own children.

A typical Christmas in the west also included singing around the Christmas tree or fireplace. The tradition extended to various military forts around the country, where soldiers sang carols that, at the time, were relatively new to America. “Silent Night,” for instance, was written as recently as 1818. Even newer were “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” all published during the 1840’s. More songs would come during the wild west years beginning in the 1860’s, including “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “What Child is This?”

Interestingly enough, the tradition of caroling was still rather young during the wild west era. Perhaps many houses were too far away from each other for groups to traipse along to each one. But by 1878, Oliver Ditson & Company of Boston was advertising their “Holiday Music Books” in western newspapers like The Canton Advocate in South Dakota, as well as other western periodicals. At Eureka, Nevada in 1879, the Society of the Methodist Church threw an “English Tea” which included Christmas carols. Indeed, by the mid-1800’s, Christmas carols had become a staple of the holiday all across America. And by the turn of 1900, folks lucky enough to have a phonograph could bring recordings of Christmas carols into their homes.

In the west, pioneers clearly celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways. But the one thing nearly everyone had in common was attending church on Christmas. As early as 1865, a Christmas midnight mass was held by Father Joseph Giorda in the wild boomtown of Virginia City, Montana. Families typically went to church on Christmas morning before going home for their Christmas meal, and visiting with their friends and folks in the neighborhood. Diehard church goers also spent time at church before the holiday, attending a Christmas pageant or some other program.

But churches offered more than religious services at Christmas. They also provided comfort, empathy, sympathy and help for those longing for their old homes or loved ones, and also those less fortunate. At the raucous mining town of Sonora, California in 1871, the Union Democrat announced that the St. James’ Episcopal Church’s Christmas tree could be used for “a means of conveying gifts” to the poor. Flagstaff, Arizona’s Christmas Eve issue of the Coconino Sun in 1898 reported that the Presbyterian Church would consist not only of entertainment but also “the usual treat for the little folks” and “the giving of gifts by the Sunday school and its friends.” In larger cities like Seattle, Washington, the Post-Intelligencer of 1899 devoted an entire page to where one could attend Christmas services and which churches were doing what.

Unlike most Christmas dinners of today, ham or turkey wasn’t the only meat at the Christmas tables in the west; sometimes there was also venison, or even grizzly bear steak! California pioneer Catherine Haun recalled paying $2.50 for grizzly steak for her Christmas dinner. Things were a bit fancier for William Kelly, whose mining camp provided bear meat, venison and bacon, but also apple pies, “fancy breads,” and plum pudding. When it came to Christmas dinner, folks gathered what they had on hand, too. In 1884 Mrs. George Wolffarth joined others in a “watermelon feast” in Texas, while Evelyn Hertslet of California and her party dined on meringues, mince pies, plum pudding, “tipsy cake” and “Victoria sandwiches.”

In preparation for the holidays, just about everyone traditionally stored away preserved fruits and dried vegetables throughout the year to be brought out at Christmas. The ladies of the house sometimes baked for weeks beforehand to have enough on the table, since guests were apt to pop in at any time. One recommended menu from the Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping of 1880 included clam soup, baked fish, turkey, quail and chicken, not to mention scads of fresh and canned vegetables, baked goods and plenty of desserts from peach pies to chocolate drops and ice cream. Woe to those who didn’t plan ahead: one account tells of one family in the wilderness being forced to dine on “boiled mule and snow.”

Those with enough money to eat out were lucky to find a restaurant serving Christmas dinner, let alone a palatable menu. In 1855, California’s Shasta Courier listed the Christmas menu at St. Charles’ restaurant as consisting of mostly homemade goods like mock turtle soup and oysters, a variety of meats including boiled mutton, tongue, stuffed pig and oyster pie, vegetables and simple cobblers and pies. By 1886 in Carson City, Nevada, however, eating out at Christmas was all the rage. The Morning Appeal reported that three different restaurants “will spread extra,” with a menu to make one’s eyes pop out, and each place vying for the best menu in town.

The elite La Veta Hotel in the gold country of Gunnison, Colorado, also had one of the best Christmas menus in the west during the 1889. The menu offered several wines, salads, nine meat dishes ranging from rabbit and trout to duck and antelope, a variety of vegetable and fruit dishes, and a slew of desserts. Simpler fare was served at Cafe Francis in El Paso, Texas in 1898. The El Paso Daily Herald printed the menu which included green turtle consomme, a choice of antelope, calf tongue, fricassee of brain, rock cod, suckling pig or turkey; relishes, a simple salad with mayonnaise dressing, standard vegetables and choice of desserts. Alas, newspapers are scant as to what proprietors of these places charged for the holiday meal.

Then as now, Christmas also was time to make merry with whiskey and other libations. Historians today still talk about Richens “Uncle Dick” Wootton, the trapper, scout, mountain man, toll road proprietor and all-around good guy showed up in young Denver at Christmas in 1858. Wootton brought his famous “Taos Lightening” with him, a specially-made whiskey that was all the rage in New Mexico and Colorado and is still heralded as the earliest brand of whiskey in America. Wootton handed out tin cups, and proceeded to get the whole camp drunk. One observer would remember that “the whole camp got hilarious.” Later during the Civil War, one group of Union solders drank a “full 15 gallons of bad whiskey all by themselves” one Christmas.

Indeed, saloons were big business during the holiday. In 1877, one Big Jim Donigan got into a Christmas scrap in a Prescott, Arizona tavern. And in Ruby Hill, Nevada, according to a Eureka Daily Sentinel issue in 1879, the Christmas party went on for a full three nights with parties, dances and crowds drinking cups of Christmas cheer in the saloons. Then there was James “Silver” Roberts, who threw some insults around in a Cripple Creek tavern on Christmas night in 1901. As he got up to leave, Roberts was whacked on the head with a gun by the barkeep. The unfortunate man fell, hit his head on the woodstove, and and suffered a third head injury as he hit floor. As he lay there dying, other bar patrons urged him to the bar for a drink for an hour before the authorities were called.

After the turn of 1900, musical revues and boxing matches  became quite popular as well. The 1909 Grand Valley News in Colorado was just one of many newspapers reporting on a boxing match, between Young McFarlan and Gig Cree, which was scheduled to take place Christmas night. In fact, a Christmas night boxing match in Victor, Colorado sent famed boxer Jack Dempsey on his road to fame.

One thing for sure had changed very little since the days of Christmas past in the west: eggnog. Believed to have originated in a London tavern around 1775, Eggnog made its debut in America during the late 18th century. The recipe, consisting mostly of eggs, sugar and rum, has changed very little. Those who partake can verify that the beverage certainly warms the toes, if not the heart, and the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of vanilla make it all the more delightful. So drink up, give a toast to the wild west, and enjoy your holiday season in style.

A Christmas Past: The Wild West Part I

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Gazing at a classic Currier and Ives Christmas card today, it is easy to fall in love with the scenes depicting old-time wagons full of people bundled up against the cold and dashing through the snows of yesteryear. We love the romance of yuletide days of long ago, when families gathered around warm fireplaces, children marveled at their full stockings hanging from the mantle, and warmly dressed folks merrily brought in the Christmas tree or arms full of presents. But while we may love celebrating our yuletide holidays with the old-fashioned trimmings complimented by scented candles from Walmart that are meant to recall a day long ago, Christmas in the raw, untamed West was quite different from what we imagine it to have been.

It is true that during the 1800s, the holidays were celebrated in style in eastern, more civilized, cities. But the west was still quite young back then. There were no large malls, stores or internet shops to call upon for our Christmas shopping. Planes did not yet exist, and only the lucky could find or afford railroad passage to visit relatives. In the high plains and even higher mountains, cowboys and miners might find themselves stranded in storms with no company. In the barren west where few large towns flourished, cruelly cold conditions in the high country could include blowing snow and blizzards, making it difficult for families to gather, let alone survive, in a bleak and barren land. As for the holiday itself, a good old fashioned Christmas in the west was often meager with simple presents, simple fare, and not a lot to celebrate. There was, however, always hope for prosperity in the new year.

It is interesting to look at how our Christmas celebrations evolved as a country. Surprisingly, historians have found that Christmas in America was not really celebrated until the mid-1840s. One of the earliest references to the holiday was recorded in 1846, when Virginia Reed of the ill-fated Donner Party recalled that her mother selflessly saved “a few dried apples, some beans, a bit of tripe, and a small piece of bacon” for Christmas dinner, telling her children “eat slowly for this one day you can have all you wish.” Catherine Haun, one of thousands of new pioneers who who resided in a tent community on California’s Sacramento River in 1849, remembered keeping Christmas. “I do not remember ever having had happier holiday times,” she wrote. Likewise another pioneer, William Kelly—formerly of Britain—spent the holiday at a different California mining camp, where he was delighted at having seconds of plum pudding.

While settlements along the Sacramento and other places in early California were doing quite well, other areas remained sparse and lacking in any real settlement. The southern Colorado plains were still quite unsettled in 1854, when Fort Pueblo was attacked on Christmas Day by angry Utes after failed negotiations and the accidental spread of smallpox from Governor David Meriwether’s men. In the fray, every man at the fort was killed. The only woman, Chepita Martin, and two children, Felix and Juan Isidro, were taken captive. In time, thankfully, Pueblo and Colorado would eventually evolve with the rest of the west.

As Christmas traditions began catching up with the far away west, pioneers learned to simply make do with what they had to celebrate the holiday. They were inspired by the traditions brought by others from their native countries. The traditional song “Deck the Halls,” for instance, was first translated in America from a sixteenth century Welsh song in 1862. The popularity of the tune inspired people to decorate their homes with “boughs of holly” and other native fauna that included berry branches, evergreens, nuts and pinecones. And the tradition of placing mistletoe where couples could share kisses underneath its leaves is actually an ancient Greek tradition. Especially at the end of the Civil War, people were looking more than ever for cohesion in a difficult time. Celebrating Christmas meant the reintroduction of the comforting, celebratory traditions that immigrants to America brought with them from their home countries.

Christmas traditions became more and more important to pioneers as a sign of hopeful prosperity, warmth, love, and yes, status. Much like certain households today, Victorians in general went largely overboard when decorating. In many instances, not a fireplace mantel, banister, table, sideboard or doorway escaped garlands of evergreens peppered with cheerful red berries and jaunty homemade bows. Traditionally, making sure the decorations were up was the responsibility of the lady of the house; one 1896 magazine decreed that women who failed to go all out on the decorations was “a disgrace to her family.” Outside, the Christmas cheer spread with the introduction of the Yule Log, a Nordic tradition that entailed the men hiding a large, identifiable log in the woods, embarking on the chilly business of finding it with the rest of the family, and burning it (traditionally, a piece of the log was saved to being the following year’s Yule Log hunt).

After Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870, folks in the west began really getting in the spirit of the season. Larger cities were forming, and with them came the kind of civilization many people yearned for. Now, folks could subscribe to St. Nicholas magazine, a highly popular periodical that was the brainchild of Roswell Smith in 1873. And slowly but surely, certain large chain stores like Sears & Roebuck and a smattering of others began publishing catalogs from which settlers in the west could order gifts, if they could afford them. It would be about a decade, according to most historians, before the tradition of bringing in and decorating a Christmas tree came along (on Christmas Eve, not the day after Thanksgiving). One of the reasons the tree made such a late debut was, not every household could spare an extra tree from their meager firewood stack, nor room in which to put it in their small cabins and homes.

Notable is that the Christmas tree decorations we know today were largely absent in the wild west. Rather, most decorations were of the homemade variety, fashioned out of colorful ribbon and yarn. Dried fruit, popcorn, homemade candy, cookies and nuts sufficed to make strings of garland, and it could be consumed after the holiday – waste not, want not. A star for the top might be fashioned from a piece of tin. Only those with money could afford the manufactured glass baubles that are highly collectible today. The most dangerous decoration of all? Christmas tree candles, which could easily light the tree on fire. San Francisco’s Morning Call reported on the death of one “Grandmother Fitzsimmons” in 1891, whose carefully decorated tree became a “sheet of flame” when one of the candles fell. Granny tried to save some of the trinkets, accidentally setting herself on fire.

In the west, a lot of thought went into giving practical, thoughtful and almost always handmade gifts by using what was on hand. Most pioneers were not wealthy by any means, meaning that they spent much of their time working to produce and make their own food, clothing, bedding, furniture, tools and other necessary items to survive. California pioneer Elizabeth Gunn wrote of filling the family stockings (literally stockings that were normally worn) with such practical items as “wafers, pens, toothbrushes, potatoes, and gingerbread, and a little medicine.” Other gifts included cake, candies, nuts, raisins and even “a few pieces of gold and a little money.” Lacking books to give, Gunn and her husband wrote their children letters to put in their stockings as well.

Other homemade gifts could include clothing, dolls made from cornhusks, embroidered handkerchiefs, hand-carved wooden toys, pillows and sachets. Lucky indeed was any family wealthy enough to order an item from a real catalogue, which had to be sent for many months before it was actually delivered. Remember that episode of “Little House on the Prairie” where little Laura Ingalls and her family are secretly shopping for each other for Christmas? And at the forefront is a new stove for her mother?? Yeah, that didn’t happen. In reality, the real Laura Ingalls Wilder’s gifts on one Christmas consisted merely of “a shiny new tin cup, a peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a brand new penny.”

Another misnomer about Christmas in the west is how families were able to gather each holiday season. That certainly was not always the case. In the case of Army wife Frances Roe, the lady tried her best to be merry with the other military wives around her who “sent pretty little gifts to me.” But Frances admitted she was homesick, and said she was sad that a Christmas box from her home, wherever that was, did not make it to her in time for the holiday. Men fared worse than women like Frances. In the Rocky Mountains during the 1840’s, for instance, the hills were alive with men from all walks of life. Married or single, very few of these hardy gentlemen had their family with them, unless their wives were sturdy Natives who knew how to live in the wilderness.

Mountain men, government explorers and trappers were just some of the men wandering around the west. The lucky managed to make it to a central meeting place for a small Christmas gathering. Natives, some of whom attended as well, called it “The Big Eating.” Writer and adventurer Bret Harte once old of a night of Christmas merriment among some cowboys holed up together in a bunkhouse. Will Ferril of Denver, Colorado, remembered spending the holiday during 1888 with “two or three” miners up in the high country. One cowpuncher was lucky enough to share a box of presents with his coworker. The gifts in that case were from the “camp tender” and included such luxuries as Arctic sleeping bags, candy, fruitcake, tobacco, wool socks, even books. To these men, finding a kindred spirit to spend Christmas with was essential to keeping their spirits up.

Those lucky enough to make it to a town in time for a holiday might find another kind of kindred spirit in the form of a shady lady. Most women of the night tended to celebrate Christmas day, and night, with men who needed their company. And many madams, including Lil Douglas of Bisbee, Arizona, Madam Millie of Silver City, New Mexico, and Rachel Urban of Park City, Utah (just to name a few) were fondly remembered for their annual Christmas parties for their gentlemen friends. Shortly before her death in 1909, Colorado madam Blanche Burton purchased a ton of coal for needy families at Christmas.

Stay tuned for A Christmas Past: The Wild West, Part II

Reflections on the Cripple Creek District Museum in Colorado

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.

Ghost Tales Straight Out of the Wild West

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Why do histories from the Wild West include so many haunting tales of ghosts? For one thing, the average life expectancy between 1865 to 1895 was between 35 and 46 years old. In rough and tumble towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, Canyon Diablo and other places, citizens faced a one in 61 chance of being murdered between 1876 and 1885. And what with the absence of penicillin, aspirin and the plethora of meds we see on the market today, it’s no wonder that death came easily in the 1800s. In a day of unsanitary conditions, lack of indoor plumbing and general dirtiness, the three biggest killers of folks in the west were diarrhea, pneumonia and tuberculosis. On the other end of the spectrum were the gamblers, gunfighters and other miscreants who could easily die from “lead poisoning.”

It’s really no wonder that the spirits of the past linger today, hoping to share their sad tales of an untimely demise with us. For those who don’t believe in ghosts, even scientists suppose that a person’s spirit can indeed outlast their physical bodies once they die. Especially if one dies with some sort of unfinished business in their life, or is murdered, or dies so suddenly they don’t even know they are dead, their ghost could hang around until it is somehow set free. That is where oodles and oodles of intriguing ghost stories are born.

Take Sarah Winchester and her “Mystery House” in San Jose, California. Born Sarah Lockwood Pardee, the lady married William Wirt Winchester in 1862. Sarah gave birth to only one child, Annie Pardee Winchester, who only lived for about a month. Then William died too, in 1881, from tuberculosis, just three months after inheriting his father’s Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The grieving Sarah relocated to San Jose in 1885, and purchased a farmhouse she lovingly called Llanada Villa. She also began consulting with a psychic.

At the medium’s urging beginning in 1890, Sarah began building onto Llanada Villa. There was no rhyme or reason to her design, and the house would eventually grow into a towering seven-story structure spanning 24,000 square feet. Why would Sarah undertake such a project at the advice of a psychic? Because she had been told that the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle needed a home in order to protect Sarah. Furthermore, the psychic claimed, Sarah would live forever as long as she kept building onto the house.

Frantic to stay alive, Sarah hired workers who toiled 24/7 to keep the construction going. This resulted in a literal, odd structure with secret passages, staircases leading nowhere, trap doors, and even a one-way mirror wherein Sarah could keep an eye on her servants – but was installed so instead, her servants could observe her instead. Work finally ceased when Sarah did die, in 1922, but the thousands of people who have visited famed Winchester Mystery House, including staff, have reported hearing footsteps and voices on numerous occasions – as well as the ghostly image of a carpenter identified as a man named Clyde.

Further south, on Coronado Island off of the San Diego coast, the spirit of Kate Morgan lingers at the opulent Hotel del Coronado. On Thanksgiving Day in 1892, the young, rather melancholy woman checked into the five-star hotel. Five days into her stay, Kate inexplicably shot herself and died. A police investigation revealed that Kate had told a housekeeper that she had stomach cancer. But it was also discovered that she was perhaps not who she seemed; several items in the lady’s room contained the names of other women. Police hoped someone would come forward and claim her body, but they never did. After several days at the morgue, Kate’s body was finally identified, as Kate Morgan but also Lottie A. Bernard. She was, it was revealed, the unhappy wife of an Iowa gambler who, for reasons of her own, decided to end her life.

Kate’s body was buried, under both of her names, at the local Mt. Hope Cemetery. But her spirit stayed on at the hotel, and remains there still. Guests in her room on the third floor have reported that the lights and the television flicker on and off. Items move on their own at random, chilly breezes blow through, and the sounds of voices and footsteps echo across the floor. Occasionally, shadows are seen moving through the room. Kate indeed remains at the Hotel del Coronado, her unhappiness having no cure.

East of California, in far-off Deadwood, South Dakota, are numerous ghosts who wander the once busy and often violent city. One of them is Seth Bullock, a Canadian-born Seth Bullock frontiersman who eventually became a member of the Montana legislature, married, had three children, and ran a successful hardware and supply business. After the Bullocks moved to Deadwood in 1876, Seth became a sheriff and served in the Spanish American War. But his favorite career of all seems to have been master of his own Bullock Hotel, a luxurious, three-story building which opened for business in 1896. The hotel featured a large restaurant, fine furnishings throughout, a real bathroom, a library and parlor on each floor, and sixty-three suites.

Bullock died in 1919, but he couldn’t resist staying on at the hotel. Dozens of visitors over the years have reported the man’s ghost staring at them rather malevolently as he wanders around the upstairs hallways. Guests have felt someone tapping on their shoulder when no one is there. They have also heard their names being called, as well as whistling and footsteps along empty corridors. Apparitions have been known to appear in various mirrors as lights and appliances are turned on and off by an unseen hand. There’s even the ghost of a cowboy hanging around in the basement. The Bullock remains a ghostly hotspot hotel even today, complete with a nice bar where you can have a cocktail—if you can keep your glass from moving around by itself.

Then there is the ghost of Jesse James, who has been reported numerous times since he was killed by Bob Ford as a dusted some pictures on the wall in his own living room. Ford shot him in the back of the head, and that was the end of the famous outlaw—or was it? Soon after James was laid to rest, the locals started seeing what they claimed was his ghost, wandering around the family homestead in Kearney, Missouri. Even today, unseen voices and weird photographs captured at the farm are attributed to the spirit of Jesse James.

Not all ghosts, of course, are well-known figures. One ghost at the historic Congress Hotel in Tucson, Arizona is only known as a young woman who shot herself to death in room 242. Alternatively, says one source, the gal was a young barmaid who had just broken up with some important official. A gunfight broke out soon after, during which the girl somehow died in a hail of 29 bullets in room 242 – but her death was ruled a suicide. Supposedly the bullet holes can be seen in the closet, but the girl’s name, and official news stories about her death, remain unknown. Naturally the room has an ethereal quality about it today, and is commonly called “The Suicide Room.” There are other spirits in the hotel as well, who can be seen and heard walking the halls and the lobby dressed in clothing of another era.

Wicked South Dakota isn’t the only old west state where ghosts of the past can find no rest. Some of Colorado’s earliest spirits are the ghosts of the Sand Creek Massacre. It was here in the early morning hours of November 29, 1864 that Colonel John Chivington of the U.S. Army and his soldiers viciously slaughtered group of Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives as they slept in their village. The victims were mostly women and children, 163 in all, whose bodies were then mutilated before Chivington and his men were honored with a parade in Denver. But the callous colonel was later believed to have “fabricated a reason for the attack.”

The grounds were made a national historic site in 2007, but in the years before and after, visitors to the massacre site have seen and heard some mighty interesting things. They say that even today, in the silence of the remote massacre site, the voices of those killed will whisper on the wind. Others who have camped near the site have claimed to have seen the spirits of the victims wandering in the area, and sometimes screaming has been heard.

Further west, in the once wild town of Buckskin Joe, Colorado is a spirit with a most determined wish. In a day when finding a lady to court among hundreds of miners wasn’t easy, one J. Dawson Hidgepath was among the lovelorn. A miner by trade, Hidgepath doggedly pursued about every woman in town, without success. The man was downright bothersome, and when he fell off a cliff in 1865 while picking flowers for his newest crush, the ladies of Buckskin perhaps breathed a sigh of relief. But Hidgepath remained a hopeless romantic, even in death.

Shortly after he was buried in Buckskin’s cemetery, Hidgepath’s skeleton began showing up in the most unusual places, namely at the homes of the ladies he loved. The boney would-be boyfriend first showed up in a heap on the porch of a woman who had spurred his advances in life. The poor lady fainted. No woman was safe; from the bed of a young dance hall girl to an old woman who mistook the skeleton for soup bones, Hidgepath, made his ethereal self known all over town. Each time the bones appeared, they were reburied, only to show up again.

At last, the wise men of the town found a solution. Surely not even a skeleton would court women smelling like an outhouse, and that is where the bones eventually wound up. The ploy seemed to work, until years later when an unsuspecting woman was using the outhouse. As she hovered in the partial darkness, she heard Hidgepath’s signature greeting, whispered in his most tender Mississippi monotone: “Will you be my own?”

Colorado is also one of many places where mysterious lights appear in the local cemeteries. Westcliffe’s historic graveyard has long been known for its intriguing lights, which vary in color, size and speed as they flit among the tombstones. The later the evening, bigger and more numerous they get. From a certain hill in the high-altitude city of Cripple Creek, lights can also be seen glowing at Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. Certain scientists maintain that such lights are really two gasses, phosphane and diphosphane, which are emitted from the intestines of dead bodies and can ignite when they meet air. But that doesn’t begin to explain those who have remained six feet under for a century or more.

While Cripple Creek is certainly famous in its own right as the site of the last big gold boom in Colorado, other, more famous places have their own population of residents from the past. In Tombstone, Arizona, they say, if you walk down Allen Street at night, you just might see the ghost of  Virgil Earp who was seriously wounded following the famed shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, in 1881, or Billy Claiborne who was killed by Buckskin Frank Leslie in 1882, or even the ghost of a lady in her white nightie as she floats across the street. Inside haunts include the infamous Bird Cage Theater, where ghostly prostitutes and their men are often spotted wandering around. The nearby Burford House bed and breakfast has the spirit of George Daves, a groom who was left at the alter and next spotted his would-be bride in the arms of another man. Daves shot the woman to death before taking his own life. Ladies beware: George not only wanders the halls and appears in the mirrors, but also favors smacking the fannies of female guests and, sometimes, yanking their covers down in the night.

Another haunted state? Nevada, whose Yellow Jacket Mine was staked clear back in 1859. Early on, the mine was fraught with disputes over the claim, and in 1872 the Yellow Jacket suffered one of the worst mining accidents in Nevada history. At the 800-foot level below ground a fire started, trapping some miners as the timbers collapsed and toxic gasses filled the shaft. Over 35 bodies were eventually retrieved, but others of the dead were left underground as the fire remained burning for quite some time.

Soon after, ghostly happenings at the Yellow Jacket scared investors into pulling out or selling their shares. One of many mine employees who was frightened half to death on the job was W.P. Bennett, who was working alone when he heard “heavy footsteps coming tramping over the planks directly toward him.” The startled man called out “Who’s there?” The answer came in two shovels Bennett held, which were suddenly yanked from his hands and thrown about twelve feet.

New Mexico also has a ghost story or two. One of them surrounds the famously St. James Hotel in Cimarron, which was built by a French chef named Henri Lambert in 1872. Anybody who was anybody stayed there, including such notables as Annie Oakley, Black Jack Ketchum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Jesse James and author Zane Grey. As one might guess, there were numerous violent incidents over time—like the murder of T.J. Wright, who was shot in the back on the way to his room after winning big in a poker game. Lambert’s own son, Johnnie, died after some unknown accident at the hotel. As a result, the St. James has its own special set of specters who never quite got around to checking out.

Aside from the usual cold spots, electrical energy and items moving around, several psychics over time have identified various spirits at the hotel. They include T.J. Wright, little Johnnie, the ghosts of two other children, a “gnome-like man,” and even a “pleasant-looking cowboy.” Most prominent is Lambert’s wife Mary, who died in 1926 in room 17. Mary’s presence is indicated by tapping on the window when it is open, the smell of flowers, touching guests as they sleep, and in at lease one case, a hideous scream in the dead of night. Sweet dreams.

Pasadena: A Ghost Story

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Cruise through certain neighborhoods in Pasadena, California, and you can still find quaint bungalows and Craftsman homes of the 1930’s. They seem as perfect as they always were, with neatly kept lawns and two-track driveways made with old cement, just big enough for a coupe or even a Model-T to make it into a funny little garage in the back. In the early 1960’s, when I lived there, my parents struggled to pay $100 a month in rent. The same house we lived in is now worth a cool $1.7 million.

We moved to Pasadena when I was about three years old. My parents rented our house from a family named Reynolds, who had probably lived there since it was first built in 1923. It came fully furnished, from the wonderfully big dining room table and its matching sideboard to the beds, dressers. Somewhere in that time my father acquired his Aunt Myrtle’s old couch, and I believe that is the only piece of furniture we actually owned.

When we moved in, our neighborhood was filled with elderly residents who had lived there for a long time. There was a nice couple named Sears, and the Mrs. made us wigs out of her old pantyhose, which we delighted in wearing as we bobbed around the neighborhood and imagined we were princesses in need of rescue. Up the street was a family with six kids, just enough for us to play “Gilligan’s Island” so we had a full crew. Mrs. Milligan was across the street, and was forever “shushing” us if we played too loudly. Then there were the Squire sisters, two spinsters who still dressed in 1920’s gothic dresses, tended their rose garden religiously, and did not like children at all. The one time we were robbed, one of the Squire sisters gave my mom a little pill to calm her down. She zonked out and slept for five hours.

Our house had a Spanish bungalow design, with a big shaded concrete patio in front of an ample front lawn, and a huge backyard that went all the way back to the alley. The driveway led to a garage in back, and we had great fun riding our trikes as fast we could on the slope of the drive, picking up our feet, and “Weeeeee,” careening uncontrollably right into the street. Of course my mother put an immediate stop to that once she caught us. Sometimes, we contented ourselves with playing on a side porch, created in the days to receive visitors through beautiful French doors from the driveway.

The backyard had two avocado trees and several others, plus a little garden full of Naked Ladies. I liked them because they were beautiful and pink, but also because I could say the word “naked” when addressing them, without getting in trouble. At the back gate was a gigantic eucalyptus tree towering over the alley. At some point, someone had spray-painted the words “snake tree” on its massive trunk, inspiring all sorts of scary stories and dark imaginings about what snake might live in the tree. That yard always scared me a little anyway, since in the days of the nearby Mansion murders and the racial riots in Los Angeles, my mother constantly warned us of “stranger danger.”

It did not help that Mr. Reynolds, who occasionally came to collect the rent, would pull up very fast into the driveway, leap out of his car, and walk purposefully towards the house. On more than one occasion his sudden arrival sent me running across the yard and bellowing in fear. Worse was that Mr. Reynold’s senile mother occasionally escaped from the home he’d put her in. On those occasions, she would come “home,” walk right into the house, and upon seeing my mother, would presume she was one of the neighbor kids. Then she would bustle around the kitchen, looking for cookies and pouring a glass of milk for my mom, who placated her until she could get to the phone and call Mr. Reynolds to come retrieve his mother.

The occasional appearance of Mr. Reynolds’ mother was nothing to what else went inside our house. The place was not only full of the Reynolds’ furnishings, but also some of their belongings. Among the things they left were some books, encased on some shelves on either side of the fireplace. One time I was playing with the books and found a tiny matchbox behind them. Inside of it was a little wooden, jointed monkey. I decided to keep my find a secret, only taking him out when I was home alone with my mom, and carefully putting him back. One day, I went to look for my little monkey. He, and his matchbox, were inexplicably missing, and I never saw him again.

The monkey’s mysterious disappearance didn’t begin to match what else happened. I won’t say it was a malicious spirit, but something was definitely there. Being the earliest riser in the house, I remember waking up to voices talking clearly in our living room. I would get up, careful to not disturb the hopeless bully I called my sister, wander down the hall, and go into the room, only to find it empty. My parents were still asleep in their bed. I was small enough that I didn’t really think much of it, until the day I had a fight with one of the six kids up the street and marched home in a huff. Nobody was home, but I disobeyed my mom’s order to stay with the neighbor until she came back and went inside. As I squatted on the floor in the living room, idly playing with my toys, I heard men’s voices speaking clearly in the kitchen. I grew nervous, went back to the neighbors, and never stayed alone in the house again.

There was more. The room I shared with my sister was at the back of the house. A U-shaped hallway ran between our room and my parent’s room. It is true that a big bush grew over our bedroom window, and that all sorts of critters rambled around back there at night. I would awaken and listen to them in growing terror, but when something started moving in our closet, which already scared the hell out of me, I would sit bolt upright and start screaming. Then my sister would wake up and start screaming too, sometimes pulling the blanket over her head in an effort to keep whatever the monster was from finding her. Down at the other end of the hall my parents would leap out of bed and come running, sometimes forgetting to make a right out of their bedroom door and running smack into the wall right in front of them. The second I heard that familiar thud, I knew help was coming.

Then there was the strange room built onto the back of our bedroom, connected by a common door. This room also had its own outside entrance and was once occupied by a woman named Norma, who had long since gone away. The door leading outside had long warped shut and we were too little to force it open. Even my dad had a time opening that door, and it made a horrific squeak when he did. Feeling this was a safe place to keep us from wandering outside, my parents made the room into a playroom for us for a time. But the room was big, and creepy, and our voices seemed to echo loudly in there, so we soon abandoned it. Even after that, we could often hear movement in there and, sometimes, voices.

Once, I was playing out a Bugs Bunny cartoon by myself and snuck up to the door to that room to peek through the keyhole. The door once held a lock for a skeleton key, but this had been removed and enabled me to look into the room. Imagine my horror when I peeked through the keyhole – and saw an eye looking back at me. A whole new, never-before-heard scream came out of me as I booked my little butt to the living room in search of my mom. I don’t know how many times she would open the door with me to show me nobody was there, but the noises and voices convinced me otherwise.

Of course my parents tried to comfort me and convince us that there was nothing scary going on. But even my mother could not deny that something was off when she began dreaming that on the other side of our French doors in the dining room was a mirror replica of our house with thousands of mirrors throughout the rooms. And the day that, upon returning from a visit with Mrs. Milligan, we found that the fringe on Mom’s chenille bedspread had inexplicably caught fire and was burning its way onto the mattress. Or the time my sister wished for a black cat, and one mysteriously appeared under our bed. And even my ever-logical dad had to admit something was definitely amiss when Norma herself paid a special visit.

It was summer, and our expansive kitchen was sorely in need of a paint job. Mr. Reynolds made a deal with my folks: he would pay for the paint, but they had to do the job themselves. So here were my young parents, disassembling the kitchen and applying the new paint, all the while complaining about the lazy Mr. Reynolds. “If we had a $100 bucks,” they were joking, “we’d get out of here and go to Vegas for the weekend.” (And that was back when you could indeed spend a couple of days in Vegas for a C-note.)

My dad was on the floor, next to a pile of pots and pans, and painting the inside of a cupboard when he found an interior shelf above the door. Feeling around, he pulled out an old shoebox. It was full of delightfully vintage Christmas cards from generations ago. Dad put the shoebox on the table as he and Mom started picking through the cards and admiring their pretty designs. About halfway through, Mom opened a card to read it, and out fell a hundred dollar bill. Inside of the card was the spidery handwriting of long ago. “Go out and buy yourself a new pair of stockings and have fun,” the card said. “Love Norma.”

More Ghost Stories from Cripple Creek, Colorado: The Ghost of the Palace Hotel

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Colorado Gambler.

For years, the prominent Palace Hotel at the intersection of Bennett Avenue and Second Street has been an important piece of Cripple Creek history, and folklore. For over 50 years, the Palace has been said to be haunted by the apparition of Kitty Chambers. The lady’s appealing form has appeared to visitors and owners alike for decades. Both legend and rumor have combined with a bit of fact to make Kitty the ethereal epitome of romance. But is Kitty really the soulful, ghostly woman who can be seen waving a genteel hand from the upper floors of the Palace, especially late at night?

The story of the Palace begins in 1893, when Dr. William J. Chambers leased offices at what was first known as the Palace Drugstore. The drugstore was one of a chain of businesses bearing the name of the Palace, and was affiliated at that time with Cripple Creek’s original Palace Hotel directly across the street. In 1893, the Palace Drugstore was a two-story wood building, housing a pharmacy on the first floor. Local physicians, including Dr. Chambers, leased offices on the second floor. A man of considerable wealth and reputation, Chambers and his first wife, Ellen, quickly became well-known in Cripple Creek’s upper-class society. Newspapers mentioned the couple often for the next several years.

Following the devastating Cripple Creek fires which burned the Palace and most of the downtown area in 1896, the new Palace Block was built of solid brick and towered three stories high. The all-new Palace Pharmacy re-opened on the first floor, and rooms were rented on the third floor. Dr. Chambers leased suites 1-3 of the Palace Block, on the second floor. But if the good doctor’s business was booming again, his personal life was not. In 1899, Ellen L. Chambers  divorced William J. Chambers and disappeared. 

Dr. Chambers recovered from his divorce quite nicely. Just three months after the divorce was final, the January 25, 1900 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that Dr. W.J. Chambers had gone to New York to marry a Miss Catharine Howard. “Miss Howard is a very esteemable young lady who was employed as clerk and stenographer for O.E. Yeak, the insurance man, up to a short time ago when she resigned her position and went east,” the newspaper explained.   

Catharine Howard Chambers, whose name is host to a variety of spellings in court records, was as resilient as her new husband. Together, she and William purchased the Palace Block in its entirety just a short time after their marriage. Catherine was well liked and accepted by Cripple Creek society, and became known by her playful nickname, Kitty. But the Chambers were not destined to remain in Cripple Creek, nor was their marriage a happy one. The couple moved to Los Angeles and are believed to have been divorced by 1902. Kitty was able to retain her half interest in the Palace Block, which she sold to her ex-husband in 1910.

Contrary to local legend, Kitty remained in California and died in 1908. There is no evidence she ever returned to Cripple Creek, nor is there anything to support the idea that she enjoyed living in the raw, frontier town. Yet somehow, the ghost of Kitty Chambers is identified as the ethereal woman who haunts the Palace to this day. They say she died, in Room 3, in 1918. But historic fact has made the possibility of Kitty’s spiritual existence less and less plausible.  Who then, is the ghost of the Palace Hotel?

 Historians say that folklore often evolves around true stories, elaborated upon with time. The death of a woman at the Palace in 1918  probably happened. If that tale is true, the real ghost could be Mrs. Mary B. Hedges, a Teller County clerk who resided in and managed the furnished rooms on the third floor of the Palace beginning in 1912.  She stayed at the Palace until 1918, when her name disappears from city directories.  Was Mary Hedges enticed to abandon her comfortable station by death? The answer, at this time, is unknown.

What is known is that, after Mary Hedges’ disappearance, the Palace Block continued to offer furnished rooms. But by the 1920’s, Cripple Creek was in the beginning throes of a slow death.  Mines were playing out and people were moving away. The pharmacy continued to operate while the upper stories of the stately Palace Block slowly fell to disuse. Dr. Chambers, who had retained his ownership all this time, finally sold the building in 1928. A succession of owners followed, including Gertrude Coffin and her sister-in-law, Maude Playford, who purchased the Palace in 1941. The former Palace Pharmacy moved across the street to the Bi-Metallic Building, while Gertrude and Maude opened “The Girls’ Cafe” on the first floor (on a couple of side notes, Gertrude Coffin Diehl was the great-aunt of famed musician Stevie Nicks. She and Maude, certain folks say, ran a brothel of sorts from the Palace and other places during the 1940s).

In 1945, Gertrude and Maude sold the Palace Block. A bar opened on the bottom floor, while renters continued living in the upstairs rooms. One of them was Vitus M. Neelson, a blind man who played piano and was one of Cripple Creek’s many colorful characters during this era – 1952, when he apparently tripped and was found dead at the bottom of the stairs. While Vitus Neelson’s body rests in Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, his after-life aura is said to haunt the Palace to this day.

Vitus apparently lived alone during his time at the Palace, or at the very least, the other lodgers moved out after he died; old-timers of Cripple Creek would remember the building being boarded up for a few years before it was sold in 1956 for back taxes and eventually returned as one of three prominent watering holes in town. Then, in 1976, Robert and Martha Lays purchased the building and moved in with their five children, and reopened the Palace as a hotel. Among other things, the Lays were told there were ghosts in the building.  One was a female, presumed to be a former owner of the hotel.   

The Lays immediately saw why the Palace was said to be haunted. Mysterious lights played a large part in the ethereal activities around the Palace. Lights were seen in Room 3 when the power was off. A retired couple who was hired to care for the hotel resigned after several incidents involving the light in Room 3. The bed covers in that room were occasionally turned down by an unseen hand, and a family friend of the Lays reported seeing the apparition of a woman standing in the window up there when the hotel was empty. Other residents and even a former Cripple Creek sheriff saw her as well. Hastily-conducted research brought forth the name of Kitty Chambers, and that is what the ghost was so-named.

Although members of the Lays family lived in the hotel, it was not until 1983 that any of them experienced the ghost, who chose her victim carefully. The Lays’ son, Bob, was alone in the hotel one night, cleaning on the third floor.  “We’d closed for the season,” he related in a 1996 interview, “and I was the only one in the whole state to have a key.  Around 5:45 p.m., I walked down to the dining room and there was a lit candle on one of the tables.” For the first time in Bob Lays’ practical life, there was no rational explanation for what he saw.

The irrational activities at the Palace were just beginning. Late one night, out of the corner of his eye, Bob spotted a woman moving through the lobby. She had straight, dark hair. A long white nightgown with long puffy sleeves and a lace-neck collar graced her figure. It was hard to see any facial features, but Bob got the impression the woman was in her mid-30’s. She was definitely not one of the four guests who had checked in that night. Bob said she seemed to be heading out the front door or up the stairs, both of which unusually gave forth an audible creak. Yet no noise came forth. “It startled me,” Bob said. “It was a couple minutes I stood and listened.” But there was no sound.

After that, lighted candles were found two to three times a week in the dining room by various family members. The candles appeared only on specific tables and seemed to follow a cycle as to when and which one would light by itself. For a time, the candles patterned themselves in a circle around the room. The electric lights also played havoc, coming on at odd times by themselves, in front of different witnesses.

In about 1985, the Lays moved the Palace bar into a vaudeville theater which had been constructed in the building sometime in the late 1960’s. Once, while closing the theater, Bob noticed a light at the bar and found a lit candle sitting on the beer cooler. On another night, Bob returned from a much-deserved late evening out. Entering the Palace’s front door, he found another lit candle waiting for him in the dining room. “I like to think she did that one just for me,” he said with a smile. After a time, he also got in the habit of saying goodnight to Kitty before blowing out the candles and retiring for the night.

Once news leaked out about ghost at the Palace Hotel, curiosity seekers besieged the building. They ranged from historians to reporters to psychics. The latter claimed there were three spirits altogether: the mysterious young woman, the ghost of Vitus Neelson, a nameless young boy. The lady, of course, remains the most intriguing since various visitors who saw her offered up almost identical descriptions of her in her white gown. One couple claimed that their shower water unaccountably shut off, shortly after they discussed the ghosts known to haunt the hotel.  

In the 1996 interview, Bob Lays said that he last heard from his ghost in about 1989. He wasn’t sure why. Even after the city of Cripple Creek legalized gaming in 1991, the spirits of the Palace remained unseen as the hotel was remodeled and the first floor evolved into a casino, bar and restaurant. In spite of their silence, Bob said he still found himself speaking to the invisible lady aloud now and then. The idea of Mary Hedges, instead of Kitty Chambers, haunting the Palace intrigued him. “No wonder she wouldn’t answer me,” he muttered thoughtfully.

It has been some years since Century Casinos, which owns the buildings adjacent to the Palace, purchased the building from the Lays family. Plans have been made on several occasions to install offices in the building or, most recently, turn it into a boutique hotel. At least fears that the historic building would be torn down have been alleviated, for now. But the Palace remains vacant, save for the occasional paranormal investigation. One day, the building will hopefully reopen and a whole new generation can experience the spirits who linger there still. Odds are, they can wait.