c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
This is an excerpt from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (History Press, 2016)
The great gold rushes which helped settle the West are ingrained in American history as some of the most exciting times our country would ever see. Beginning in 1848, the California gold rush set off a most spectacular run of booms and busts as more and more pioneers headed west. Other states—namely Oregon, Arizona, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas—would follow suit as gold was discovered within their territories. Colorado also was a big contender, beginning with the Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859.
Colorado’s initial rush was so-named because prospectors heading to the region used Pikes Peak, elevation 14,114′, as a landmark. The peak, which towers above Colorado Springs on one side and Teller County on the other, was named for explorer Zebulon Pike. As the so—called Pikes Peak Gold Rush unfolded throughout the 1860’s an ancient trail, used by local Ute Indians, wound up through a pass at the base of the peak.
Eventually dubbed Ute Pass, this trail became known as one of the quickest ways for easterners wishing to access the western slope of Colorado. A few rest stops popped up over time, mostly ranches but one or two mail stops and supply outlets too. By the time El Paso County was formed as one of Colorado’s original counties in 1861, Ute Pass became known as the gateway from Colorado City (a supply town west of today’s Colorado Springs) to the western goldfields.
Pioneers and early surveyors making their way up Ute Pass found some homesteads already settled by squatters. Legal homesteaders were allowed to settle on 160-acre tracts of land starting in 1873. Those who claimed land in the open, high-altitude parks at the top of Ute Pass primarily used it for ranching, but increased traffic also created a need for supplies, lodging and postal routes.
Gold discoveries at the world—famous Cripple Creek District in 1891 altered the sleepy ranches and high plains on the back side of Pikes Peak dramatically. An extinct volcano, so large it actually imploded in on itself rather than erupting, had long ago created a most unique field of rich minerals that had melted, flowed into the cracks and crevices caused by the explosion, and hardened over time. Ranchers within this “caldera” included the Womacks, whose son Bob was sure there was gold in the area.
When young Womack was finally able to convince everyone of the rich gold deposits, prospectors by the thousands flocked to the new boom as more towns were established both within and outside of the Cripple Creek District. The Cripple Creek District directory of 1894 perhaps described it best:
“Over the quiet hills and vales there came a change. Where once no sound was heard save the halloo of the herdsman, clatter of hoofs and horns and jingle of spur bells, there came the crushing, rending roar of dynamite, tearing the rocks asunder, the curnching and grinding and rattling of wheels, the shouting of mule drivers and feighters, with sounds of saw and axe and hammer. A town grew up like magic, prospectors thronged the hills,—and there was solitude no more.”
Largely due to the gold boom, a series of other mining districts, camps, towns and cities sprang up throughout the western portion of El Paso County. Some of these places never evolved further than being small camps where miners lived and worked. Others were founded as whistlestops with the coming of the railroads. Still more bloomed into thriving metropolises which in time rivaled bigger cities in Colorado and beyond. A few were settled with high hopes of becoming large cities, only to fold within a few years or even months. Some towns never even made it off the ground.
City directories for the Cripple Creek District began publishing in 1893, but due to the transient and ever—moving population, it was a limited effort at best. “The first edition of the Cripple Creek Directory is now placed in circulation,” announced the editors of the first directory, but added that “In the compilation of this book the publishers have been careful to exclude the names of non-residents. The general makeup of a new town is such as to make the work very difficult; however, we will say that neither labor nor expenses has been spared to make this directory complete and accurate, and we believe it will prove reliable.”
The people who flocked to these places were an amazing bunch. Not only did they consist of prospectors and miners, but also builders, laborers, lawyers, merchants, doctors and dentists, teachers, stock brokers, laundresses, bartenders, prostitutes and many others. The population of the area swelled and shrunk accordingly as those who couldn’t gain good work or prosperity moved on. For every person who left the district, however, another one took their place.
In 1899, after a long hard fight with El Paso County, city officials in Cripple Creek successfully formed Teller County. The new county was carefully carved from parts of El Paso, as well as the other surrounding counties of Park and Fremont. Teller County measures a mere 559 square miles, but within its boundaries dozens of camps, towns and cities were formed during the 1890’s and early 1900’s.
The Teller County of the turn of the twenty-first century was rife with historic events, including two labor wars and a heated long—time battle against illegal gambling. Get-rich-quick schemes, insurance frauds, historic fires, murders and more have made for a most interesting history. More than a few honorable figures, including Colorado Governor Ralph Carr and a slew of celebrities also called Teller County home. For a time, the Cripple Creek District made Teller County known to folks worldwide.
Because the giant caldera forming the Cripple Creek District is comprised of long-hardened minerals settled in fissures and cracks, hard-rock mining was primarily employed in Teller County. Placer mining, wherein a fellow with a pan scooped up river sand and shook out the gold, was far less common. Thus in time, digging, blasting and processing ore in the Cripple Creek District became harder and more expensive. Gold miners fell under the impression there was little more gold to be had that was worth digging for, and people began moving away from the Cripple Creek District. Subsequently, the rest of Teller County downsized as well.
In an attempt to lessen the perils created by the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act in 1934. Doing so raised the price of gold to $35 per ounce. Although there were still some working mines in the county, even these dwindled away in time. Times were changing; railroads were shutting down, wagon roads were falling out of use, historic ranches were changing hands and many of the towns established on behalf of the gold boom were being abandoned.
By the 1950’s, not much was going on in Teller County, at least to the observant eye. As the towns and camps faded away, surviving places such as Woodland Park, Cripple Creek and Victor turned to tourism as a new industry. Museums were established as residents of Teller County looked for ways to draw visitors to the area. The cap on the price of gold was finally repealed in 1971 by President Richard Nixon. The repeal came about as new techniques to extract hard-rock gold were being employed.
A renewed interest in mining, combined with increased tourism, kept Teller County alive. Of particular interest to many tourists was exploring the old ghost towns left behind. While the Cripple Creek District remained a key destination to see such places, others slowly faded away. A few were incorporated as part of local ranches or were subsequently purchased by private interests.
It is only within the last twenty five years or so that many more ghost towns have fallen in the wake of modern mining operations and in the name of progress. Even so, history buffs, local residents and others who hold Teller County near and dear to their hearts have worked tirelessly to support the history of these places. While many of the towns may be gone, each place still has lots of stories to tell.