Category Archives: Gillett Colorado

Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (Colorado), Introduction

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

This is an excerpt from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County (History Press, 2016)

Introduction

   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. 

Arizona Charlie Meadows, Famed Showman of the West

Arizona Charlie Meadows

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.

What a presence! The sight of this six-foot-six, long-haired, mustachioed man from the wild west must have been startling to the citizens of Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1895, but one thing was for sure: Arizona Charlie Meadows would make an indelible mark in the history of the Cripple Creek District.

Born on March 10, 1860 in California, Abraham Henson “Charlie” Meadows was the sixth of twelve children. His parents, John and Margaret Meadows, lived near what is now Visalia, California. The family moved, first to a cattle ranch near Payson, Arizona in 1877 and later to Diamond Valley some 80 miles from Prescott, where Charlie began developing his skills as a marksman and roper (his younger brother, Mobley “Kid” Meadows, later became an expert trick rider).

In July 1882, the family ranch was attacked by Apache Indians who had already caused much havoc in the area. Altogether over 40 people were killed, including Charlie’s father and brother. Another brother was seriously wounded. Charlie, who was some 16 miles away at the time, arrived home to find his family devastated with over 40 horses and 60 cows missing, and the family crops destroyed. Charlie’s own account of the incident was published in local newspapers.

Margaret Meadows took her surviving children to Phoenix, and Charlie found himself on his own. For the next several years he roamed the west and became known for his shooting and roping talents. He was named “King of the Cowboys” at the Territorial Fair in Phoenix in 1888 after roping a steer in just 50 seconds. He also participated in Prescott’s very first annual rodeo that same year.

At one show, Charlie’s skills were spotted by none other than Buffalo Bill, who immediately hired the showman for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For the next several years, Meadows toured with the show through Europe and even performed for the Queen of England. Later, Charlie joined the Wirth Brothers Wild West Show and traveled through Australia, New Zealand and the far East before forming his own show in 1893. The troupe toured all over, including California, before going broke. Undaunted, Meadows next joined up with another wild west show until the show’s circus also went broke.

In 1895, Charlie Meadows next landed in Gillette, Colorado, located four miles from Cripple Creek. Along with Joe Wolfe of Cripple Creek’s Palace Hotel, Meadows decided to stage the first “legal” bullfight ever officially recorded in the United States. The pair borrowed $5,000, built a 5,000 seat amphitheater at Tutt & Penrose’s racetrack for the event, and called their endeavor the Joe Wolfe Grand National Spanish Bull Fight Company. They even imported matadors from Mexico.

About 3,000 people attended the first day of the fights, despite the Colorado Springs Gazette’s article which labeled the event as inhumane: “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 Gillette Exposition.” In the end, the bulls that were supposed to be imported from Mexico were prevented from entering the U.S. at the Texas border. Wolfe and Meadows ended up using local bulls, whose complacent natures were hardly conducive to those of their feistier Mexican counterparts. What was intended to be an exciting event turned into a slow and cruel death for the animals.

Americans didn’t care for the grisly killings; less than 300 people showed for the fight on the second day. Wolfe and Meadows were arrested after canceling the fight for the third day. The one saving grace was that meat from the slaughtered bulls was distributed among the city’s poor. In the wake of the fray, Meadows disappeared from sight, never to be seen in Cripple Creek again.

So what happened to him?

Turns out that Charlie beat his hasty retreat back to Arizona. Before long, he chose Alaska for his next scene of conquer. By the time he arrived there in 1897, he had secured a portable bar, restaurant and gambling equipment. With him was his “wife”, a showgirl named Mae McKamish Melbourne. Described as having “a peach-like complexion and a marvelous figure”, Mae was the perfect match for Charlie.

In 1898, Mae and her magnificent paramour narrowly escaped a flood on their way to the Klondike. “Charlie said if he had a Kadac [Kodak photograph] of me as I was running from the Sheep’s Camp flood,” Mae later said, “there would not any use of going to the Klondike, as that would be a gold mine in itself.”

The couple lost most of the equipment for their new business endeavor, but began again in Dawson. There, Mae wisely invested in mining claims, which soon amounted to $100,000. Charlie, meanwhile, earned ample money by selling provisions to miners. On April 1, 1898, he also printed the first edition of a souvenir paper called the Klondike News. Like almost everything else he put his hand to, Charlie did well with his newspaper; gold king Antone Stander even paid the entrepreneur to print a story about him in that first issue, about Stander’s engagement to Miss Violet Raymond.

By 1899, Arizona Charlie was ready to embark on yet another new career as a theater promoter. He hired a San Francisco architect to design a new theater, the Palace Grand, at Dawson, Alaska. Construction took six months, and much of the material was said to be wood from retired stern wheelers boats. Upon its opening in July, Charlie and Mae took up lodging on the top floor.

The Palace could seat up to 2,200 and featured anything from plays and musicals to trick shooting displays. Charlie himself often bolted across the stage on his horse, guns blazing. In 1900, the industrious man even attempted to jump a horse 14 feet into an eight-foot-deep tank of water built into the stage. The feat nearly spelled disaster when Meadows landed under the horse as it struggled out of the tank.

It is said that Charlie and Mae lived happily for many years, despite Charlie’s occasional wandering eye. He allegedly carried on regularly with “Diamond Tooth” Gertie Lovejoy, a local performer who had a sizable diamond installed between her two front teeth and was all the rage at the Palace. He also gave actress Kate Rockwell the Star’s Suite, lavishly decorated in red and gold, as a condition of hiring her. Together, “Klondike Kate” and Meadows worked to choreograph the “Flame Dance”, wherein Kate floated about the stage trailing 200 yards of chiffon. Kate made $200 per week for her performance, but claimed she easily made another $500 entertaining her admirers following the show.

Arizona Charlie also made several friends of the male species. In the late 1890’s, Alexander Pantages offered to stand in for a prize fighter who failed to show at Charlie’s place. Pantages worked as a waiter at the time, but his offer to fight, as well as his experience as a San Francisco welterweight, secured his employment as Charlie’s stage manager.

By 1901, the Klondike boom was fading. Meadows thought of moving the Palace Grand in its entirety to Nome on a barge, but wisely decided not to. Instead, he sold the theater at a loss for $17,000 and headed back to Arizona with Mae. In Yuma, a plan to take over the an island off the coast of Mexico was thwarted by the Mexican government when Charlie revealed plans to do away with a native tribe of Seri Indians (said to be cannibals) in the process.

Charlie died in December 1932 and was buried in Yuma. He left behind at least one daughter, Marion, who passed away in 1944. In the time since there have been a few books and several articles written about him. As early as the 1950’s, the Palace was restored to its original grandeur. Plays and shows still take there during the summer months, many of them centered around the amazing adventures of the theater’s builder. In Las Vegas, Nevada, Arizona Charlie’s Hotel & Casino was named for him.

In the Cripple Creek District, nothing remains of Gillette, nor its infamous bullring. And although Arizona Charlie has been memorialized by historians and writers in the region, his embarrassing incident at Gillette is rarely mentioned in his biographies.

Read more about Arizona Charlie in the summer edition of the Frontier Gazette, available now in Yavapai County and Prescott, Arizona.