Category Archives: Mound City Colorado

Bandits and Badmen: A History of Crime in the Colorado’s Cripple Creek District

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

The following is excerpted from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County, Colorado, Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms, the Single Action Shooter’s Society and Brothels, Bordellos & Bad Girls: Prostitution in Colorado 1860-1930.

The last of Colorado’s great gold booms occurred in the Cripple Creek District, high on the backside of Pikes Peak, in 1891. Prior to that, the ranchers populating the area were hardly concerned with crime. The busy bustle of city life had yet to descend on the area. With the discovery of gold, however, the region’s status quickly turned from that of quiet cow camps and homesteads to several rollicking boomtowns within a short distance, each complete with the accompanying evils.

The growth of crime in the newly founded Cripple Creek District grew in proportion to the swelling population as prospectors, merchants, doctors, attorneys and a fair amount of miscreants descended upon the area. Marshal Henry Dana of Colorado Springs once joked that crime was down in his city because the law-breakers had all moved to Cripple Creek. He wasn’t far off. Already, rumors had circulated for some time that the Dalton Gang of Kansas had used the area as an outlaw hideout. As the district grew, the Dalton’s moved on to their fateful end in Coffeyville, Kansas.

But for every outlaw who left the area, there was another one to take his place. Bunco artists, robbers, thieves and scammers soon descended upon the district in great numbers. The Cripple Creek District was still in its infancy and would lack proper law enforcement for some time. Only after Cripple Creek ruffian Charles Hudspeth accidentally killed piano player Reuben Miller while attempting to shoot the bartender at the Ironclad Dance Hall did the city ban guns for a short time. But it was already too late. Cripple Creek’s outlaws were already blazing their own bloody path through history.

By 1894, gangs and undesirables were running rampant throughout the district. “Dynamite Shorty” McLain was one of the first bad guys to make the papers for blowing up the Strong Mine in the district city of Victor during labor strikes. There was a gang hanging around Victor too, headed by the Crumley brothers. Grant, Sherman and Newt Crumley, lately of Pueblo, found the pickings quite ripe and soon fell in with outlaw Bob Taylor and his sister Nell, Mrs. Hailie Miller, Kid Wallace and O.C. Wilder.

Sherman Crumley was especially susceptible to running with would-be robbers. In May of 1895, he and Kid Wallace were arrested after five armed men robbed the newly formed Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad. Apparently a “toady” named Louis Vanneck squealed after receiving less than his share of the loot, which primarily consisted of money taken from passengers. Wallace went to jail, but the popular Crumley was acquitted. Following the incident, the Crumley gang contented themselves with cheating at poker and rolling gamblers in the alleys. Sherman was also a known thief, often stashing his loot in abandoned buildings around smaller communities like Spring Creek just over Mineral Hill from Cripple Creek.

The Crumleys remained in the Cripple Creek District for some time, until Grant shot mining millionaire Sam Strong to death at the Newport Saloon in Cripple Creek in 1902. Grant was not without good reason, for Strong had suddenly pulled a gun on him and accused him of running a crooked roulette wheel. Still, the killing of a man was not a reputation the Crumley’s wished to sustain, and the threesome quickly moved on to Tonopah and Goldfield, Nevada. Grant quickly earned a fine reputation as a man about town, while Newt became quite respectable and even owned the fabulous, four-story Goldfield Hotel for a time. His son, Newt Jr., would become a state senator.

The activities of the Crumleys were actually quite minor compared to those of “General” Jack Smith and his followers at the district town of Altman. Miner, poet and Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph columnist Rufus Porter (aka the “Hard Rock Poet”) once wrote a ballad about the town’s first marshal, Mike McKinnon. The honorable lawman died following a gunfight with six Texans (but not, allegedly, before he killed all six outlaws). Porter may have actually been recalling an incident from May 1895, when outlaw General Jack Smith dueled it out with Marshal Jack Kelley. Smith had been running amuck for some time and had been warned by Kelley to stop trying “to run the town in his usual style.” On May 14, Smith wrapped up a night of drinking by shooting the locks off the Altman jail, thereby freeing two of his buddies, who were already incarcerated for drunkenness.

Smith wisely left town, but the next day, a constable named Lupton and one Frank Vanneck located him in a Victor saloon. “I want you, Jack,” Lupton said, to which Smith replied, “If you want me, then read your warrant.” Lupton began reading the warrant, but Smith appeared to go for his gun. The constable quickly pinned the outlaw’s arms while Vanneck shoved a gun to Smith’s chest. Smith was arrested with a bond of $300. He managed to pay the bond quickly, however, and was next seen riding toward Altman “with the open declaration of doing up the marshal who swore the complaint.” Altman authorities were notified as Lupton and Victor deputy sheriff Benton headed for the town. By then, Smith had already gathered a small force of men, including one named George Popst.

The bunch headed to Gavin and Toohey’s Saloon, where Smith started ordering one drink after another. Outside, Lupton and Benton met up with Marshal Kelley and set out in search of the General. Kelley “had just lifted the latch of Lavine and Touhey’s [sic] saloon, when ‘crack’ went a gun from the inside. The ball struck the latch and glanced off.” Kelley threw the door open and shot Smith just below the heart. From the floor, Smith fired and emptied his own gun as Kelley continued shooting him. Outside, Benton fired a shot through the window that hit Popst. “The latter may recover,” predicted the newspaper, “but Smith is certain to die.” Popst also died, about a week later.

Saloon shootings in the Cripple Creek District occurred with such frequency that sometimes, they were hardly regarded as newsworthy. An 1895 article in the Colorado Springs Gazette reported half-heartedly that Joe Hertz, a.k.a. Tiger Alley Joe, was shot above the Denver Beer Hall in Cripple Creek by Clem Schmidt. Hertz staggered down to the bar exclaiming, “That crazy Dutchman shot me!” A few minutes later, he fell to the floor and died. The Gazette neglected to follow up on the crime or make comment on its effect in Cripple Creek. The year 1896 did not prove much better for the lawmen of the district. General Jack Smith’s widow, a prostitute known as “Hook and Ladder Kate,” masterminded the robbery of a stagecoach outside of Victor. In early April, Coroner Marlowe was contending with the likes of J.S. Schoklin, who dropped his loaded gun in a saloon and subsequently fatally shot himself in the side.

On April 25 and April 29 during 1896, Cripple Creek suffered two devastating Cripple Creek that sent residents into a full blown panic as much of the downtown area and hundreds of homes burned. Folks hurried to rescue what they could in the wake of the flames. Thousands of goods and pieces of furniture were piled high in the streets. It was prime picking for looters and arsonists, the latter whom set even more fires to instill further panic so they could rob and steal. In response, firemen, police and good Samaritans beat, clubbed or shot the law-breakers as a way to restore order.

Petty crimes and robberies continued intermittently for the next few years, and brawls and gunfights were common throughout the district. Crimes increased dramatically when the Cripple Creek District rallied against Colorado Springs to form Teller County in 1899. El Paso County clearly did not want to lose its lucrative tax base from the rich mines of the district. Arguments over the matter turned into all-out screaming matches, fights, and shootings. Thus the newly formed county, with Cripple Creek as the county seat, found itself besieged with lawlessness, free-for-all fights in the saloons along Myers Avenue, and high-grading of gold which was so widespread it was hardly thought illegal.

For several more years, law enforcement continued grappling with the outlaw elements around the district. Incidents making the papers included the death of James Roberts, who was clubbed with a gun and left to die on the floor of the Dawson Club as other patrons urged him to the bar for a drink (a portion of Roberts’ skull, used in testimony against his killer, is on display at the Cripple Creek District Museum). Down in Cripple Creek’s infamous red-light district on Myers Avenue, prostitute Nell Worley was arrested for shooting at a man breaking down her front door. Nell was arrested  because the bullet missed its mark and hit a musician on the way home from the Grand Opera House instead. Luckily he was only injured.

Indeed, Myers Avenue was peppered with illegal gamblers, pick pockets and drunks who felt free to wave and fire their guns at will. The red-light district spanned a full two blocks, offering everything from dance halls to cribs, from brothels above saloons to elite parlor houses. Crimes, suicides, death from disease and frequent scuffles were the norm on Myers Avenue, where anything could happen – and eventually did. Today, Madam Pearl DeVere remains the best-known madam in Cripple Creek, and her fancy parlor house, the Old Homestead, remains one of the most unique museums in the west.

Over in Victor, vice-presidential nominee Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1900. His purpose was to speak to the masses of gold miners about the virtues of switching to silver coinage. Clearly, that wasn’t a great idea, and Roosevelt was attacked by an angry mob of protesters as he disembarked from the train. Cripple Creek postmaster Danny Sullivan is credited with keeping the crowd at bay with a two by four until Roosevelt was back on the train. A year later Roosevelt visited again, this time as Vice President. This time he was treated much kinder, although the apologetic city council of Victor kept him entertained for so long that he barely had time to visit Cripple Creek before departing.

When labor strikes reared their ugly head once again in 1903, citizens of the district found themselves pitted against each other. Union and non-union miners fought against one another. Neighbors stopped speaking to each other. Down in the schoolyards, even children fought on the playground over a debate they actually knew little about. Soon, miners were being jailed and/or deported from the district, and one time the entire staff of the Victor Record newspaper was arrested for publishing an unpopular editorial. Things reached a head when professional assassin Harry Orchard set off a bomb at the Vindicator Mine and blew up the train depot at the district town of Independence.

Now, corruption politics reared its ugly head. During a heated election debate in the district town of Goldfield, deputy sheriff James Warford was hired to oversee the elections. According to Warford, Goldfield constables Isaac Leibo and Chris Miller were shot in self defense when they refused to “move on.” An examination of the bodies, however, revealed both were shot from behind. Eight years later, long after the strikes had been settled, Warford was found beaten and shot to death on nearby Battle Mountain. His murder was never solved.

Within a few years, the Cripple Creek District’s gold would soon become too expensive to mine, and folks slowly began moving away. The sharks and scheisters moved on too, in search of fresh pigeons to pluck. It would be many more decades before legalized gambling would find its way to Cripple Creek, bringing a whole new, modern generation of eager residents, as well as the accompanying crimes.

For history buffs, there are still some mysteries remaining in the district yet. In Mt. Pisgah Cemetery at Cripple Creek, a wooden grave marker was once documented as reading, “He called Bill Smith a Liar.” Urban legend has it that after gambling was legalized, renovations of Johnny Nolon’s original casino in Cripple Creek revealed, a body in a strange shaft under the building. During the excavation of an outhouse pit at the ghost town of Mound City during the 1990s, remains of a perhaps quickly discarded revolver were found. These and other mysterious remnants still surface now and then, to remind us of the many other crimes the lively Cripple Creek District once witnessed.

Image: James Roberts’ skull remains on display at the Cripple Creek District Museum. Courtesty Jan MacKell Collins.

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.