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.

Cripple Creek, Colorado : A ghost seeker’s paradise

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

From the haunted rooms of historic structures to the wanton spirits of the mountains, Colorado has always been alive with ghosts of the dead. They roam the places of their former lives, invisible to most. Some seem to no longer know why they are in that half-world, wandering aimlessly and hopelessly forgotten. Others, in their quest to be remembered and finish tasks they left behind, make their presence known to a selected few of the living. Or do just a selected few choose to see what many will deny is there?

It is true, every camp, fort, village, boomtown and city in this state has its own ghastly group of tragic and sometimes frightening apparitions. The historic Cripple Creek District of Colorado in particular seems to have its own ethereal share of manifestations and specters. Random inquiries during a stroll down Bennett or Victor Avenues inevitably unearth a plethora of twisted tales, both old and new. Most natives of the district, as well as the newcomers of the last 30 years or so, can be enticed to tell of some experience they’ve had, or some experience someone else had, or even some experience they simply know of.

Some of Cripple Creek’s ghost lore can be attributed to nothing more than a promotional gag, told again and again until most believe such rot. Other of the tales, however, have an eerie ring of truth, accompanied by a chill down one’s spine. Hundreds of ghost sightings have surfaced over time, with new ones popping up regularly. The district fairly seethes with its overpopulation of the undead. This makes a most curious aspect of the ghosts and goblins in the Cripple Creek District. Why are there so many?

The answer may lie in Cripple Creek’s colorful and incredibly fascinating past. For some 130 years, people have come here seeking wealth and success that was guaranteed by promoters, developers, idealists and even friends and family. Especially in the old days, fantasy often turned to an ugly reality by way of bad mining claims, bad decisions and bad habits. Within the high rolling hills of the district, dreams were won and lost in a day. The violent and cruel hands of death visited often, and many a heart shattered beyond all repair from a variety of ailments.

It is no wonder then, that the Cripple Creek District seems rife with spirits. When the mining boom began its decline, folks who had clung so hopefully to their dreams here finally dispersed. But they didn’t do it in droves like in many other boomtowns. Rather, abandonment of the Cripple Creek District was slow and gradual, spanning over a period of ten years. As families scattered to the winds, they left behind mere shells of their former lives here.

For many decades, the numerous ghost towns in the district remained as silent sentinels. The empty buildings seemed so badly to want someone to come in and use the goods and furniture left there. But only the ghosts remained, wandering the empty rooms and treading the quiet streets, determined that the occasional visitor or remaining resident might take notice of their frustrating plight. Homes were said to be haunted, and some found themselves crossing the street to avoid walking by certain abandoned buildings.

Even those residing in business buildings were not safe from the occasional unearthly visit by a former occupant. The handful of year-round citizens came to know of certain places inhabited by spirits. During Cripple Creek’s tourist resort years beginning in the late 1940s, ghost stories became as well known as stories stating historical fact. The folklore merely added to Cripple Creek’s charm, and everyone, including several specters, seemed agreeable to this chapter in the city’s wonderful history.

Then came legalized gaming in 1991. Almost over night, Cripple Creek and the district around it was crawling with real live humans. They were excited with anticipation of what this new enterprise might bring. Old buildings were entered for the first time in decades. Their innards were removed as new carpet was laid and fresh paint stained the walls. One of Cripple Creek’s former favorite past times, gambling and drinking, was revived with vigor. Surely some spirits rejoiced as folks resumed doing what they themselves had done a century before.

This time, however, the gambling houses and sampling rooms were quite different in atmosphere. Accompanying the Victorian bar setups, glass chandeliers and flowing staircases were machines, wonderful colorful slot machines operating on electricity and making enough noise to indeed wake those of the dead who were still sleeping. The electric energy which burst into life on Bennett Avenue was enough to send Cripple Creek’s spirits into a frenzy. At last, someone was waking up the past and remembering those who had been forgotten.

Before long, casino workers were reporting unexplained incidents left and right. Tip jars were moving, sometimes dashing right to the floor in a terrific bloom of glass and money. Voices, footsteps, squeaks and grunts were being heard. Fleeting glimpses of unknown creatures were constantly caught from the corner of one’s eye. There were cold drafts in hallways and unseen physical forces on stairwells. Perfume wafted up in empty rooms, and music was heard when there was none playing. One casino even caught an incorporeal visitor on a security camera, sitting at a slot machine in the wee hours of the dawn!

Now, some 30 years after gaming has come to Cripple Creek, the city is slowly changing. The ghost town look of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s is evolving back into an appearance more like the city had a century ago. Notable is that some historic structures have fallen in the wake of this progress, with newer buildings taking their place. But one thing is sure: Cripple Creek will not disperse its ghostly residents. They’ve already been rattling about for over a century, and the clanging and banging of a newly awakened town can only strive to bring them out even more. The spooks and spirits are here to stay, and they will remain long after we are gone. It is only when we pass to that other mysterious world ourselves that we might get a taste of what it’s like to be a ghost in Cripple Creek.

Image: Look closely at this photo of modern day Cripple Creek, and you might just see some ghostly folks from the past. Image enhancement by Jan MacKell.

Cripple Creek, A Name Steeped in Song Lore

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article have appeared in The Colorado Gambler, as well as Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County and Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms

As legendary as the history of Cripple Creek, Colorado is, it is no wonder the place has been immortalized in poetry and song. Local and national authors have addressed the district and its colorful past in numerous books, articles and poems. In the live entertainment circuit, there is a circle dance, the “Cripple Creek Shuffle,” which was choreographed by Larry and Terri Boezeman some decades ago which is based on the song, “Cripple Creek,” by Jim Rast and Knee Deep. There have even been two musical groups calling themselves the Cripple Creek Band. One is here in America ; the other, in Germany, put out its own album/CD in 1996.

Cripple Creek has also been paid tribute in a handful of songs. Many of them have grown obscure over time, but a few actually do more than imply a passing mention to the famous gold district on the back side of Pikes Peak. The three most popular of these are The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek”, Neil Young’s
“Cripple Creek Ferry,” and the age old traditional tune, “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek.” But whether any, or all three, of these songs are really about Cripple Creek, Colorado has remained up for debate among music lovers and history buffs.

Up on Cripple Creek she sends me
If I spring a leak, she mends me
I don’t have to speak, she defends me
A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one

—The Band

The 1969 rendition of “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band was the group’s first—and only—song to make the American Top Thirty singles. Over fifty years later, Canadian musician Robbie Robertson’s catchy lyrics are still heard on classic rock stations all over the country. In Cripple Creek itself, the song has become a sort of mascot tune for the town. But is the song really modeled after Cripple Creek and the kind of place other people only dream of living in? Robertson says not. “‘Up On Cripple Creek’ is…somehow an extension of this American mythology, this Americana,” Robertson once told writer Peter Viney, “going, ‘We’re not dealing
with people at the top of the ladder, we’re saying what about that house out there in the middle of that field? What does this guy think with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? That’s who I’m curious about.”

However listeners conceived it, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ has become a legendary tune in the history of rock and roll. The song has been recorded by several artists since its debut. Among them are Bill Monroe and Leo Kottke. But the easy melody and down home lyrics have made “Up On Cripple Creek” especially popular in Cripple Creek, where nearly every local band has included the song in their repertoire for decades.

Hey hey Cripple Creek ferry
Butting through the overhanging trees
Make way for the Cripple Creek ferry
The water’s going down,
It’s a might tight squeeze

—Neil Young

Rocker Neil Young’s ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’ appears to have nothing to do with Cripple Creek, Colorado. It is, however, an interesting addition to the renditions of songs connected to the gold district. The song debuted on Young’s 1970 album, “After The Gold Rush,” a far-reaching link, if you will, to the gold rush Colorado’s Cripple Creek District experienced beginning in 1891. And, since it came out only a year after The Band’s song, “Cripple Creek Ferry” experienced a similar success on music charts. More than likely, however, the song was styled after Cripple Creek, Virginia – although Mr. Young never seems to have commented on it either way. Located south of Wytheville, Virginia’s Cripple Creek is even home to a namesake river (not a creek) running through it. According to author Leland Feitz, the Cripple Creek in Virginia is also located in close proximity to boyhood home of Bob Womack, the little cowboy who is credited with discovering gold in Colorado’s Cripple Creek. When Womack’s family settled in what is now the Cripple Creek District, they may have named the area after their favored homeland. As for Cripple Creek, Virginia, the tiny post office closed in 2011 and the area is now referred to as an “unincorporated community.”

Hey, I got a girl at the head of the creek
Goin’ up to see her about two times a week
Kiss her on the mouth, sweet as any wine
Wrap herself around me like a sweet potato vine

Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on a run…

If neither of the other songs can be ascertained as being styled after Cripple Creek, Colorado, the old time melody “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek” can. This traditional bluegrass tune has been a mainstay of Cripple Creek’s famous melodrama shows, as well as numerous plays, commercials and a number of musical groups. In fact the song goes back so far, no one even seems to know who wrote it anymore. In the bluegrass circuit, the catchy little ditty is often accompanied by a fiddle, banjo, or even a mouthbow. The instruments fit right in the with lyrics such as these:

Now the girls up Cripple Creek about half grown
Jump on a boy like a dog on a bone
Roll my britches up to my knees
Wade ol’ Cripple Creek whenever I please

The song, which appears to have been written circa 1917, has been performed a number of well-known artists, including Buffy St. Marie. Locally, Cripple Creek, Colorado’s own Danny Griffith, the musical director for the melodrama shows at the Imperial Hotel for many years, performed the tune at dozens of shows and even recorded it on an album. Today, the song continues to make a reprise at the melodrama shows that are now held at the Butte Theater. It is true, “Goin’ Up To Cripple Creek” is often written off as too old fashioned and even corny. It is, however, a lively little jingle worthy of recognition, if only because it is believed to have truly been written about the Cripple Creek of Colorado.

All-in-One: Grassy, Cameron & Pinnacle Park, Colorado

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

Cameron was first known as Grassy, although it was sometimes misspelled on various maps as “Gassy” and “Gassey.” Less-than-astute historians have joked that the community was named after the digestive conditions suffered by a nearby rancher. On a more factual note, Grassy was so-named because it was located in a wide, grass-filled meadow at the edge of a forest. Mines of the Cripple Creek District were nearby and, unlike the hilly and steep streets of the most area towns, Grassy’s flat ground made it very easy to lay out.

   Grassy was almost named Cripple Creek when it was first founded. This was back when Cripple Creek as it is known today was divided by two separate towns, Fremont and Hayden Placer. The towns were ensconced in a heated battle over who would be first to secure a post office. Fremont wanted its name, but Hayden Placer took a competitive edge by choosing the name “Moreland,” a brilliant marketing move that implied that one could acquire “more land” by buying lots there. When the post office accepted Moreland’s name, Fremont founders Horace Bennett and Julius Myers took the competition one step further. In March of 1892, they filed a plat on the northeastern most section of the former Broken Box Ranch and called it Cripple Creek. Promotors Hayden Placer and Fremont had the last laugh, however, when the post office decided to simply combine them into one city and designated the post office name as Cripple Creek.

   In light of the post-designated Cripple Creek, Bennett and Myers changed the name of their platted Cripple Creek to Grassy when it was officially founded in February of 1892. The men had realized that Grassy could become an important mining and railroad hub. The town was officially platted on October 29, 1894 and was intended to be a large city. The main avenues were Prospect, Wolcott, Teller, Blaine, Cleveland, Townsend, Routt, Pitkin and Sherman, intersected by streets numbered one through five. The Midland Terminal Railroad intersected the east half of the town, with a tidy depot located on the southeast corner of Teller and 3rd. Stage services were offered for a time, wherein passengers were brought to the depot to ride the train to Divide and beyond. Meanwhile, the Midland Terminal railroad continued laying tracks headed to the rest of the Cripple Creek District.

   It was soon apparent that Grassy would not be developing very fast, for it was a tad too far from other, more important towns, in the district. A small portion of Grassy was vacated in August of 1895, and by 1899 the town in its entirety was up for sale. Enter the Woods Investment Company, comprised of budding millionaire Warren Woods and his sons Harry and Frank. The Woods boys were already making a big splash in nearby Victor, where they had built much of the town (and rebuilt it after a devastating fire in August of 1899). The Woods purchased the Grassy town site at a cost of $123,000 for 183 acres. The investment was solid enough, for surrounding mines had produced $250,000 in gold ore just that year. Miners, laborers, railroad workers, ranchers, and others were soon moving to Grassy.

   The Woods renamed their newly-acquired town. In July of 1899, the Cripple Creek Morning Times reported that the “Cameron Company that now owns the Grassy townsite, has changed the name of the place to Cameron. Several new houses are now in course of construction there. “Beginning on August 3, Cameron began appearing on the timetables as a stop along the Midland Terminal Railroad. Nice brick structures now lined Cameron Avenue. There were three saloons and even a newspaper, the Golden Crescent. Yet Cameron continued struggling to draw residents and visitors.

   Then, on August 10, readers of the Cripple Creek Morning Times saw a most interesting article. “Sunday an excursion will be run from this city to Cameron, formerly Grassy,” reported the Times. “Pinnacle Park, at Cameron, promises to be a very attractive pleasure resort.” What was Pinnacle Park, readers wondered. It turned out that the Woods had come up with a fabulous idea to draw folks to Cameron. They built a giant amusement park, Pinnacle Park, for the people of the Cripple Creek District to enjoy.

   Spanning thirty acres, Pinnacle Park was built at a cost of $32,500. Matthew Lockwood McBird, son of noted Denver architect Matthew John McBird, and who designed numerous buildings in Victor, was hired to draw plans for the buildings at the new park. McBird was perfect for the job, and was described as “a bit of a visionary, a dreamer and creator.” The fact that he never officially held an architect license in Colorado hardly seemed to slow him down. The man had learned well from his father, and assigned himself to building Pinnacle Park with vigor.

   McBird’s designs gave the buildings at Pinnacle Park hip roofs and angled logs to give the park a rustic look. The place afforded the amenities of any great amusement park: a large wooden dance pavilion with a bandstand, a picnic area, restaurants, carnival games, and an athletic field with seating for up to a thousand spectators. Football and baseball games were the main attraction. Nearby, a zoo exhibited native animals. There was also a playground with assorted popular rides of the day. Entrance to the park was gained via Acacia Avenue, and the Midland Terminal Railroad tracks cut directly through the middle of the park. Visitors came by rail, horseback and carriage, gaining entrance through elaborate wooden arches.

   The first Labor Day celebrated at Pinnacle Park was amazing indeed. Although plans were already in the works for a great festival with a “grand picnic,” the event was turned into a “benefit of the families of Coeur d’Alene miners” who were suffering through violent labor strikes in Idaho. The final plans for Labor Day would feature a baseball game among the Cripple Creek District’s teams. There were a number of other events as well, including greased pole climbing, a “slow burro” race, a sack race, a fifty yard “Fat Man’s” race, a horse race and a dance. Modest entrance fees were charged for everything in the effort to raise money for those in Coeur d’Alene.

   Neither the promoters nor the guests at Pinnacle Park were disappointed. The Labor Day celebration was deemed a great success, from a parade spanning twenty-two blocks which made its way from Cripple Creek, to the games, craft booths, lemonade and cigar stands and entertainment at the park. “The outgoing trains from Cripple Creek to Pinnacle Park were so crowded,” reported the Cripple Creek Morning Times, “that people hung on the sides and scrambled all over the tops of the coaches to get a place to sit.” Furthermore, a “solid stream” of wagons stretched from Tenderfoot Hill above Cripple Creek all the way to Cameron. What a site that must have been!

   In all, over six thousand dollars was raised for the mining families of Coeur d’Alene. Residents of the District came away from Pinnacle Park happy to have had such a day to relax with each other, with no incidents reported amongst the party goers. “It is doubtful if the people of the district ever appreciated before yesterday’s parade what a host of organized working men there are here,” concluded the Times, “or how many different trades and crafts are in the camp.”

   Cameron continued experiencing success. On September 30, an announcement was made that a new “broad gauge” railroad was planned from Colorado Springs to Cameron. The project was led by Irving Howbert and E.W. Gidding of the Cripple Creek District Electric railway, who had hired contractors Clough and Anderson to complete the work. By October, the school at Cameron had fifty two pupils. On December 8 a new post office was established. The name of the office was Touraine, however, “there being a Cameron in another portion of the state,” according to post office officials. The Woods Investment Company closed the year by announcing plans for the Gillett Light & Power Company, which would supply light to both the nearby city of Gillett, and Cameron.

   Interesting is that both the former town of Grassy and the new town of Cameron were listed in the Cripple Creek District directory in 1900. The reason was because the Woods had not yet filed a new plat map for Cameron. The growing population is exhibited by the fact that the Cameron School operated in town proper but a second town, identified as Lower Grassy School appears in the directory as well. Apparently, a portion of old Grassy now functioned as a suburb of Cameron. In Cameron proper, the downtown area offered an exciting array of business houses. The Arcade Saloon and the Cameron Club Saloon and Barber Shop attracted miners, while the more domestic could choose from a number of stores that included Butter’s Store, Home Bakery, Cameron Mercantile Co., G.G. Sweet & Company’s meats and groceries, Williams Dairy, and of course Pinnacle Park.

   As promised, citizens would also benefit from what the Woods called the Golden Crescent Water and Power Company. Within a year, running water would also be furnished to both Cameron and Gillett from Woods Lake. Yet it wasn’t until April 14, 1900 that the new and much improved Cameron was officially platted. C.L. Arzeno and Frank Woods were listed as principle officers on the plat map as Vice President and Secretary, respectively. Unlike nearby Beaver Park, whose naming of “streets” designated it as a blue collar town, Cameron’s roads were called “avenues” and named after local landmarks, including some important mines. The new names included Gillette, Hoosier, Isabella, Touraine, Damon, Pinnacle and Acacia. Just in case rich ore was found beneath the surface of the town, the Woods and Arzeno also wisely retained the mineral rights of all property within the town.

   Labor Day of 1900 appears to have been the record breaker of attendance at Pinnacle Park, when an astounding nine thousand people attended for a day of festivities. Admission was ten cents per head, yielding $900 for the day at the park – nearly $32,000 in today’s money. For a few glorious years, thousands of visitors came to Pinnacle Park every weekend and holiday during the summer. An April, 1900 issue of the Aspen Daily Times also announced that the “continued discovery of gold in the vicinity of Gillett and Cameron confirm the theory so long urged that the Cripple Creek veins extend to an unknown distance to the north.” Mines around Cameron included the Elsmere, Lansing and Wild Horse.

   The Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District Railroad, a.k.a. “The Short Line”, reached Cameron in March of 1901. A month later, the old post office name of Touraine was finally changed to Cameron. And once again, Pinnacle Park saw record attendance at Labor Day. For a time, it seemed as though Cameron would champion as a leading town in the Cripple Creek District – but that all changed in about 1903, when Cameron’s popularity began fading. The mines around Cameron began playing out and rumors abounded that the Woods boys were in financial trouble. Sales of residential lots at Cameron  came to a stop.

By the time the 1902-03 Cripple Creek District Directory was published, Cameron’s population had shrunk to around 300. The directory now described the town as “small” and located “on the site of the old Grassy settlement”. There was still an Episcopal church, a city hall, Kings Hall and three other clubs, but the business district had dwindled considerably to only a boardinghouse, a grocery, one doctor and the Cameron Crescent.

   The notorious, tumultuous labor wars of 1903-1904 in the Cripple Creek District in took a further toll on Cameron, which was located dangerously close to the center of the mining strikes. The Cameron Crescent went out of business, and in March, several blocks in town were officially vacated. A few months later, just five days into the labor strikes, “Big Bill” Haywood gave a rousing speech to a group of union men at a Pinnacle Park picnic. Haywood urged the miners “to stand with” the Western Federation of Miners until the strike against mine owners was victorious. But owing to the lack of news articles about Cameron during the labor strikes, it would appear that citizens wanted as little to do with the fracas as possible.

Cameron still had about 300 residents in 1905, but notably, neither of the two churches had a pastor and both congregations met at Town Hall. There was still a boardinghouse, general merchandise, grocery, hotel and shoe store, but Cameron was most certainly suffering a slow death. Even though there were a few more businesses in 1907, the population was only 200. The Colorado State Business Directory for 1908 reported the number of residents at one hundred. It would also be the last time Pinnacle Park, now under the management of one Thomas Morris, was listed in any directory. The park closed shortly afterwards. Cameron’s post office closed in August of 1909. A year later, only 50 residents remained in the city proper. By 1912, Cameron appeared as a suburb of Cripple Creek in city directories. Finally, in 1917, Cameron was vacated altogether. Children in the area were able to continued attending the Cameron School until it officially closed in 1921. By that time, only six pupils and their teacher, Miss Mannering, were left.

   The fancy log fence around Pinnacle Park, along with its quaint buildings, was eventually torn down. For years, the logs lay in a heap in the woods just off the former railbed of the Midland Terminal. Brick enclosures built to house bears and wildcats at the Pinnacle Park Zoo were the only remnants left until 2010, when they were dismantled in the wake of mining operations. The materials were stored by the City of Cripple Creek until 2014, when they were reconstructed at the Cripple Creek District Museum. By 2015, what was left of Cameron was quickly being buried under modern mining tailings, and the town is officially no more.

Barry, Colorado: An Early Town in the Cripple Creek District

c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins

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

As the Cripple Creek District developed into the last official gold boom in Colorado, thousands of miners flocked to the region seeking fortune. Within an incredibly short time, hundreds prospect holes dotted the landscape. In one area, located roughly halfway between Cripple Creek and Victor, the body of what was called “a female aborigine” was unearthed. The remains were most likely those of the Ute tribe, since those Natives once favored the area as a summer hunting ground. The area where the woman was found became known as Squaw Gulch.

Leslie Doyle Spell, whose family had been living in Florissant, recalled moving to a new home at Squaw Gulch. “This was a two-room cabin,” he remembered, “with one room used for eating, sleeping and general use while the other was to serve as sleeping quarters for the men.” Spell also remembered a young woman, Emma Rickett of Florissant, who had been hired to help his mother. After Emma died “an agonizing death from blood poisoning,” she became the first woman buried in what was later Mt Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek. There were other tragedies as well: Spell also recalled to small children who were killed by a bear soon after the family arrived in Squaw Gulch. “Quite often,” he said, “while sitting on the porch of our cabin or playing nearby, we would be startled almost out of our wits by the screams of panthers, or mountain lions, in the nearby forests.”

The primitive school at Squaw Gulch was a log house, built by and lived in by cobbler Fred Hackey. The first Christmas at Squaw Gulch merited mention in the Colorado Springs Daily Gazette, which remarked, “Christmas passed very quickly up here and, indeed it seemed hard to realize that it was Christmas. In the evening a dance was held in the loft over Sills & Mills grocery store in Squaw Gulch…a very pleasant evening and their first in Cripple Creek.”

In 1892 Spell’s father, William, donated a lot and building materials for a proper school. His only request was that, should the time come when the building was no longer used for a school, it was to be used for “inter-denominational church services.” Spell became a true leader of the early booming Cripple Creek District, eventually being appointed marshal of Fremont and Placer (which later became Cripple Creek), Mound City and Squaw Gulch. Squaw Gulch even had a small jail, built primarily for the son of a prominent rancher who often wandered home drunk from the saloons and dance halls in nearby Cripple Creek.

As the town grew, Spell remembered brothers Bill and Vint Barry coming to Squaw Gulch and renaming the town for themselves. While laying out their town, the brothers encountered one Andy Frazier, whose cabin sat right in the path of the new main road. Frazier refused to move, explaining his wife was expecting a baby at any moment and besides, he had squatter’s rights. The Barrys built a new house along the proposed street and presented it to Frazier as a gift. The property did not, however, include mineral rights. The Barry brothers might have decided to keep those for themselves, should gold be found in the town.

Spell’s account of the Barry brothers is confusing, since other sources claim that Barry was named for Horace Barry, one of the many prospectors who staked several claims and struck it mildly rich. By the time he came to the District, Barry had already been dabbling in mining for some time. The 1880 census verifies he was working as a miner in Silver Cliff, another mining town in southern Colorado. Upon founding his namesake town, Barry told others he believed the little village would become the “cultural center” of the district. Although Barry merely consisted of a few log cabins and some tents,  its founding father set off a wave of optimism that seemed to affect everyone who came there. Notably, Spell’s recollection came from his memories of actually living in Barry, so his story of the renaming of Squaw Gulch certainly deserves mention and perhaps further discourse.

However Barry was named, nobody seemed to mind losing the name of Squaw Gulch. Barry’s post office opened on March 1, 1892. The small town prospered. Surrounding mines were doing well, and many of Barry’s male residents were employed by the Blue Bell Mine. Shops, restaurants and two or three neat rows of homes lined the road up Squaw Gulch. There were also a slew of new residents. One of them was H. Susan Anderson. “Doc  Susie,” as she was later known, was born in Indiana in 1870. When her parents divorced in 1875, Susan’s father William took custody of Susan and her younger brother John. By the early 1880’s the family was living on a farm in Kansas, where Susan learned to “doctor” the animals around the homestead. The family also resided in Indiana and Iowa, where in 1892 William Anderson married Minnie Croy.

In early 1892 the Andersons moved to Barry, where William pursued mining interests. Shortly after their arrival, Susan and John were sent off to college. Susan’s chosen field was medicine. In 1893 she traveled to the University of Michigan to begin her studies. Midway through her classes, however, Susan’s father cut off her financial report. Susan persevered, borrowing money from a classmate and finishing her schooling. Despite contracting tuberculosis during her internship, Susan graduated in 1897. Upon returning to the Cripple Creek District, she opened an office in Cripple Creek and lived with her grandparents. Being the only female physician in town must have been difficult, but she began taking in more patients after managing to save a boy’s arm from amputation. By 1900 she was making plans to marry. When her fiance and father had some sort of falling out, however, the former broke off the engagement. A few days later Susan’s brother John died from pneumonia at the nearby town of Anaconda. The heartbroken doctor left the Cripple Creek District, finally managing to establish herself in the northern town of Fraser. Doc Susie lived in Fraser until her death in Denver in 1960. She is buried in Cripple Creek.

A more well-known citizen of Barry in the early days was Judge M.B. Gerry, the man who sentenced Colorado cannibal Alfred Packer to hang in 1883. Gerry was a member of Horace Barry’s Squaw Gulch Amusement Club, as were prominent rancher George Carr and well-known cowboy Bob Womack. Tongue-in-cheek advertisements for the club boasted “a membership of 400, of which 399 are from the high-toned aristocratic circles of Squaw Gulch.” Square dances and libations were offered up at the Club, and for a short time the place was the premier social center of the neighborhood.

Not surprisingly, the Squaw Gulch Amusement Club proved lucrative for the soiled doves who eventually flew into town. Les Spell remembered when a brothel opened in the vacant house next to the family home. The place maintained a low profile, and one of the girls had a little boy who often played alone in his backyard. One day Spell’s brother asked the boy to come over and play. The child replied, “No, my mother is a whore and says I am to stay home.” Another time, a cowboy was sleeping off a drunk at the house of his favorite call girl. As he slept, the gentleman’s mischievous companion donned his overalls and rode down Main Street on his horse.

Barry had other amusements too. There were two newspapers, Write Up the Camp and the Squaw Gulch Nugget. Articles might have included news on Horace Barry, who was investing in various mine interests and was an officer at Sam Altman’s Free Coinage Mine above Victor. Barry, however, was also suffering some setbacks with his investments. In January of 1893, The Aspen Daily Times reported that “John F. Newman filed this  morning in the district court a suit for $125,000 and legal interest from April 5, 1892, to the day of judgement against Horace W. Barry and Caleb W. Barry. The plaintiff alleges that he was the owner of 100,000 shares of mining stock of the Anaconda Mining & Milling Company at Cripple Creek until about April 5, 1892. That the defendant and other parties misrepresented the value of the stock b reporting falsely upon the output of the property and thus inducing the plaintiff to dispose of his stock for $5000.00 to the defendant, Horace W. Barry, and that he did not discover the intent to defraud him until October.”

Barry’s namesake town, meanwhile, was also being swallowed up by the new town of Anaconda at the head of Squaw Gulch. The town newspapers went out of business, and in December of 1893 the post office was moved to Anaconda. By 1894 Barry had been totally absorbed by the larger town. Horace Barry eventually left the area, and continued dabbling in mining. By 1899 he was in Denver, and in 1903 the Iowa Press-Citizen newspaper in his home state of Iowa reported, “The Valley Mining company today sued its general manager, H.W. Barry, M.I. Barry and Laura Barry Elmendorf, for $2,000 in damages, and asked for writ of attachment against Mr. Barry’s property and against certain shares of stock, now held by the other defendants. The petition avers that Barry made misrepresentations as to the title of certain property, and that he misused funds entrusted to him. The plaintiff further declares that Mr. Barry has disappeared from Silver Cliff.” Barry later surfaced briefly in Denver and California before disappearing altogether.

Image: Barry as it appeared circa 1893. Fred M. Mazzulla collection.