Tag Archives: Anaconda

Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms: Introduction

The following excerpt is from the book Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and arcadiapublishing.com.

~2003 Cripple Creek District Last of Colorado's Gold Booms best

Who would have thought that a cow pasture could yield millions of dollars in gold and spawn a city so large it rivaled Denver for the state capitol? Bob Womack did, and it is his determination we have to thank for the historic Cripple Creek District we see today.

Upon arriving during the 1870’s, Robert M. Womack’s family established a cattle ranch near what is today Cripple Creek. Wandering the hills daily, Bob’s prior prospecting experience led to his discovery of gold. Womack’s dream of a booming gold camp was finally realized in 1891.

By 1893, the city of Cripple Creek was in a constant state of progress with new construction, new stage roads and a growing population. Telephones, telegraph lines and even electricity had been installed, making Cripple Creek one of the first cities in the nation to have such modern amenities.
Within three years, Cripple Creek’s population had grown to 10,000 residents. Several more camps, towns and cities were springing up in the District. Passengers on the newly constructed Midland Terminal Railroad rolled into a typical frontier town at both Cripple Creek and Victor. Both towns were filled with wooden false-front buildings containing banks, mercantiles, saloons, churches, opera houses, schools, boarding houses, restaurants, mining and real estate offices, hardware and furniture stores, laundries, news stands, drugstores, bakeries, brothels and assay offices. Every imaginable business prospered in the District, and the wise investor stood little chance of losing money.

Fire, an ever imposing threat on boom towns across the country, was inevitable in the Cripple Creek District. Of Cripple Creek’s three early fires, two stand out as crucial turning points in the city’s development. During a four day period in April of 1896, two separate conflagrations nearly destroyed the town. In the aftermath of the first fire, over 3,600 people lost their homes and businesses as 15 acres went up in smoke. During the second blaze, all but two buildings on Bennett Avenue burned, as well as a good portion of the residential District. Thousands more were homeless and seeking shelter in makeshift tents and neighboring towns.

What could have been the demise of any other town was a mixed blessing for Cripple Creek. Within four years a bigger, better city rose from the ashes. The town rebuilt in solid brick and the city lost its rough and shabby frontier town look. A random stroll down any avenue revealed a city bustling with business. Here, one could purchase fine china at the May Co. or the best meal in the state at the National Hotel. A number of saloons, gambling halls, dance halls and parlor houses fairly seethed with life.

The District’s second largest city, Victor, also suffered a fire in August of 1899. In its wake, residents of Cripple Creek and other nearby towns came to the rescue. This time, Frank and Harry Woods hired a variety of builders, including Denver architect Matthew Lockwood McBird. Within just a few months, Victor also rebuilt into a fine working class city. By 1900, investors from around the world were flocking to the Cripple Creek District as mines produced more millions than anyone had imagined.

By the turn of the last century, the Cripple Creek District had become a household word not only across America, but all over the world. Everyone knew where Cripple Creek was, and many yearned to seek their fortunes there. Among those celebrities hailing from the District were boxer Jack Dempsey, travel writer and radio personality Lowell Thomas, Colorado Governor Ralph Carr, and nightclub queen Texas Guinan. Famous visitors to the District included Theodore Roosevelt, Groucho Marx, Lily Langtree, and a number of musicians and movie stars.

Two labor wars occurred in the Cripple Creek District. The first, in 1893, settled in favor of the miners. The second labor war was much more violent. Riots and gunfights broke out as striking miners were deported by train to the state borders. There were deaths, injuries and inhumane acts. At one point, a Gatling gun was temporarily installed in the middle of Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek as a deterrent to violence. By the time the strikes were settled statewide in about 1907, the mines were thought to be playing out and people began leaving the District in search of greener pastures.

Thankfully, some of the pioneer families who called the District home for decades chose to stay, living in what was left of the District even as it decayed under their feet. Through both World War I and II, the cities and towns continued to shrink as buildings were dismantled for use in reconstruction or firewood. Others simply sank into the ground under the weight of winter snows and age. As a result, only three towns exist today: Cripple Creek, Victor and the District’s third largest city, Goldfield. Each are roughly about 1/5 of their original size. Roughly four ghost towns remain visible to the naked eye, with several others either completely gone or buried forever under mine tailings.

Beginning in the late 1940’s and continuing into the 1980’s, the District evolved into a quaint tourist destination. Then in about 1989, Cripple Creek and other towns like it began considering legalized gambling to save their historic integrity. A century after its birth, Cripple Creek’s rebirth came in the form of limited stakes gaming. Alongside the gaming came the Cripple Creek & Victor Mine, which is currently the largest open pit mine in the state.

Today, fifteen casinos line Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek, and the city is ten years into its second boom in 100 years. The city of Victor is surviving as a non-gaming tourist attraction with a healthy residential population, while Goldfield has melded into a quiet bedroom community with no commercial businesses. Live music, street festivals and a series of other events take place regularly within the District. Many of them, such as Donkey Derby Days and Gold Rush Days, are traditions dating back as long as 70 years; others are new events spawned out of the need for tourism. True to its heritage, the Cripple Creek District continues to be a wonderful year-round destination for residents and visitors of all ages.

The Towns We Love to Love

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

There’s nothing quite so good as waking up on a sunny morning and hearing, “Wanna go 4-wheeling?” For me and my companion, whoever says it first, it’s nearly the same as hearing we just won a cruise. Except the only cruise we ever seem inclined to go on is the cruise we take over hundreds of miles of back roads. Yup, there’s nothing better than roaming a countryside without the luxury of pavement, eating out of a cooler, finding ghost towns, and collapsing at the end of the day either at a remote campsite or an historic motor court with plenty of cold drinks on hand.

These days, that last part is definitely a hit or miss situation. In the 30+ years we have spent—together and separately—bumping over faded pathways and careening around rock slide corners, we’ve seen a lot of old towns come and go, but mostly go. There are places where as recently as 20 years ago, lots of buildings were standing but now there are none. Places where vandalism, theft or new development has reared its ugly head with no respect for our past. Places that make us sad, but also places that make us happy because they are still standing and well-preserved. But having watched some of our favorite towns fade away, we’ve become a little more secretive about where they are, a little more vague about where we’ve been, and a little more hopeful that our beloved towns might last a little longer.

Prior to moving back to my native state of Arizona from Colorado, I spent decades rambling over precarious mountain passes, barely passable roads and overgrown trails in search of Colorado’s past. Unfortunately, with each passing year more fences appeared. Roads were gated. New homes were built right next to, and sometimes even on, cemeteries where the graves of the very pioneers who got us here lay forgotten. In the last five years I was there, aghast at no longer being able to access a place or encountering some new property owner who was too greedy to even recognize the true treasure they had, I heard myself muttering, “This is not the Colorado I fell in love with.” Now, in Arizona, I am quickly learning that the state has been too slow in preserving what they have left. Lots of ghost towns are still highly accessible, but the search and the trip to find them often yields nothing more than an empty field.

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to fighting against our places of the past facing imminent destruction. Evidence of this is becoming clear and more common in Colorado. One idea is to have a caretaker on-site during the months the town is accessible. They do this at Ashcroft, located near Aspen. The caretaker lives in what looks to be an original one-room cabin with no more than a bed, some furniture, water and some pegs to hang clothes on. For the right person, it’s the dream job of a lifetime, waking up each morning to the succulent scent of wild flowers, which are protected by law, and looking out the window at the magnificent old two-story hotel with its false front, which is also protected by law. Both laws would likely be violated on a regular basis if it weren’t for the caretaker.

Sometimes the best of both worlds are reached when an old ghost town is revived by residents. Such is the case with places like Bonanza and Crestone, north of Alamosa. Both have been occupied in recent years by summer dwellers, but now even a few die-hards are known to stick it out the year through. In some cases, towns are also protected by private owners who are often descendants of historic figures. Take Greenhorn, an 1840’s circa rest stop that later blossomed into a fur trading center and, even later, a small resort complete with a restaurant and zoo. The Fossceco family, residents since 1916, still own the land and have done their best to save the community’s buildings from falling apart.

St. Elmo is another classic example, albeit also a reason why historic preservation laws should be more stringent. Property owners obviously love their little town, with gracious signs asking visitors to stay in the street and avoid trespassing. But although more of the town remains than most other ghost towns, fires in the last two decades have destroyed some of the historic buildings. To make matters worse, newcomers in recent years have threatened the town’s historic fabric by expressing a desire to build modern homes amongst the old ones.

A lesson could easily be learned by observing what they are doing at Turret, another classic ghost town nestled up north of Salida. At Turret, the old town plat has been utilized to sell lots to new owners—with the agreement, however, that all new construction will follow the town’s historic aesthetics . That means no modern architecture, no electricity, and plenty of respect for what made this town what it was.

One place in particular that seems to have stood the test of time is Animas Forks, despite having no caretaker. Located between Lake City and Silverton, Animas Forks has managed to keep many of its buildings, including a landmark two-story home with a beautiful bay window. Although the town is located a good long way from civilization and lies in the path of some favorite off-road trails, and although hundreds of people walk into the house and to have their photo taken from the bay window, somehow it has prevailed.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ludlow, home of heart-wrenching, emotional strikes in 1914 that took the lives of several men, two women and eleven children. Situated on a remote county road between Walsenburg and Trinidad, the abandoned buildings of Ludlow are largely overshadowed by a beautiful granite monument depicting a miner, his wife and their child. In 2003, the monument was severely damaged when vandals chopped off the heads of the adult statues, including the woman’s arm. To the descendants of strike victims who still live in the area, the act was like vandalizing a veteran’s memorial wall. Supporters of the monument worked hard to raise funding to restore the statue, and a memorial event commemorated their efforts in 2005.

Thankfully, History Colorado (aka the Colorado Historical Society) continues to play a bigger part in preservation and stabilization efforts these days. Seems one can’t access any of the better known ghosts without seeing a sign regarding preservation efforts by the CHS. Sometimes the signs have obviously been there awhile, but they illustrate two wonderful ideas: the state is working diligently to save historic buildings, and the signs serve to deter vandals no matter how deserted the area appears.

Boggsville, Empire and Iron City are just some of the places receiving funding from the state. Founded in 1866, Boggsville served as the last home of explorer Kit Carson, as well as the county seat of Bent County. Since 1993, the state has been working to slowly but surely renovate the buildings at Boggsville, and the project is nearly complete. At Empire, located north of I-70 on the way to Blackhawk and Central City, four buildings that include Colorado’s oldest hotel, the Peck House, have been added to state and national registers. A rough and rocky road just before St. Elmo leads to the only remaining building at Iron City, a power plant that went under in about 1917 and was recently restored. A sign explaining the structure’s history ends with a most appropriate statement: “The historical heritage of the state of Colorado can only be preserved by the citizens themselves.”

So what to do? You can start by remembering the old adage about visiting ghost towns: Take only pictures, leave only footprints—unless the place is slated for demolition with no archeological digs or documentation planned. In that case, photograph what you find, carefully remove what artifacts you can with permission, document and photograph where you found them, and donate them to the nearest museum. There are indeed those wrapped in government bureaucracy who insist this last idea is wrong, and further submit that historic structures should never be moved in order to protect them from destruction. Better to know exactly where their history occurred, they say, than to move a building and confuse people as to the site of its original footprint. Let it fall. I disagree. After years of leaving something in place only to see it up for sale in a local shop or on EBay, I prefer being the rogue historian who saves a piece of history and assures it is preserved for all future generations to enjoy.

Better yet, joining local historical societies, History Colorado and Colorado Preservation Inc., the state’s leading preservation organization, will help keep you up to date and get you involved not only in finding ghost towns, but assisting in their preservation. Using a five-point criteria (significant events, significant persons, unique architectural points, geographic importance, and/or important discoveries related to prehistory or history), the History Colorado accepts nominations every year for everything from Indian campsites to trails to bridges and mountains to structures and even whole cities. To contact Colorado Preservation Inc., access their website at http://www.coloradopreservation.org. History Colorado can be accessed at http://www.coloradohistory.org.

In 2012 Anaconda, the last of over 20 abandoned towns in the famed Cripple Creek District of Colorado, was bulldozed and molded into the latest pit for a gold mine.

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