c 2022 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article have appeared in Kiva and the Colorado Gambler magazines.
If the experts are correct, over 300 films have been shot in Colorado over time. Narrow that number down to movies that have been filmed in the Pikes Peak region, and the estimate seems small. For well over a century, the wild, enchanting landscapes around Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek and Canon City have been catching the eye of prominent film makers from around the world. Thomas Edison, for instance, is credited as the first film producer to realize the potential of Colorado’s scenic wonders. In 1891, Edison produced the first ever moving picture. Shooting live film was a new and difficult process, and Edison’s films in those early days only averaged between 30 seconds
and two minutes in length. But they fascinated theater goers who had never imagined it was possible to capture people moving on film.
In 1897, Edison had fine-tuned his techniques enough to send an employee, James Henry White, out West to shoot motion picture films. White’s first stop was Colorado, where he filmed a number of short, unscripted scenes. His earliest attempt in El Paso County lasted 2 ½ minutes and depicted cattle being forded across a stream and branded. Other efforts recorded Ute Indian dances, downtown scenes of Denver and an obscure piece known as “Cripple Creek Float.” The projects immediately caught the eye of local railroad companies who saw commercial value in them. The idea of producing an actual story on film was not far off.
Edison’s real breakthrough in Colorado came with the 1898 production of a 45 second film called “Cripple Creek Barroom”. The scene depicts a number of men drinking and playing poker while being served by a “barmaid” who was actually a hefty man dressed in women’s clothing. A drunk enters the room, knocks the hat off of one of the customers, and is unceremoniously escorted out by the crowd. Although it was actually shot at Edison’s Black Maria studio in New Jersey, “Cripple Creek Barroom” was important for a number of reasons. First, it shows how Cripple Creek was indeed famous across America. It was also the first time a film maker actually created a story on film. Today, “Cripple Creek Barroom” is considered among movie buffs as the first western ever filmed.
Other filming locations would take place in Colorado. In 1902, the Selig-Polyscope Company of Chicago followed the trail of Edison by establishing their own agent in Colorado. His name was Henry H. “Buck” Buckwalter, a Denver photographer who jumped at the chance to try film making. Buckwalter also took several photographs in and around Cripple Creek. On the side he also ran his own projecting company
and during the summer months showed his own projects, as well as movies sent to him by Selig, in Denver and Colorado Springs. Over the next six years, both Edison and Selig-Polyscope shot more films in both Colorado and their respective eastern studios.
Another famous film that has survived the era was Edison’s 1903 production called “The Great Train Robbery”, a four minute western that was filmed in New Jersey. Buckwalter countered with two more projects: “Girls in Overalls,” filmed on location in Gunnison and “Tracked by Bloodhounds; or a Lynching at Cripple Creek”. Both features were eight minutes long, a record since most producers did not believe an audience’s attention span would allow for sitting still so long. “Tracked by Bloodhounds” was especially interesting, since it was filmed around Cripple Creek in April 1904. Like “The Great Train Robbery”, the film involved murder and a posse chase, ending in a shoot out and subsequent death of the villain. Backdrops included downtown scenes of Cripple Creek.
At the time the filming took place, the Cripple Creek District was in the throes of a violent labor war. Buckwalter and Selig saw little action while filming in April. But when professional assassin Harry Orchard blew up the train depot at the district town of Independence in June, Selig made the most of the incident. Certain advertising for the movie’s premier insinuated that the events in the film were real, and that the villain was actually a striking miner instead of the tramp that was portrayed. Newspapers across the nation, already aware of the explosion at Independence, further exploited the film in merely trying to get to the truth.
Later in 1904, Buckwalter produced another film called “Holdup of the Leadville Stage”.
This movie was actually filmed along Ute Pass and in the vicinity of Bear Creek Road.
Buckwalter managed to get the Colorado Springs Gazette to run a detailed news-like story about the “real” hold up. Only at the end of the story did the paper let readers off the hook: “The robbery was committed in broad daylight and posses immediately started in pursuit and this morning they will be photographed in moving pictures and the most exciting film ever made in the mountains of Colorado will be completed.”
By 1907 Colorado was becoming a film mecca and Buckwalter moved to Golden to shoot more films. In 1911 Selig relocated to American City, located above Central City. Three films were shot there, and at least one was sensationalized in the Gilpin County Observer as an actual bank robbery. In the fall Selig relocated again, this time to Canon City. The first Selig film shot there was “The Telltale Knife”, starring Tom Mix. From 1911 to 1914, more movies were filmed in Canon City and surrounding areas. By then, the standard movie ran about 15 minutes. Most of them used the same crew of actors,
namely Tom Mix, Joe Ryan, Josephine West, William Dunn and Myrtle Stedman.
After winning the Royal Gorge Rodeo Championship in 1909, Mix initially worked as a film technician before his wild riding and shooting stunts won him parts in the movies themselves. His first film appearance for Selig had been as a bronco buster in the documentary “Ranch Life in the Great Southwest”. In his off time, Mix worked and drank at several local watering holes. They included saloons in Hell’s Half Acre (now known as Brookside outside of Canon City), Prospect Heights (now a suburb of Canon City) and the Canon City Elk’s Lodge. Occasionally, Mix’ drinking sprees landed him in jail at Prospect Heights. In Cripple Creek, part of the district’s folklore revolves around Mix working at various bars in town, as well as performing ranch hand duties at the Crescent Ranch near Divide.
Despite Mix’ growing stardom in Canon City, attention turned to Cripple Creek once again in 1912 with the production of another silent Western called “At Cripple Creek”. Details as to the producer and location of this film are obscure. The script was written by Hal Reid and starred Wallace Reid, Sue Balfour and Gertrude Robinson. Throughout the rest of 1912, Selig continued churning out short westerns from Canon City. They included “Jim’s Vindication” about a man who is framed for robbery and flees while
trying to clear his name. Tom Mix is noticeably absent in this film, having opted not to renew his contract and moving on to Hollywood. In his stead, Selig introduced actress Myrtle Stedman, as well as actor William Duncan who wrote and produced the project. “Jim’s Vindication” was followed by two more Duncan productions, “A Ranger and His Horse” and “Buck’s Romance”. Both films starred Myrtle Stedman with Duncan as her leading man.
In 1913, a final Duncan production was released by Selig titled “Matrimonial Deluge”.
Selig eventually moved to Prescott Arizona and went on to produce several other high action packed films. Upon his departure from Canon City, the Colorado Motion Picture Company was formed by ex-Selig employees, including actors Josephine West and Joe Ryan. The Canon City Chamber of Commerce held a contest to see who could come up with the best logo for the company, with A.R. Livingston of the Empire Zinc Company and one Alva Wood taking honors. Colorado Motion Picture titles included “The Range War”, “Across the Border”, “The Hand of the Law”, and “Cycle of Destiny”. Today, only one known film survives. Ironically it is the company’s first production, “Pirates of the Plains”. Like its predecessors, “Pirates” was shot in Canon City and released in 1914.
Not to be outdone, Colorado Springs hurried to compete with Canon City’s film industry. Plans were announced in May of 1914 for the arrival of Romaine Felding, the highest paid actor/producer in the world at the time. Fielding intended to shoot some films on location, including the Hagerman Mansion which is today’s El Paso Club. Fielding remained in Colorado Springs from June through August. Whether he actually shot any footage is unknown, but his sudden departure may have been influenced by the July drowning of actress Grace McHugh and cameraman Owen Carter in the Arkansas River during the making of “Across the Border” at Canon City. While crossing the river McHugh’s horse stumbled, tossing her into the water. Carter jumped in, and the two managed to crawl onto a sandbar before the cameraman lost his footing and the couple went under once more. Their bodies were later found downstream, and it was said that McHugh’s mother won a court case against the Colorado Motion Picture Company. That was the end of film making in Canon City for the time being.
With Canon City out of the picture, so to speak, Colorado Springs filmmakers continued churning out movies. Notable is that Silver Dollar Tabor, the ill-fated daughter of silver king Horace Tabor, surfaced in town and began working as an actress for the Pike’s Peak Motion Picture Company sometime around November of 1914. The job did not last long and Silver moved on, but not before scoring a supporting actress roll in a production of “The Greater Barrier”. Filmed at Colorado College, this provocative movie about a white girl and her Indian beau addressed interracial dating and no doubt raised some eyebrows.
In the meantime, the Pike’s Peak Photoplay Company was emerging as another important Colorado Springs film company. One of their film locations was the former Heidelberg Inn in Ramona, a now defunct suburb of Colorado City. The closed up barroom was used to film a number of westerns over one summer. The building itself was razed in 1921, but movies continued to be shot in the Pikes Peak region throughout the 1920’s. In 1925 a few movie scenes were filmed for a Warner Bros. production of “The Limited Mail” around Canon City. They included footage of the Royal Gorge and even a train wreck. But the ideal location had lost its appeal for the time being, especially with the premier of “The Great K & A Train Robbery” in 1926 starring Tom Mix, Dorothy Dawn and a very young extra hired by Mix: John Wayne. Most of the scenes were shot in Glenwood Canyon, far away from Canon City.
The depression era did much to squelch movie making for about a decade. Then Tom
Mix died in a car crash near Phoenix, Arizona in 1940. But the mid-40’s found directors back in Colorado, striving to make spaghetti westerns with world wide-appeal. Productions included 1947’s “The Marshal of Cripple Creek” starring Red Ryder and 1948’s “Canon City”, starring Charles Bronson and based on the actual escape of 12 inmates from the Colorado State Penitentiary. When the crews left, a local man named Karol Smith established the Canon City Motion Picture Committee and produced a location manual to be sent to Hollywood producers. The ploy worked. In 1950, the first film to premier in Canon City’s new film era was “Vengeance Valley” with Burt Lancaster and Slim Pickens. “Vengeance” was followed by “The Denver and Rio Grande”. In 1952 another movie, “Cripple Creek”, premiered. While the fictional film was not shot on location, it does mention Victor and Goldfield. The tagline capitalized on Cripple Creek’s bygone mining era, declaring “For every man who struck gold—hundreds tried to take it away from him!” The plot was complete with shoot outs and fist fights to give it authentic western flavor.
In 1953 yet another film, “The Outcast” with John Derek, was filmed at Canon City. This
was followed by 1954’s “Big House USA”. In 1958, Karol Smith assisted in creating Buckskin Joe, a museum-quality assemblage of historic buildings from around the state (including one from Cripple Creek). The historic setting has continually provided an excellent backdrop for such westerns as “Cat Ballou” with Jane Fonda, “Boom Town” with Clark Gable, “Misfits” with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, “The Last Round Up” with Gene Autrey, “The Cowboys” and “True Grit” with John Wayne, “The Dutchess and the Dirtwater Fox” with Goldie Hawn, “White Buffalo”, “The Sacketts”, “Conagher” with Sam Elliot and Kathrine Ross and “Lightening Jack.” The closing of Buckskin Joe in 2010 truly signified the end of Colorado’s frontier film-making era, but you can read about movies made in the Centennial State between now and then by clicking here.