c 2023 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article are excerpted from Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County
Of all of the Cripple Creek District’s historic cities, Independence stands out as one of the most interesting. Named for the Independence Mine staked by Winfield Scott Stratton in 1891, the city spilled down the hillside of Montgomery Gulch in what is now known as the Vindicator Valley. Stratton eventually relocated to a more upscale and modest house in Colorado Springs, but his former home at Independence remained well known.
Independence was platted on November 11, 1894. Nearby was the Hull City Mine, a big producer throughout the early 1900’s. Upwards of eleven streets made up the fledgling town, surrounded on all sides by such mines as the Vindicator, the Teresa, the Portland #1 and #2, the Findley and of course, the Independence.
In time, the Midland Terminal Railroad tracks would divide Independence from Goldfield, located across Montgomery Gulch. Founded in 1895, Goldfield eventually became a suburb of Victor. In turn, Independence sort of became a suburb of Goldfield when the two towns grew to meet each other in the gulch.
Perhaps because there was already another town named Independence, located along the pass of the same name near Aspen, the post office was called Macon when it first opened in February of 1895. Part of the reason for opening the post office was because the one at Altman, above Independence, was being revisited by the postmaster general to make sure there were enough residents up there merited having mail service. Altman eventually got their post office back, and the Macon post office continued service to Independence.
By 1896, the population at Independence was around 500. Businesses included an assayer and jeweler to service the rich mines surrounding the camp. One boarding house and two hotels sheltered miners. There was also a drugstore, grocery, two meat markets, a milliner, a cobbler, a photographer, one physician, one restaurant and two saloons. A lumber mill and a general contractor serviced mines, merchants and homesteaders alike. The Midland train dropped passengers off at First and Montgomery. A harness maker and hay and feed store served the equine population.
Over the next few years, Independence grew fast. In 1899, the Macon postmaster succeeded in renaming the post office to Independence. In spite of having a population of 1,500 by 1900, Independence was never able to form its own town council or elect a mayor. The town was instead governed by Goldfield. The decision to do this is puzzling, as services at Independence included telephone and telegraph service, and an inventory of the business district also included a number of stores, nine boarding houses, two hotels and two churches. The school was run by Mrs. S.L. Leazer. Three doctors and a dentist had put up their shingles. There were also now eight saloons. Numerous productive mines continued to surround the town, including the Vindicator, the Delmonico and the Atlanta.
Not all of the citizens of Independence liked the arrangement with Goldfield. In late 1900, the Independence Mining & Townsite Company purchased a large plot of land and started advertising the new town with vigor. “In twelve months, it will be the commercial center of the great Cripple Creek District,” the town fathers declared. Despite their intentions, however, the men failed in their mission and Independence remained under Goldfield’s shadow. Still, the town was not without some memorable residents. Among them was the “Queen of Independence.” The unidentified young lady was the toast of the town according to the late Rufus Porter, a.k.a. the “Hard Rock Poet,” who actually lived in Goldfield. Porter recalled the “Queen’s” story of watching two gamblers sitting on a wooden sidewalk, each with a stack of gold pieces. The men were spitting at a crack between the boards on $20 bets.
Business at Independence continued to boom. As of 1901, the Volunteer Fire Department had upwards of twenty members. Hull’s Camp, at the northwest section of town, was becoming part of the city. Business houses of every kind still ran through the downtown area. Among them was Mrs. Mamie Crooks’ Hotel Montgomery, advertised “A nice home for miners. Good board and clean rooms at reasonable rates.”
Independence made national news in 1903, when professional assassin Harry Orchard set off a bomb in the Vindicator Mine above town during the famed Cripple Creek District labor strikes. Orchards’ targets—an elevator full of scabs working for non-union mine owners—escaped unharmed but superintendent Charles H. McCormick and shift boss Malverne Beck died instead. Next, in June of 1904, Orchard bombed the Florence & Cripple Creek train depot in the downtown area. There were twenty seven miners standing on the platform when the bomb went off. Thirteen were killed instantly when “their dismembered bodies were blown 150 feet up the hillside.” Orchard’s actions were on behalf of the Western Federation of Miners who were striking against unfair mine owners, but his deeds were so dastardly that they played a big part in the mine owners winning the strike.
The strikes also had an unfavorable affect on Independence. By 1905 many businesses had closed and the population hovered around a thousand people. At least some money was still flying around, as evidenced by the robbery of the Silver Bell Saloon in Independence on a February night in 1906.
It was widely known that the Silver Bell was happy to cash miners’ paychecks, so a bit of money had to be on hand at all times. At 10 p.m. on February 11, Eddie Foy, “Two-Gun Wild Bill” Gleason, Frank Edmunston, Jimmie Welsh, Frank Drake, deputy marshals Hardy Potts and Cal Webster, and several other men were in the bar when two masked robbers walked in and ordered everyone to put their hands up. Drake headed for a room in the back but was shot by one of the robbers, Harry Harris. Deputies Potts and Webster, along with Gleason, returned shots. More gunfire broke out. When it was all over the second bandit, Fred Powell, was dead. So was Drake. Harris absconded with $1,800 in cash. It is unknown whether he was ever caught.
Independence’s population in 1907 was around 1,200 and a handful of business remained open. But as the mining opportunities around the Cripple Creek District downsized, so did the towns within the district. By 1912 only one assayer, one dry goods, one hotel, and one saloon were still in business at Independence. Those needing medical attention had to go to Dr. L.D. Louis in Altman. Fifteen mines continued to provide limited employment. By 1919 there were only 500 people left in town. Some of them, including Leslie Carlton and W.E. Ryan, were superintendents of area mines. Only a hardware store and two cigar stores were left.
Independence was given a brief reprieve in 1921 when Les Carlton’s brother, millionaire A.E. Carlton, purchased the old Vindicator Mine and tried to work it. Unfortunately the mine was plagued by water for years. After Carlton’s death his wife, the former Ethel Frizzell, successfully built the Carlton Tunnel to release the water from the Vindicator and other area mines. Twenty five thousand gallons per minute gushed from the tunnel, and the Vindicator successfully operated for nearly four more decades.
As the old mines around Independence continued being worked, a few families continued living in town. As late as 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred H. Bebee were mentioned in the Cripple Creek Times Record as hosts of an evening get together at Independence (notably, the Bebee house still stands, and was never a brothel per the graffiti scribbled on some of the walls.) Others who lived there in the 1950’s included a man named Skinny Ward and the family of former Victor mayor Kathy Justice. Justice remembered her brothers finding sticks of dynamite at the Hull City Mine. “They brought it into town and sold it to the police chief for two cents a stick, and then we would buy candy at Harshie’s [now the Fortune Club in Victor] with the money,” she said.
Not until 1954 did Independence’s post office close. The Hull City Mine closed in 1958, and the Vindicator closed for a final time in 1959. The last of Independence’s early residents moved away, although a couple of homes were occupied as late as 1982. Almost the entire town was engulfed by modern mining efforts in 2004, although some structures at the very east end of town were preserved. The Hull City Placer was moved and a hiking trail was installed. Today visitors can walk the trail and read interpretive signage about Independence and its surrounding mines.
Image: The Beebe House in Independence as it appeared in 2004. Copyright Jan MacKell Collins.