Cripple Creek

Staff writer

Hopeful miners create a Conestoga traffic jam heading to Cripple Creek in the 1890s. | Photo courtesy of Cripple Creek Heritage Center

Cripple Creek, cuddled into a high altitude valley west of Colorado Springs, was founded by gamblers, men and women drawn by the possibility that a glint of gold would shine from a handful of stone.

Cripple Creek and the neighboring town of Victor were the focus of the third wave of speculators heading into the Colorado Rockies searching for a lode. It started as a tickle in 1891 but by 1900 the two towns were home to 55,000 residents, 19 schools, 34 churches, 35 casinos and 150 bars. Legend says the creek and town got their name when two men building a cabin each broke a leg on successive days.

There was gold to be found here, but it was not the free-flowing nuggets found elsewhere. This gold had to be wrenched from the rocks, requiring a thundering infrastructure of machinery. The cost of that infrastructure caused claims to be consolidated and consolidated again and miners worked for daily wages deep in the earth rather than panning their own claims.

Deep mines required massive support beams, factories required fuel 24 hours a day and workers needed homes. Soon the surrounding mountain slopes were completely denuded. Wood buildings also burn and in 1896 back-to-back fires destroyed the town. Determined residents rebuilt, this time in brick that remains today, and the gold continued to flow. Cripple Creek earned the title of Greatest Gold Camp in the country, producing 22.4 million ounces of gold between 1890 to 1910.

The greed of mine owners attracted union representation and in 1894 thousands of miners left the mines for 130 days before ultimately winning the dispute. In 1903, determined to rid themselves of the pressure from the union, mine owners again cracked down and miners responded. Thirty people were killed in gun battles and intentional explosions, but a year later the battle was over and the union defeated.

The mines began to play out in the early 1900s and were shut down altogether during World War II. There was a modest revival in 1976 and an open cut mine called the Cresson opened near Victor in 1995 and is now the state’s largest producer of gold.

Today it’s mostly gambling that draws the hopeful to town. Historic buildings lining the main street are filled with tables and slot machines. However, if gambling palls, visitors can explore the town’s colorful history.

On a hillside with a great view of the town and surrounding mountains is the Cripple Creek Heritage Center, packed with historic relics and photos. A restored steam-powered train chugs through the historic gold mining district with a stop in a deserted mining town. Trains leave daily from mid-May through mid-October from a charming station house built in 1894.

The Cripple Creek District Museum is a complex of five historic buildings filled with items that bring to life the town’s past.

Visitors can also step inside one of the cells occupied by the town’s inevitable miscreants at the nearby Cripple Creek Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum. A tour of the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine (named for Molly Kathleen Gortner, the first woman to file a mining claim in Colorado) takes visitors 1,000 feet deep into Molly’s mine.

Cripple Creek facts
Population: 1,175 (Victor is 397)
Land area: 1.53 square miles (Victor is 173 acres)
County: Teller (Cripple Creek is county seat)
Altitude: 9,494 feet above sea level
Climate: Cripple Creek enjoys cool, sunny summers with highs in the mid-70s in July and an average of 17 inches of rain. Winters are harsh, with 87 inches of snow on average and an average low of 13 in January.