Cripple Creek Mining District

Cripple Creek is about 25 miles west of Pike’s Peak, in Central Colorado. Before the big gold rush, the area was used to graze livestock by a few homesteaders. Cripple Creek got its name from drovers when a frightened calf jumped over a fence, landed in a gully and broke its leg.

A man named Bob Womack was one of the settlers in this area. He was basically a cowboy but he did some prospecting on the side. In 1874, he found some promising rock. On a whim he sent it to Denver to be assayed. It turned out to be $200 worth of gold per ton. He named the area where he found the rock Poverty Gulch. He spent the next 16 years before he found anything else of value. All his friends joked him about his so-called gold mine, but he took it good-naturedly.

Finally a man named Dr. John P. Grannis, a dentist, staked Bob some money. He would get one-half interest of anything Bob found. One day in the fall of 1890, Bob found a one-half inch streak of pale yellow rock. He thought it looked promising. He wrote down his name and the date, October 20, 1890, on a board and nailed it to a stake. Then he took some specimens into Colorado Springs to be assayed. Professor Henry Lamb estimated the ore at $250 per ton.

Womack put the chunks of gold into a furniture store window, hoping to attract investors. It worked. A man named Ed Da La Vergne, a self-taught geologist saw it and thought it looked like a mineral called calabarite, a gold telluride that he had seen around Boulder. He went out to the area and saw that it was calabarite. So he went back to Colorado Springs and staked out a six mile square around the find and called it the Cripple Creek Mining District. When the news got out, Horace Bennett and Julius Myers, who had just bought four homesteads next to Womack’s, platted a town called Fremont on their property. This town would eventually be called Cripple Creek. Bennett and Myers would be the two main streets.

Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1891, prospectors came in droves to this place at the foot of Mt. Pisgah. Going was slow at first and the prospectors poked away with picks and shovels in three gulches south of Poverty Gulch that drained into Cripple Creek. This was hard granite and there was just small flakes of gold, just enough to keep them digging for more. But hard rock mining was inevitable. Pretty soon everyone was discouraged and even Bob Womack sold his original share to Dr. Grannis for $300.

De La Vergne did not give up. He persuaded a man named James M. Pourtales to invest in the mine. He was a wealthy businessman who looked to the mines for investment. He bought the Buena Vista mine. The news of this investment prodded others into investing. Right away Pourtales sold out to J. J. Hagermann, who bought the mine for $225,000. A. D. Jones and A. J. Miller invested in the Pharmacist mine, which also did quite well. Two men known only as Mike and Pat were down to their last dollar. They decided they would dig at the next place their dog happened to stop. They did just that and dug into a rich vein of calabarite. This was the Last Dollar Mine. In three weeks they made $100,000. The Jackpot mine was another that paid handsomely--$1,250,000 came out of it.

Pretty soon a whole town was growing. There was the Palace Hotel and the Windsor Hotel. They were so full, they even rented chairs to sleep in for $1 per night. Pretty soon lots were sold for $3,000 and $5,000 each when originally they were only worth $25 to $50. Soon the town was on the main stage line. When people arrived, the marshall met them and took their firearms away. Periodically he took the guns he had confiscated and sold them in Denver; the money was used to pay Cripple Creek teachers. Of course there were also gambling dens, dance halls, opium dens, pawn shops, and parlor houses. There was a red light district. One famous brothel was called the Old Homestead, a two story facility. There were also three bathhouses, 44 law offices, and ten meat markets. By 1892, there were 5,000 people in Cripple Creek proper. There were another 5,000 in the nearby camps of Victor, Elkton, Goldfield, Independence, and Alton. Victor was on Wilson Creek and near the mines of Portland, Independence, and Strong.

David Moffat built the Florence and Cripple Creek railroad, a narrow-gauge line, that connected the area with the Denver & Rio Grande at Florence. Another line, the Colorado Midland, went as far as Leadville, 18 miles from Cripple Creek. They could ride the stage from Leadville to Cripple Creek. In 1893, the Colorado Midland put in a spur the rest of the way to Cripple Creek. Eventually the mine owners didn’t want to pay the freight costs so they built their own short-line into Cripple Creek from Colorado Springs. L. D. Ross built two inter-urbans, the High-Line, and the Low-Line. The railroads helped get the ore to the markets.

At one time the Portland was the largest and strongest gold mine in the country during its heyday. It was called the Gold Factory and would eventually produce $62 million worth of gold. One of those to get rich off this mine was Winfield Scott Stratton, a one time carpenter. The thing that was different about him, though, was that when he did get rich, he didn’t flaunt it. He contributed to a lot of charities. He bought bicycles for all Colorado Springs laundresses. He set up a fund for the Salvation Army to give meals a place to sleep to destitute people. He donated $20,000 to Colorado College in recognition of Henry Lamb, to honor him for helping Stratton learn about geology. He gave the Colorado School of Mines at Golden another $25,000. In 1893, H. A. W. Tabor, of Leadville fame, asked Stratton for a loan. Stratton gave him $15,000, but insisted that the money be a gift. He willed some money to a poor folks home.

Another successful individual was Charlie Tutt who got a grubstake and located the C.O.D. Mine. Tutt did well when a French company bought the C. O. D. mine for $250,000. In December 1895, Charlie Tutt, Charlie McNeill, and Spec Penrose formed the Colorado, Philadelphia Reduction Company and pretty much dominated that business for awhile. Penrose would later go on to build the first auto road up to the top of Pike’s Peak.

Another man who got rich was Bert Carlton, owner of the Colorado Trading and Transfer Company, which delivered coal to the mine to operate pumps for pumping water out of the mines. Sometimes when a coal bill came due, he took it out in mine stock. Pretty soon he owned a dozen mines including the Jackpot and the Findlay.

The Vindicator, the Mary McKinney, the C. O. D., the Anaconda, Portland, and Gold King each produced three-quarters of a million to a million dollars worth of ore each month during this time. The men worked round the clock. Many unemployed miners from the silver districts and others out of work because of the 1893 depression easily found work here. But soon there was a problem with high-grading, which was when miners took little pieces of gold and hid them in their pockets or boots. They took it home and had assayers buy it. They figured the wealthy mine owners wouldn’t miss it. But soon the mine owners caught on to it and set up change rooms and required the miners to strip before leaving work. The miners were not happy about it. A man named John Calderwood, a union organizer for the Western Federation of Mines, started organizing the men. He started at Altman and by January 1894 every miner and mucker was a member of the union. On February 5 he pulled them out on strike. The demand was $3 for eight hours of work rather than nine. The mine owners decided to just wait them out, figuring they’d come back to work when they got hungry. But the union set up a mess hall for the strikers and their families so they still got to eat.

Negotiations swung back and forth until one day in April, all hell broke loose in Cripple Creek. Two union agitators led a gang of toughs that raided the district, shooting up saloons, tearing up houses, and beating up non-union men. Over 100 unemployed police offiers and firemen from Denver arrived to put down the hostilities. Just as they arrived a shaft house was blown up. The train carrying the deputies had to turn back. Finally on June 10 an agreement was reached. The union leaders agreed to stand trial for any criminal acts that had occurred during the riots. The mine owners agreed to $3 for eight hours work. Most of the miners were not charged in their trials.

In April of 1896, a fire broke out in town that burned down the south side of Bennett Avenue and burned everything in its path to the north and east. The fire started at the Central Dance Hall where a bartender was having an argument with his girl. They knocked over a coal oil stove that caught fire. Also burned was the Topic Hotel, three popular parlor houses, the opera house, and some of the business district. Five days later another fire broke out and burned down most of what had been left standing. It started in the Portland Hotel. Much of the residences were burned up this time. Special trains came from Colorado Springs to help the homeless. Replacement buildings were constructed of brick.

The first part of the 20th century was plagued by mining disputes. The Western Federation of Mines was behind much of it. In 1904, there was a huge strike in which 13 miners were killed and several others were wounded in an explosion at the Florence and Cripple Creek depot at Independence. Harry Orchard was the perpetrator. The state militia had to come in to put down the strike. Eventually 225 union miners were arrested. They were hauled out by train and taken to Kansas and let go. One success occurred during this time, however. The mines had been plagued more and more by excess water in deeper and deeper shafts. In 1910, Bert Carlton built the Roosevelt tunnel to drain the mines. In 1931, his widow extended the tunnel to go deeper.

In 1914, another big boom started at Cripple Creek when Richard Roelofs, superintendent of the Cresson mine, discovered a huge lode of quartz-bearing gold. In a month, $1.2 million was taken from the mine. In its heyday, $45 million came out of the Cresson. The last serious mining activity occurred after World War II, when a $1.5 million mill was built to reduce ore using cyanide. Eventually the cost outweighed the profit so it was closed in 1961. Now Cripple Creek is a popular tourist area.

Copyright 2001 by Beth Gibson

(SOURCE: The Story of Colorado Gold & Silver Rushes, Phyllis Flanders Dorsett, Barnes and Noble Books, Inc., New York, New York, 1994.)