“Don’t go to Cripple Creek,” a local newspaper writer advised me on my first visit to Colorado Springs. “It’s just trash.” At the time, I figured since he lived in the area and wrote about it regularly, he knew what he was talking about. Now I’m not so sure.
Last summer, I made my third trip to Colorado Springs, and this time, I decided I had to make the trek through the hills to the old mining town. After all, I knew there had once been a booming, lawless gold rush community on the site, even if nothing now remained of it .
But it turns out that a lot of that town does, in fact, remain. Cripple Creek, which is about 45 miles west of Colorado Springs, sprouted up in about 1890 when gold was discovered in the region. By 1893, the influx of prospectors swelled the town to a population of 10,000. Almost as fast as it grew, however, Cripple Creek caught fire, burning down almost entirely in 1894 and then again in 1896. But the residents quickly rebuilt and today a large percentage of the “new” brick buildings from 1896 remain in place on the main street.
The town gets no respect from many residents of surrounding counties, however, because most of those 1896 buildings have now been converted into casinos.
I actually think that makes the town more authentic in a way. Modern Americans are not going to flock to an area expecting to get rich quick by sticking a tin pan into an icy stream looking for flakes of gold. These days, we still spend money and take chances in the hopes of striking it rich, but we expect to do it by buying a lottery ticket or hitting it big at the casino.
In other words, Cripple Creek has the some aura that it had during its heyday from 1890-1910. Everywhere, business owners are trying to feed on the “get rich quick” mentality. Instead of selling overpriced mining tools, they’ll sit you down in front of a slot machine.
On my visit, I actually didn’t set foot in any of the casinos because my husband and I were accompanied by my eleven-year-old daughter. She was more interested in the blackjack gum at the counter of the candy store than the blackjack machines that promise to make you rich.
We had originally headed to the area to visit the Mollie Kathleen gold mine and I wasn’t sure we’d even have time to get into the town of Cripple Creek itself — remember, it wasn’t supposed to be worth visiting. But despite having talked to an agent on the phone who said he’d hold a place for us, we made the hour-long drive through the winding mountain roads only to be told (by a less-than-friendly manager) that the last tour was sold out. So we got back into the car and headed down to the town of Cripple Creek itself.
It turns out that the lady shrew at the mine did us a huge favor. If we had gone on the mine tour, we would have missed the Cripple Creek District Museum. As it was, we arrived about twenty minutes before it was scheduled to close. But the much more considerate manager of this establishment said she would stay open as long as we needed to complete our tour of the three story building.
And when we finished, we found out that they were also holding a second building open for us across the street, as well. Needless to say, we appreciated the great service. But we also appreciated the cool things in the museum.
Although visitors are urged to start at the top in the Victorian living rooms, to me the most interesting (and most appropriate) part of the museum was the collection of artifacts related to the town’s shadier elements. The “vice case,” as we termed it, featured the opium pipe of one of the town madams, as well as an accordion-like device for hiding cards up a player’s shirtsleeve, plus antique slot machines and poker chips. It also had a faro board, which was a great reminder to me that gamblers of the day didn’t all play five card draw like they do in the movies.
All throughout the museum, artifacts were identified as belonging to specific residents of the town, which either indicates that great care was taken in assembling the museum collection or that the curators are a tremendous pack of liars. Given the consideration shown by the women who stayed open late to let us see everything, I’m inclined to believe it’s the former.
When we finally left to walk the streets, I was pleasantly surprised to see all of the buildings in beautiful shape. The storefronts of buildings that are not currently in commercial use feature period-style displays so that you still have the sensation of walking through a late 19th Century town. Even the only “trash” I saw was period correct – an occasional pile of horse manure in the street.
We did not have a chance to get to the Outlaws and Lawmen Jail Museum, but I definitely will make time for that on a future visit.
So all in all, I can only conclude that the “locals” who dis Cripple Creek don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they are professional writers.
Sometimes, even the best of us get it wrong.
Until next time,