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Streets of gold in the Rockies

September 08, 1985|JERRY HULSE, Times Travel Editor

CRIPPLE CREEK, Colo. — The gold mining town of Cripple Creek, on the western slope of Pikes Peak, has discovered a new pathway to riches: tourism.

The place where gold was discovered on the banks of Poverty Gulch now draws visitors who come to search for dreams, memories and melodrama.

St. Peter will just have to wait.

In Cripple Creek not a single soul is dying to get to heaven, not in a town where the streets already are paved with gold.

At 10,000 feet, spirited citizens insist that Cripple Creek is about as close to the Pearly Gates as a mortal is likely to get without expiring. This isn't to say that every single street is paved with gold. Only those laid down by old-timers who were blazing their own personal paths to paradise.

Cripple Creek lays claim to being the "world's greatest gold camp." During its heyday 500 mines operated round-the-clock. Old-timers remind visitors how the surrounding hills turned up nearly $1 billion worth of gold during the late 1890s and the beginning of the 20th Century.

Indeed, streets were paved with the stuff. It bought booze and women along with misery and prosperity, and the Old Homestead was considered to be the grandest brothel in all the Rockies.

Dozens got rich while others died--and what with all the shoot-outs one of the town's fattest cats was the undertaker. Cripple Creek ran on blood, whiskey and liquid gold.

After the first big strike in 1890, miners overran this town which slumbers on the western slope of Pikes Peak. Thousands joined the march after word spread of the big gold discovery on the banks of Poverty Gulch.

Camp followers joined prospectors and later the railroads joined Cripple Creek with the outside world. By the turn of the century 139 saloons were operating day and night. There were eight newspapers, more than 100 mining companies, 40 groceries, 15 hotels, a stock exchange and 25 schools.

As Cripple Creek outgrew itself a dozen other towns sprang up close by. The population hit 60,000. Homes were being built while new mines were being dug. With all the activity nearly 100 attorneys busied themselves handling the paperwork. Equally active were 88 doctors and dentists who stitched a constant parade of street-brawl victims.

Streetcars rattled through town and shoot-outs echoed along Meyers Avenue with its wall-to-wall lineup of brothels, bars and gambling dens.

Prayers were offered up for lost souls in 17 churches. When Carry Nation visited Cripple Creek she was appalled by the scene, calling it the wickedest city in the West. In her rage she chopped up Johnny Nolan's saloon and gambling casino with an ax. Nolan called the law, Carry was arrested and later, after fretting, Nolan personally bailed her out of the slammer.

The town burned a couple of times. The first blaze was touched off when a dance-hall girl kicked over a kerosene lamp while battling with her boyfriend. Miners used dynamite in a vain attempt to stop the flames, but the inferno leveled 30 buildings, including churches, the bank and post office.

As Cripple Creek began rebuilding, a second fire destroyed the remainder of the town, causing a dozen deaths and scores of injuries. Flames failed, though, to destroy the dreams of Cripple Creek's growing band of prospectors. Out of the ashes the Rocky Mountain mining town rose again.

Whiskey poured from new saloons and dice rattled in rebuilt gambling halls. Along with sin, Cripple Creek nurtured culture. Crowds gathered at the Butte Opera House to applaud stars who had traveled west to entertain at the top of the world.

By 1900 Cripple Creek was nearing its zenith. This was the year the earth surrendered $18 million worth of gold in a single 12-month span. During its spectacular rise Cripple Creek had become the fifth largest gold producer the world had ever known.

After the turn of the century, though, the town began slowly winding down. The government had frozen gold at $32 an ounce. With the closing of the mines, thousands rushed from the Rockies.

As the miners made their exodus, they left behind fewer than 600 residents. It was a boom town which had gone bust.

Abandoned homes began to sag on their foundations. Saloons shut their doors. Closed signs appeared on hotels. Window shutters banged during winter gales. Cripple Creek was nearly a ghost town when remaining residents, searching for a new industry, discovered tourism. Now from spring until fall, CrippleCreek comes alive and enough gold is mined from the pockets of tourists to tide everyone over when winter comes again.

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