The Emerging Historians Award is a program of History Colorado’s State Historian’s Council.
An History of Cripple Creek
A half-millennia prior to becoming a booming mining district associated with the famous adage, “Pikes Peak or Bust,” the Cripple Creek region was an historic hunting ground for native peoples migrating across an ancient and well-travelled East-West passage. Located just to the south of where Colorado State Highway 24 now juts across the landscape, this mountain pass was used by various peoples in pre-Columbian times until the early twentieth century as a footpath through the rugged North American high country. Native societies traversed these mountains along this route not just to move between what is now Nevada, California, and Colorado, they also used the entrance of this ancient passage on the northeastern foothills of Pikes Peak as a hub of commerce with various groups moving throughout the region; from the expansive network of exchange extant across North America at the time of contact, Cripple Creek sits at the fringe of an ancient trading site and footpath.
By the late nineteenth century, Ute pass, as it came to be known, was a commercial thoroughfare and a critical piece of the old infrastructure in the region. Here at the foot of Pikes Peak, settlers and Indigenous peoples exchanged goods and visited whilst they explored the visually stunning landscape of red rock. While encroaching homesteader populations no doubt displaced original inhabitants and appropriated native spaces, there is also a story of cooperation that exists underneath the surface in the earliest phases of settler colonialism in this region. Yet some early pioneers visited water springs and took control of resources considered sacred by native peoples—springs which had been occupied in one form or fashion by Indigenous peoples for at least a millennium.
Soon, this entrance to the West would become a critical piece of a new infrastructure that would support the bustling mining enterprise about to explode near Mount Pisgah (i.e. Battle Mountain in Cripple Creek) and while this would mean the end of native control over these lands, it also meant a new urban landscape arose. While much of the commerce and activities flourishing prior to European contact continued in form (e.g. the beaver pelt trade), the activities in and around Cripple Creek became increasingly managed under the purview of settler and prospector populations rather than the original Native American inhabitants. By the late 1890s, Indigenous control over these processes diminished almost entirely and residents such as the Utes who were native to the area were forced to relocate to the Four Corners region of southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico. While it is true Spanish explorers like Francisco Coronado never travelled north of the Arkansas River during their initial expeditions in Colorado and New Mexico in the early sixteenth century, they laid claim to the region around Pikes Peak in the centuries that followed and in so doing set the foundation for the colonial structure which still exists.
Fifty miles southwest of the entrance to this ancient mountain highway, the Spaniards became one of many successive overseers who irreversibly changed the landscape of the region from the sixteenth through the twenty-first centuries. First, by laying claim to the region, second by displacing native peoples from their land, and third, by settling as many people in the region as could be supported by the relatively underdeveloped infrastructure. As we shall see, the discovery of a rich ore named telluride in and around Mount Pisgah, along with a boom in the coal and alluvial mining industries across Colorado, changed all this and transformed the Cripple Creek district into a bustling metropolitan grouping of townships including Fremont, Goldfield, Victor, and Cripple Creek, and signaling another iteration of gold fever across the fledgling nation. However, the advent of globalized war and a decline in production decimated the precious metal mining industry across the United States and eventually relegated Cripple Creek (and many towns like it), as one local scholar puts it, to a “disneyfied” tourist center with legalized gambling as its primary method of income. In the process, historical truth was left open to the whims of the modern town’s designers and what’s more, these histories are now complicated by the advent of digitized knowledge and the profit motive in a town where the enterprise of mining and gambling reign as the brokers of authority in Teller County.
While next we will explore various early twentieth and twenty-first century texts that brought people of many ethnicities from across the world to stake their claim on Mount Pisgah, we will also observe how much of the rumination and writing on this region fulfilled the romanticized American dream of getting real rich, real quick: gambling in the district is simply an extension of this allegory. Finally, we will critically examine recent works on the topic to include those sources emerging as part of a greater digital turn in knowledge production across the world.
The history of the Cripple Creek region has long been treated with a narrow focus. Mining, mining activities, resource extraction, and the way of life of the mining community have grossly overshadowed other equally pertinent narratives. Aside from the central teleological explanations of mining, tourism, and gambling in the collection of secondary sources discussed below, there exist sub-themes in this history which speak to the transformation of the region from a Native American hunting ground to a profitable mining sector, to a gambling and tourist center. These sub-themes speak to the heterogeneous admixture of peoples and accompanying dichotomous tensions which inhabited the Cripple Creek district from the 1890s until the present. Among them: labor and society, technical and industrial details, land use policies, juridical policy and procedure, environment, gambling, and finally, tourism. These form a rough concatenation of historical themes and structures which historians writing on this topic utilize to represent this complex and ever changing landscape. In addition to the textual evidence, there too exists a small collection of visual documentary and digitally accessible works which are pertinent; moreover, in this age of communication these are important alternative media sources which must be analyzed as part of the historiographic and archival structures. Lastly, of the various histories of Cripple Creek discussed next, the largest genres discussed are characterized as top-down narratives either supporting the capitalist venture of mining in Cripple Creek or supporting the gambling industry. That is, they are based in a superficial teleology explaining Cripple Creek as a region which underwent a smooth transformation: from native hunting ground to booming mining town turned mountainside gambling destination in a seamless process. The reality of this so-called progress was much different—in fact for many in these communities, life in Cripple Creek meant living with aggressive patriarchal societies with western-oriented traditions and hierarchies. In the historiography, this means life for Myron Stratton or Spencer Penrose is romanticized while life for an immigrant mine worker or a female service worker is casually noted or obfuscated in the discourse.1
The first set of historical treatments to be discussed were written during the early to mid-twentieth century and can be thematically linked together as comparable treatments of the region (and/or its icons) which are characterized by sympathy to the plight of the prospector and dismissive of the agency of marginalized communities. What’s more, while this orientalist approach to native agency is universal throughout these works, it also provides valuable information about the labor situation and the state of society in the region prior to the incarnation of legalized gambling. In addition, modern historians are provided with an understanding of the viewpoints of historians during the interwar and World War II periods, respectively.
As an early twentieth century anecdotal narrative of events spanning from the 1600s until the early 1920s, Harry J. Newton’s Yellow Gold of Cripple Creek: Romances and Anecdotes of the Mines, Mining Men and Mining Fortunes keeps with the theme of industrial treatment which predominates in this era.2 Beginning with a discussion of the mining enterprise and the author’s estimation of the value of living in the region as a miner (as well as a summary of the legend from which the township was born), this locally published work relays the author’s and the community’s need to attract people to the area before the advent of the gambling industry. This source, produced not a decade after World War I, reflects the hopes of a generation not yet entrenched in the oncoming world war who seek to strike it rich at Pikes Peak.
Following in the footsteps of Newton, Frank Waters’s 1930s-era biographical account of Winfield Scott Stratton covering his early military career and family background to his rise to wealth and prominence in Cripple Creek is a shed piece of local and epochal history. This source was originally published in New York during the interwar period and it opens with an unattributed quote which tells much about the historiographic approach Waters takes as an orientalist, westward-facing scholar in this biographical account which, in sum, composes an elitist, industrially-friendly history downplaying the agency of those marginalized before and during the period.3 As Waters surmises on the West at the turn of the twentieth century, “Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier will, through necessity, be constrained to limit their extent on the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country.”4 This work is important because it downplays Stratton’s “melancholic dependence” on alcohol at the end of his career, instead promoting him as a rugged individualist at a time when such tropes reigned hegemonic in United States elite (especially eastern) discourses.5
Published after World War II, Sprague’s book Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold hinges upon a comparison between Bob Womack, the supposed prospector who first discovered gold in Cripple Creek, and Jimmie Burns, another of Cripple Creek’s successful early prospectors. Throughout this work, Sprague uses this comparison as a method to underpin a moral lesson into his narrative structure about exceptionalism: by portraying Jimmie Burns as a sensible, benevolent figure and Womack as “prone to foible, drunkenness, and low morals.”6
Although Sprague gives a detailed description of Cripple Creek’s 1904 labor wars and represents the interests of the state and the labor organizations with sympathy, he takes an anti-labor, pro-Mine Owners Association stance, even going so far as to nationalize this viewpoint. For example, he argues Western Federation of Miner’s secretary/treasurer Big Bill Haywood’s struggle as a labor leader in Cripple Creek during the 1903-04 labor wars was a “crazy, pitiful war against the United States.”7
The second major genre of history in the region is produced mainly to promote the industries in Cripple Creek, especially the gambling businesses. These guidebooks serve as internal documents for tourism, gambling, and mining in Cripple Creek and it is clear from the 1970s (when they start to appear in the record) to the present that these books play an important role in educating the public about the region. When examining them in digital archives, the theme transcends the technological barrier while at the same time amalgamating other historical treatments into the melange, oftentimes without proper citation methodology.8
Acting as more a guide for tourists and visitors, Leland Feitz’s Cripple Creek! A Quick History of the World’s Greatest Gold Camp provides a brief narrative about the rise of Cripple Creek in the late 1880s and 1890s. As a mining enterprise centered work that was produced in a small local publishing house, Feitz’s guide hopes to bring attention to the region as a place to visit in the summer season under the auspices of tourism, released precisely at the moment of decline in the mining industry and the rise of gambling. As part of this genre of tourism-focused texts, this work is important as a marker for the state of the economy in the region. In addition, sources discussed below are reminiscent of Feitz’s work and provide good visual evidence of transformation of the region’s environment and infrastructure.9
Local scholar and Air Force officer Robert Gulliford Taylor’s Cripple Creek Mining District provides a comprehensive text on the region. This narrative starts with a mining-friendly story which goes into some detail about native peoples extant around Cripple Creek. Covering mining camps outside the region of Cripple Creek and Victor, this is a more comprehensive study of the effects of mining which accounts for the transformation of the region, but it has a special focus on the effects of the enterprise in Front Range communities in Colorado. As mentioned, it is a narrative friendly to the industry, but importantly, it differs greatly from Taylor’s doctoral dissertation upon which his book is based. This may indicate the effect the mining economy has on knowledge production in local publications of Cripple Creek history, or simply mirror the limitations of production in a small publication house.10
Bill Munn’s book, A Guide to the Mines of the Cripple Creek District, follows the industrially centered survey approach which is reminiscent of Feitz’s pictorial guide of the region. Unlike the works mentioned prior, Munn’s offering has no narrative structure, but instead examines pictorial evidence with small site descriptions of various mines around Cripple Creek and Victor that are currently in operation, as well as those that no longer function. There are no mentions of non-industrially related historical narratives in this publication. Instead, like Feitz’s work, it is a locally produced guide book depicting the history of mining in this region. Interestingly, this work appears just six years prior to the introduction of gambling in the state of Colorado and therefore should be treated similarly to Feitz’s work as an advertisement for tourism in the region prior to the legalization of gambling.
Originally published in 1956 under the title The First Hundred Years, authors Jo Mazzulla, Henry L. J. Warren, and Fred Mazzulla’s visual representation of the town claims that Cripple Creek has a “long and colorful history” but neglects to discuss any native people’s narratives. Although the picture essay gives us a remarkable level of detail about the transformation of Cripple Creek and its infrastructure, it neglects to treat Indigenous or marginalized peoples as part of the story and thus carries forth the methodology of Sprague, Waters, and Newton while presenting itself as a guidebook. From a socio-economic perspective, like many of the 1950s-era publications, little attention is paid to the struggle of those who resided in the town’s poor quarter (known as Poverty Gulch on Meyers Avenue);11 instead there is far greater focus on the lives of the successful and wealthy mine owners. Also worth noting, this is a work produced in the town of Victor, and stands as a volume highly informed by the enterprise of mining and tourism.
J.S. Holley’s 1990s-era work on African American history in the Colorado Springs region focuses on recovering silenced voices of a marginalized, yet involved community of people who Holley argues had faced several different “periods of inequality.”12 The narrative is a chronological look at key events in African American history in the Colorado Springs region between 1880–1980 from a modern perspective.
The author highlights such important affairs as Booker T. Washington’s brief visit to Colorado Springs on June 4, 1909, and the transformation of the Antlers Hotel to an “all African American service staff.”13 On equality, Holley argues that little changed from the early era (1860–1900) in terms of equality for minority communities in Colorado Springs, but aligns progress in this regard with the rise of the NAACP and the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.14 Holley draws upon macroscale explorations of African American history and also from local primary sources such as The Colorado Springs Gazette, local school yearbooks, and area directories. As far as alternate histories dealing with social aspects of the community directly connected with Cripple Creek, this is an important volume in this historiographical analysis, especially because of the important role African Americans in Colorado Springs play in the history of Cripple Creek.
The Cripple Creek Hospitality Handbook was designed to give a brief history of the area, provide key information about so-called important figures, and a rough chronology of historical events in the region. More than a simple guide to the district, as the book states in the acknowledgements, the authors would like to thank the “red-headed waitress at a local establishment who’s poor service and lack of knowledge about her business and the community stimulated the creation of this handbook.”15 In essence, this book covers key events and figures in the post-1890s boom district, but more so acts as an employee manual full of supplemental historical information. Another major theme in this book is focused on how this history can be used in customer interactions between service staff and Cripple Creek’s guests. This includes detailed information about the gambling industry in the town. Here, just as with the volume by Mazzulla, et al., this book underscores the heavy emphasis on industrially focused historical narratives in regional discourses.16
As a modern critical piece on the topic, the article “Cripple Creek's Giant Gold Pit Is Swallowing Colorado History” discusses how the mining district has undergone a major transformation from mining camp to bustling center for tourism and gambling. While other mining towns such as Elkton and Goldfield have disassembled their mining relics, Cripple Creek has remained a place where people can come to see the visual remnants of the post–1890s boom-town.17 Written in 1998, this source presents Cripple Creek as a transformative region which, regardless of the gambling industry, is predicated upon mining activities in the region; this article stands as a unique specimen of critical analysis not utilized by the industrially centered narratives.
By the mid-1990s, mining in the Cripple Creek region was slowly resuming where years earlier it had ceased. While the population of the town fluctuated between two and three thousand people in any given season, at the site of the Cresson Mine surface excavations took place and a new corporate entity, The CC&V Mining Company, began the next phase of extraction on Battle Mountain. At that same time, the 1990 legalization of gambling in Cripple Creek spurned a boon of development and a wave of tourism to a region that had been in decline since the start of World War II. For the most part these developments were positive, however the continued persistence of the mining industry along with the benefits of tourism have had some negative effects on the historical knowledge production process. The next set of sources examined were produced in the twenty-first century and in some instances, they utilize different technologies to relay historical information about this region.
Voices of Cripple Creek essentially serves as a video advertisement for the harmonious transition from mining town into the gambling center the town has supposedly become. Utilizing various video sources and clips, the evidence used in this documentary of the region features interviews and impressions of the transformation from locals such as Lowell Thomas, a newspaperman, writer, and friend to labor.18
Phenix Rising, like Voices of Cripple Creek, is a visual survey of the architecture and the history of planning and construction in the Cripple Creek mining district. This video explains not only how the town was initially founded on real estate speculation, but also how it rebuilt following the fires which decimated the town in April of 1896.19 The animus behind this video is belied in the production company which produced this video to represent Cripple Creek as a gambling town which has embodied local history through architecture. The cause of this revitalization? Gambling, which was officially legalized in 1990 under the Colorado Limited Gaming Act.20 Both of the visual sources discussed above serve to reify a narrative friendly to the gambling industry while also serving as guidebooks to the region.
As one of the most modern histories produced about the region, The Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado's Gold Booms examines how Cripple Creek transformed into the place it is today in three major phases: first, the book covers the early infrastructure in the region as it relates to the mining enterprise and the rise of capital and resistance; second, it looks at the fires of Cripple Creek as the turning point in the town’s architectural and social history; and third, it provides a teleological explanation for the rise of gambling as the primary agent of Cripple Creek’s modern successes. This publication, while more detailed than any guidebook on the topic, focuses on the harmonious and seamless history of the area without giving treatment to the social or political forces which shaped the town and ushered in this contemporary era of tourism and gambling. The book states in the outset that it draws mostly from the work of Marshall Sprague and thus should be read as a continuation of Sprague’s approach to the region.21 Further examination of the source material used in this work reveals a variety of primary source documentation drawn from oral and local archives.
Robert Rhatigan’s M.A. thesis, produced in 2008 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, assaults the auspices of historical preservation in the Cripple Creek region, arguing that “while significant contributions have gone to the preservation of historic structures…little has been done to preserve the historic landscape.”22 While written for the discipline of applied geography, Rhatigan’s thesis relates to Cripple Creek’s metamorphic tale because it criticizes casino developers for creating a “contrived landscape around preserved historic elements,” and thus represents an analysis of knowledge production as it relates to the “disneyfication” of the Cripple Creek region consumptive purposes.
While this outline of historical sources on the region is a cursory examination of the topic, what is revealed from these works is a collective sense of the impact the mining and gambling enterprises have on the knowledge produced about this region. Clearly, from many of the shorter works, the profit motive is among the main agents for such productions, but it is not the whole reason for such treatments. As many of the works examined were locally produced, the focus on mining and related activities rather than on the marginalized communities involved has much to do with the positionality of these authors as well as with their historical outlook. With the exception of Rhatigan’s thesis, many of the works recounting the growth of Cripple Creek celebrate the industry, and in so doing are unable to draw out the harsh reality of this process.23 Socially, these writers struggled to relate the ground-level histories of Cripple Creek’s expansion to the social struggles which came to the fore, especially in the 1903–1904 labor conflicts.
While virtually all the histories examined discussed the economic aspects of Cripple Creek’s transformation, none of the authors explored the environmental implications of mining in this region, choosing instead to focus on architecture and miner’s lore. This is a grave shortcoming in the historical representation of this region and speaks to the influence of mining on the knowledge production process in the region.24
While the trains no longer run six times a day as they did over a century prior, the infrastructure first developed by Indigenous peoples then transformed by settler communities still connects the landscape of this region. Only an hour and a half drive from Colorado Springs proper, the legacy of exploration and extraction can still be observed in the museums and architecture of this region. Still, the historical legacy of peoples that were an integral part of this community is at risk of disappearing beneath the narratives of industrial harmony which permeate the historiography.25
As digitized history becomes more accessible, these hegemonic digital discourses replace the physical archives—and with them, the time-tested praxis of the historical discipline. Now instead of using a guide book or a physical textual source to explore the region, users find the information they seek using smartphones, which in turn beget a slew of questions about the quality of the historical information conveyed through these means.26 While historical truth may have been left open to the whims of the town’s initial designers, these new digital histories now give web-based authors the same leeway to code the profit motive into the history of a space where the enterprise of mining and gambling have reigned as the brokers of authority in the region for over a century.
1. The 1904 labor strikes and subsequent state action being the exception to this argument.
2. Harry J. Newton. Yellow Gold of Cripple Creek: Romances and Anecdotes of the Mines, Mining Men and Mining Fortunes. (Denver, CO: Nelson Publishing Company, 1928).
3. The advent of globalized war and a decline in production decimated the precious metal mining industry across the United States and eventually relegated Cripple Creek (and many towns like it), as one local scholar puts it, to a “disneyfied” tourist center with legalized gambling as its primary method of income.
4. Frank Waters. Midas of the Rockies. (New York: Covici Friede, 1937), 21.
5. For a seminal visual work detailing such themes in society, see On The Bowery, directed by Lionel Rogosin (USA: Milestone Films, 1956), DVD.
6. Marshall Sprague. Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold. (Boston: Little and Brown, 1953), 42–43.
18. Voices of Cripple Creek. Produced by City of Cripple Creek. USA: Encore Video Production, 2001. DVD.
19. Is it important to note here that many of the authors discussed in this essay examine the fires in Cripple Creek and Victor (1896–1899). See Mackell (2003: 63), Macklin and Sharpe (1994: 30), Taylor (1973: 66–72), and Feitz (1967: 7–9).
20. Phenix Rising: The Historic Buildings of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Produced by Dane Rhodes. USA: Palmer Divide Productions, 2003. DVD.
21. The Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado's Gold Booms. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2003.
22. Robert S. Rhatigan. “Preservation or Disneyfication?: The Colorado Limited Gaming Act of 1990 and Its Effects on Historic Landscape and Character of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, Colorado.” (Colorado Springs, CO: University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 2008), iii.
24. Cripple Creek has always been a region vehemently guarded by its inhabitants, and the justification for resource extraction and industry in this town have always been of issue to the region’s occupants. For a recent argument concerning these domestic contentions, see the article by R. Scott Rappold entitled, “Family Hopes Mine Expansion Won't Disturb Son's Memorial,” Colorado Springs Gazette, July 29, 2011, http://gazette.com/family-hopes-mine-expansion-wont-disturb-sons-memorial/article/122325 (accessed April 14, 2018).
25. See Edgar T. Hunter, “A Thumbnail Sketch of the Cripple Creek/Victor’s Mining History,” 2002, http://www.ccvgoldmining.com/downloads/History.pdf (accessed February 4, 2013), and “Mining History Association 14th Annual Conference, June 4–8, 2003 Cripple Creek, Colorado,” Cripple Creek & Victor Colorado Mining History, 2011, https://www.mininghistoryassociation.org/CrippleCreek.htm (accessed April 14, 2018), for two examples of superficially harmonious mining history narratives which have been heavily affected by the mining industry and make no effort to tell a complete story.
26. As we have seen, this industrially centered historical paradigm is easily observed in both textual and digital forms and it should be revised in a new definitive treatment that if divested from the economy of mining and gambling in the region, might be of some historiographic relevance. For example, this digitally accessible article boasts figures on Cripple Creek’s population that stand in contradiction to other narratives such as those observed from Sprague, Waters, and Taylor. See, “A Short Cripple Creek History,” Cripple Creek History, 2014, https://www.hotelstnicholas.com/hsncchistory.html (accessed May 02, 2018). See also Kathy Weiser, “Cripple Creek, Colorado–World’s Greatest Gold Camp,” Legends of America, May 2017, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/co-cripplecreek/ (accessed May 02, 2018), for an example of contradictory population figures from 1892 to 1902.