By Randi Samuelson-Brown
Cripple Creek was unique for the comparatively small size of the mining district and the sheer volume of gold extracted. Between 1891 and 1900, the district exploded from a population of a few hundred to around 50,000 people. Between 1891 and 1916, the gold production was estimated at $340,000,000, weighing around 20,000,000 ounces (approximately 625 tons).(1)
To put these numbers in perspective, consider that the price per gold in 1891 was $18.96 per ounce–a fairly stable price in the years leading up to 1920, when it broke the twenty-dollar barrier.(2) One dollar in 1900 was worth approximately $32.93 in 2021. That puts Cripple Creek’s total gold production at $11,196,200,000 in today’s dollars.
While the area around Cripple Creek didn’t look like a standard gold-producing region, such perceptions were quickly abandoned after discoveries in 1891. In hindsight, it was almost embarrassing just how easily overlooked the location had been, an oversight put down to the unsavory reputation of the Mt. Pisgah hoax.(3)
Cripple Creek and Victor shared many of the characteristics of typical mining boom towns. Citizens of the gold camps were often engaged in friendly rivalries, each claiming that their town was superior for one reason or another. While Cripple Creek was viewed as a the business center of the district, and a millionaires’ playground, Victor was known as the workhorse of the district.
Cripple Creek had the usual gold camp population: miners, assayers, owners, procurers, sharps, hookers, saloon keeps and madams; school teachers, wives, mercantile purveyors, restauranteurs, and tourists all called Cripple Creek home.
Only about five miles square, by 1894 the district had 150 producing mines. Employment in the district’s towns was largely provided by large mining companies. Stealing from corporations was deemed more acceptable than stealing from smaller, independent operators. This shift enabled more “high-grading” to occur.
High-grading was common practice. The labyrinth of mines underground made the guarding of all tunnels, shafts and veins a near impossibility. Miners could easily “scratch the seam” while on their shift–a practice of chipping the high-grade ore out of the seam before hiding it in their shoe tops, hollowed out heels or a variety of other places around their person. Ingenuity was key.
Rich ore could contain anywhere from three to twenty dollars per pound according to various estimates. While this sort of theft nicely enhanced the pay of miners, it cost the mine owners millions over time.
The Inevitable Vice of a Rich Gold District
The early Cripple Creek settlement clustered along Bennett Avenue; in a haphazard and brash manner much the same as any other gold-rush camp. Assay offices sat adjacent to saloons replete with upstairs girls. Provisioners did a flying business setting up restaurants, and lodging houses fulfilled the miner’s immediate need for shelter and sustenance.
Taking a cue from their upstanding and proper neighbor Colorado Springs (a mere thirty miles as the crow flies), it wasn’t long before the upstart gold-camp attempted to apply a thin veneer of civility. The brothels along Bennett Avenue got moved one block down onto Myers Avenue. This move provided the start of a flourishing red-light district boasting fancy parlor houses, decrepit cribs, dance halls, gambling parlors and saloons.
Cripple Creek smothered such proclivities in the name of propriety. There would be few tongue-in-cheek accounts in the newspapers of shady dealings; but the newspapers of the day limited the news to mining, national affairs and civic-minded events. Only the police blotter mentioned fines for drunkenness, hard dealings, and prostitution. Cripple Creek wanted a reputation for two things: gold and a respectable family image.
Regardless, the red-light district was a notable feature of the upstart Cripple Creek and an attraction in its own right. In fact, Cripple Creek hosted one of Colorado’s more notorious vice districts, running a close third behind Denver and Leadville.
Of course, riches pouring out of the ground lured in the usual cast of characters. “Dances” were not an inexpensive proposition. At $1 per dance, the cost was approximately $30 in today’s money, and the man was expected to buy drinks for his partner and himself.
The most expensive parlor house was known as “the Homestead House” and was run as a wealthy man’s resort. Local legend has it that men paid $250 a visit, but that calculates out to a whopping $6,250 (approximately) in current money. Considering the average miner’s working wage was three dollars a day, it seems a bit exaggerated. But one never knows.
Regardless, the most famous madam who turned her hand to running the Homestead House was Pearl De Vere. It is believed that Pearl didn’t allow just anyone into the house, and that she actually examined the prospective client’s finances before he was allowed past the front parlor. If the man’s financial position withstood her scrutiny, he had his choice of four “boarders” who disrobed for viewing behind a special glass window set in an upstairs room next to the staircase.
Despite the large sums of money reportedly changing hands at the Homestead, its story isn’t a happy one. Pearl De Vere had an out-of-town fancy man of her own, and apparently, he missed a visit one evening. Distraught, she went upstairs and took morphine–whether to sleep or commit suicide is unknown. She did, however, overdose and die.
A sister from back east arrived to claim her body. The living sister believed Pearl supported herself by millinery, instead of being Cripple Creek’s most successful madam. When she learned the truth of Pearl’s profession, she refused to claim the body and left town.
The miners, indignant on Pearl’s behalf, staged the most elaborate funeral that Cripple Creek most likely would ever see. In fact, they even had a band to accompany Pearl’s body to the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery. The song of choice? “There’s a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
The Underbelly Was Dark and Deadly
The “society men” of the mine ownership ranks attracted a bevy of beauties–amateur or otherwise. Miners were often engaged in heavy drinking and blowing off steam, as relief from the physically demanding and dangerous work of the mines. Dance Halls carried on, the brothels and cribs attracted the lovelorn or those seeking merely a physical release. The upper classes continued supporting civic improvements in the daylight, and some supported Myers Avenue in the dark.
If Cripple Creek had the prettiest professional girls and the wealthiest mine owners, a claim with which some elements of Victor society would no doubt have taken issue, Victor was known for crime, both petty and organzied. A working-class town founded by upstanding citizens, the criminal element found its way into the nooks and crannies of the saloons, dives and brothels all the same.
Victor was home to two rival gangs: the Jack Smith Gang (of the Strike fame) and a rival gang known as the Crumleys, consisting of Sherman, Grant, and Newt Crumley. Reportedly out of Georgia, it is possible that they were former members of the short-lived Dalton Gang which ran rough-shod over Kansas in 1890-1892. The Crumleys arrived in Colorado Springs shortly after the Dalton’s slaying in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892 and made their way up to the gold camps.
The Smith Gang
Jack Smith, assisted by ex-convicts Jack McMahon and Ed Riley, along with Mollie Maguire “Dynamite” Shorty McLain (who blew up the Strong Mine in the Labor War), lead one faction. One of the most notable escapades was when Jack Smith got drunk and attacked the town of Altman single-handedly, and in the process he released all the prisoners in the town jail.
Smith was arrested in Victor by Marshal Jack Kelly. After making bail, he returned to Altman and entered Gavin and Toohey’s saloon, claiming a spot in the back. He waited for Kelly—no doubt having been tipped off, and some time later Kelly arrived. Both the men were armed and ready for a confrontation. The two men drew and fired. Smith’s shot went wide, killing a member of his own gang, George Pabst. Kelly’s shot found its target, and Jack Smith was killed. But that wasn’t the end of the gang.
George Pabst’s girl, a woman known as Hook-and-Ladder Kate, took over the running of the gang for a year. It is claimed that she was the master mind of a hold-up of a Wells-Fargo wagon, which was driven by another member of the Smith gang. Two members of the gang, Jim Gray and Joe Welsh, were arrested near Leadville where they were living in a barn with two Myers Avenue girls: Liver-Lip Lou and Fighting Mag.
The Smith gang’s days, however, were numbered. Hook-and-Ladder Kate took an overdose of morphine at Rose Gordon’s Dance Hall. Harry McQuaan socked the bartender at the Green Light Saloon, and officer Frank Lupton beat him to a pulp. Enroute to the Victor jail, Seth Ralston tried to free McQuaan. Lupton, having none of it, aimed and shot, clipping McQuaan in the arm and wounding Ralston.
The officer cuffed the two injured men together, but a local mob prevented him from making the Victor jail. Instead, he hopped the train with his prisoners to Cripple Creek, but another mob was waiting for them. The mob surged and tried to uncouple the train cars. Lupton fended them off, shooting an innocent man, Elmer Lumley, dead. His success in fending off two mobs (albeit at the cost of an innocent life) crushed the spirit of the Jack Smith gang, and it faded into obscurity.(4)
The Crumley Gang
The Crumley gang was led by Sherman Crumley, along with his brother Grant. A handsome man who ran saloons, Grant’s favorite girl was Grace Carlyle, a woman who tended to remove her clothes while dancing on top of one of Grant’s bars. When she tried to commit suicide by laudanum, a doctor managed to save her. She gave him a beating for his troubles.(5)
The Crumley gang robbed a train and disposed of the stolen items through Soapy Smith in Denver. Three of their members landed in the Canon City penitentiary for their part in the hold-up. From that point on, the gang restricted its activities to rolling drunks and cheating tenderfeet at poker. They also tried stealing mining supplies from hardware stores. Finding it hard to sell those stolen supplies, they started using the provisions themselves.
Trial by Fire
Cripple Creek (and later Victor in 1899) would be known first for their incredible gold production, and second for the fires that decimated both cities.
Plenty has been written about the devastation of those fires, but it is still mind-boggling in retrospect. Six shots in succession was Cripple Creek’s signal that a fire had broken out. The six shots came on April 25, 1896, and the Central Dance Hall, located on Myers Avenue, was the source of the conflagration.
The Central Dance Hall was a two-story structure with the dance hall occupying the first floor and rooms located above. A bartender and his girl got into a squabble in one of those second-floor rooms and knocked over a coal oil stove. The fire quickly spread through the untreated wooden buildings with their false fronts.
Fire companies managed to keep the blaze contained to just the Central Dance Hall for thirty-five minutes, before their hoses lost pressure. The wind picked up and blew sparks to nearby tinder-dry buildings. The fire passed to the Topic Dance Hall, the sparks jumped the alley and started burning Bennett Avenue buildings from the backsides. Fire destroyed almost everything between Third and Fourth Streets: Johnnie Nolan’s Saloon, the Post Office, the Cripple Creek Mining Exchange among others.
The wind died down after the flames raced through the expensive houses on Carr and Easton Streets. The fire dying out about where it started on Myers Avenue, but not before burning down some one-girl cribs and the parlor houses known as “The Library,” “Old Faithful,” and “Lottie and Kittie’s Place.” The Butte Opera House was lost, along with more saloons and assorted other buildings. The fire lasted three hours.
Newspapers quickly reported on the devastation in the aftermath of the fire:
Cripple Creek. April 27. The fire of Saturday was the most disastrous that ever occurred in any mining camp in the history of the state. It spread rapidly despite heroic efforts of the fire companies and the assistance of a multitude of citizens. Not until some of the largest buildings had been consumed were the flames gotten under control. Eight of the most important business blocks, including the post office and First National Bank, were totally destroyed.
Total loss estimated at over $1,000,000, covered by insurance to the extent of $250,000. The fire has but little discouraged the staunch citizen and a number of those whose buildings were burned, commenced preparation yesterday for rebuilding larger and more substantial structures. Assistance has been proffered by Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and other places, but all outside help has been refused; the people claiming they are able to provide for their homeless. Judging from the vim and activity manifested, it will be but a few months until every vestige of the fire is obliterated. (6)
In true mining camp fashion, one report stated:
Joe Findley and George Jordan, operators of My Friend Saloon on Myers Avenue, erected a ten-by-twelve-foot frame box on the street in front of their smoking ruin, covered by twelve-inch planks with oilcloth covering. They were serving drinks by 8 p.m. Saturday… Kittie Townley had twenty men on the job Sunday morning throwing up new one-girl cribs. J.C. Casey at 316 Myers had his piano player beating out “Do You Like Tutti-Frutti?” even as the carpenters banged away at the corrugated iron enclosing his new establishment.(7)
The barkeeper and his girl confessed to their part in the disaster, but no charges were pressed upon the squabbling couple. Everyone started to rebuild. As Mabel Barbee Lee recounts,
Mayor George Pierce proclaimed that in spite of the suffering and devastation of property, the fire had doubtless been a blessing in disguise. It had wiped out forever many of the camp’s worst dives and in the future, firetraps like the Central and Topic dance halls would be outlawed. He proudly refused the countless offers of help that poured in from all parts of the state. “It will take more than a destructive conflagration to crush a city that is founded on gold,” he added grandly, “for as everybody knows, gold is refined by fire!”(8)
Famous last words, and that wasn’t the end of it. A second conflagration swept through the town on April 29, 1896. This time, the fire started in the kitchen of the Portland Hotel on 2nd Street. Following are some of the headlines that reported on the second fire:
CRIPPLE CREEK WIPED OUT BY FIRE. Second Conflagration Destroys Nearly ALL That Portion of the Town Not Touched by Flames–Thousands Are Destitute/Buildings Blown Up in an Attempt to Save the City / Three Men Are Dead and a Number Injured, Several of Them Fatally/Snow is Falling and Hundreds of Campfires Dot the Surrounding Hills.(9)
The second fire reportedly drew out a cadre of “fire bugs.” At the first hint of looting the police, aided by the citizens, gave prompt notice that death would be the fate of all thieves. The threat did not deter the lawbreakers. Several are believed to have been shot and their bodies left to be cremated in the conflagration. Rumors of many lives lost added to the general consternation, and when the boilers of the Palace Hotel exploded, killing and injuring several people, the panic-stricken, crazed and excited citizens rushed about without apparent purpose or object[ive].(10)
This time, Lee writes:
“… I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the devastation. The forty acres where only the week before had stood a flourishing mining camp were now a vast dump of rubble and smoldering ashes. All that remained of Cripple Creek was Old Town and Poverty Gulch in the east and a fringe of scattered shanties toward Mound City and Pisgah graveyard…
The two railroad depots had been saved, and now Cripple Creekers stood in line to get tents and allotments of bedding, food and clothing sent in by train from Colorado Springs and Denver…hundreds milled about, searching for remnants of their homes among the embers and broken heaps…“(11)
Like many other mining towns that had burned before, the town was rebuilt in brick wherever and whenever possible. Cripple Creek, however, is special. It has the distinction of being the only gold camp to burn twice within the same week.
About the Author
Randi Samuelson-Brown is originally from Golden, Colorado but now lives in the rollicking city of Denver. A passion for Colorado history was instilled by her father from childhood, and to this day she feels haunted by the West’s lesser-known histories and their long-reach into the present.
The Bad Old Days of Colorado: Untold Stories of the Wild West (Two Dot 2020), her first non-fiction book, was a finalist in the 2021 Colorado Book Awards in History and was featured on C-SPAN. Her newest novel, The Dark Range Series #1: Brand Chaser was released by Wolf Pack Publishing on June 1, 2022.
1. Sprague, Marshall, Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
3. https://www.in2013dollars.com/us/inflation/1900?amount=1. Retrieved December 1, 2021. “A mini gold rush was caused in 1884 when three con-men salted gold in a prospect hole near Mount McIntyre, 13 miles west of Mount Pisgah. The men planted a fake claim sign and invited the press. In the excitement over news of the new gold strike, the papers mistakenly identified Mt. Pisgah, near current day Cripple Creek, as the location of the strike. Experienced miners quickly determined the strike was a fake and the incident became known as the Mt. Pisgah Hoax. It gave the area a bad reputation causing prospectors to avoid it for many years.” Courtesy of Haw- Creek.com, Cripple Creek, Colorado.
4. Sprague, Marshall, Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek Gold, page 200.
5. Ibid, 201.
6. Daily Journal (Telluride), April 27, 1896. https://www.coloradohistoricnewspapers.com.
7. Sprague, Marshall Money Mountain: The Story of Cripple Creek, pages 190-191.
8. Lee, Mabel Barbee, Cripple Creek Days, Lincoln NE and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1984, page 93.
9. Rocky Mountain News, April 30, 1896.
10. San Francisco Call, vol. 79, no. 152, April 30, 1896. 14. Lee, Mabel Barbee, Cripple Creek Days, pages 96-97.
11. Lee, Mabel Barbee, Cripple Creek Days, pages 96-97.