The “Paris of the West”
Tucked into the western slope of Pikes Peak, barely eighteen miles from Colorado Springs, as the crow flies, is the legendary mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Over a hundred and twenty years ago, this boomtown played host to the greatest gamblers, gunfighters and gold diggers, of an old West that was reluctantly giving way, to the innovations of the fast approaching 20th century. During its heyday in the 1890s it was known as the “Paris of the West.” It had more saloons, brothels, theaters, streetcars, and millionaires than any other city at twice its size.
All the experts said gold couldn’t possibly exist beneath the granite valley of that boulder-strewn, volcanic caldera. A cowboy from Kentucky and a carpenter from Illinois thought different. The former, a drunken cowhand named Bob Womack, staked the claim that started a rush to what became the world’s greatest gold camp. But, his luck busted and he ended up flat broke, physically broken, and doing menial cooking chores for his sister, at her boarding house in Colorado Springs.
The latter, Winfield Scott Stratton, almost sold his claim for a pittance, then on a hunch discovered gold in an abandoned shaft. He was able to talk the new buyer into destroying what he convinced him was a worthless deed, and became Cripple Creek’s first millionaire.
The Crazy Drunken Cowboy
Just behind Pikes Peak, hidden in that almost impenetrable granite of a volcanic hollow is the last place on earth anyone ought to be looking for buried treasure. Yet, long after the Colorado gold rush had run its course, Bob Womack, a rumpled cowhand, with a temptation for bad whiskey and loose women, just couldn’t shake the dream of finding gold in this barren, boulder strewn stretch of land.
For fairly meager wages, Bob had spent years tending cattle for a real estate group out of Denver known as Bennett and Myers. Near a stream called Cripple Creek, drunken old Bob Womack built a ramshackle cabin. Rumor had it that the stream got its name from the previous homesteaders, who in a single day had a serious of accidents that ended with the luckless rancher wounded by his own discharged shotgun blast, a worker lame from a loosely rolling log, and a calf crippled while jumping the little creek while trying to avoid all the commotion.
However, most historians tend to agree that during that period, almost all small water-cut mountain crevices that would go dry from time to time were called cripple creeks. Whatever the truth may be, the name stuck, and not just for the stream, but for what would become one of the richest gold districts in the world.
Bob Womack called the ravine he built his shack on Poverty Gulch. The residents of Colorado Springs who knew him casually tended to malign his first name, calling him “Crazy Bob.” They used to laugh and poke fun at what they thought were simply his intoxicated musings about gold being hidden up there. But through the improbable diggings of this cowboy, a new gold rush soon populated the sloping cattle pastures and back hills of the Rocky Mountains.
The Creek’s First Millionaire
Besides Bob, there was also an Indiana carpenter who had been prospecting those same hills for the 17 years, also to no avail. However, Winfield Scott Stratton felt, like Bob, that in spite of what the experts claimed, there was gold on the other side of the mountain. The carpenter, hearing that Bob might have finally found something up there, left behind what he was working on in Colorado Springs. He set off on foot to hike around Pikes Peak to take a look for himself at what people were starting to call the Cripple Creek mining district.
On July 4th, 1891, he staked out The Independence and would eventually become Cripple Creek’s first millionaire. But not before he sold the claim to L.M. Pearlman who represented a San Francisco mining syndicate. Stratton was paid $5,000 down on a thirty-day option. That very night he went back to the mine to remove his tools, and on a hunch he checked out a shaft he had abandoned early on. To his utter surprise he struck pay dirt. Except, he no longer owned it.
Stratton covered up everything so that the shaft appeared untouched, and then sweated out the next thirty days as Pearlman’s team explored the other shafts in the mine. At the end of the month, nothing exceptional had been discovered, and Pearlman was eager to return to California. He asked Stratton, over dinner at the Palace Hotel, on the night before the contract was to expire, if Stratton wouldn’t mind releasing him from the contract. Stratton said he wouldn’t mind, and Pearlman tossed the papers they had signed into the flames of the hotel’s fireplace. With that gesture, Winfield Scott Stratton became the first millionaire from a gold strike, in the Cripple Creek mining district.
The Other Gold Diggers
The news of Stratton’s strike brought hundreds of prospectors heading for The Creek. And, with the arrival of the miners, another kind of gold digger soon appeared in the mining camp.
The female variety of gold diggers soon made names for themselves. Blanche Burton became one of the district’s first madams. She was quickly followed by the “first ladies” of Myers Avenue such as Hazel Vernon, Pearl Sevan, Lola Livingston, Nell McClusky and Laura Belle. They in turn were joined by such colorful personalities as Slippery Sadie, Dirty Neck Nell, Tall Rose, Goldfield Red, Bilious Bessie, Dizzy Daisy, Greasy Gertie and the ever-popular The Victor Pig.
Myers Avenue was named for Julius Myers, one of the partners who owned the land before the discovery of gold. It soon took on other names – Sin Street, The Tenderloin, The Row, The Resorts and the Red Light District. Myers Avenues was populated with sporting houses, dance halls, brothels, bordellos, saloons, gaming dens, opium parlors, hop joints, and single-girl cribs.
Pearl de Vere, who operated the Homestead, a house of prostitution on Myers Avenue that catered primarily to millionaires, died of a morphine overdose. Her popularity was such that at her send off to the cemetery, her casket was escorted by four mounted policemen, a twenty-piece band, and a long, long parade of saddened mourners of mostly former customers.
The Famous and the Infamous
Cripple Creek soon filled with the famous and infamous, treading through its streets on their way to fame and fortune. Celebrities such as world heavy-weight champions Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, cowboy film star Tom Mix and silent film hero Douglas Fairbanks, comedian Groucho Marx, President Teddy Roosevelt and the master politician William Jennings Bryant, as well as, gunfighter and gambler Bat Masterson, the Earp brothers and members of the Wild Bunch Gang, were all part of the Cripple Creek story. Even the crusader Cary Nation stopped by long enough to call it a “foul cesspool” and to claim it to be the most lawless and wicked city to be found anywhere.
Cripple Creek in its heyday had everything from boxing matches to opera. It staged the world’s first indoor rodeo, and the only bullfight to ever take place in the United States was in the Cripple Creek mining district. And, today Cripple Creek is looking forward to making a comeback to the good old days with its renewed interest in gambling, tourism, and, of course, mining.