Ironically, the great Pikes Peak gold rush, which gave birth to Colorado, bypassed the richest goldfields of all, hidden just west of the peak. Cowboy Bob Womack scratched around the high-country cow pastures for years, theorizing that the surface gold he found would lead to richer deposits. In 1891 he found a pay streak. During the subsequent gold rush, Cripple Creek was founded and soon became the fifth largest city in the state and the seat of the county created in 1899 and named for U.S. Senator Henry M. Teller.
Cripple Creek emerged an instant city with two dozen satellite gold camps in a 24-square-mile district that called itself “the world's greatest gold camp.” In 1900 some 500 mines surrendered more than $18 million in gold, outproducing Australian, Canadian, Russian, South African, and U.S. rivals. Cripple Creek's golden age is commemorated today by blast-and-pray prospect holes, mine headframes, and immense mine waste dumps and mill tailings. Ubiquitous saloons were sometimes the last surviving structures, as is the case with the log and frame Grand View Saloon in Midway and another in Altman. Three railroads rushed in: the Florence & Cripple Creek, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District, and the Colorado Midland with its Midland Terminal extension from Divide to Cripple Creek. All three railroad grades have been converted to auto roads: the Phantom Canyon Road from Florence, the Gold Camp Road, and Colorado 67, which squeezes through the Midland's old one-lane timbered railroad tunnel.
Of the fifteen towns in the Cripple Creek District, only Cripple Creek, Goldfield, and Victor survive. Three other county towns—Woodland Park, Divide, and Florissant—originated during the 1870s as stops along the Ute Pass trail to South Park, Leadville, and Aspen. This route was used in the 1880s by the Colorado Midland, the first standard-gauge line to cross the Rocky Mountains.
Railroads eventually carried $800 million in gold ore out of the district, which produced some forty millionaires. As in many other mining camps, profits flowed downhill out of the mining town to centers of capital, services, and supplies. Cripple Creek gold built many lavish houses on Denver's Capitol Hill and in the North End and Broadmoor neighborhoods of Colorado Springs.
The Cripple Creek District boasted around 13,000 residents in 1900. As the high-grade ore became more costly to mine and a 1903–1904 labor war crippled mining operations, gold production slipped, but the annual output did not fall below $1 million until 1945. Mining has revived somewhat since the 1970s with the introduction of cyanide leaching to wring more gold from huge turn-of-the-century mill dumps.
After the 1903–1904 strike, Cripple Creek shriveled and smaller towns and camps fell to fire, weather, or the hands of man. Rather than pay taxes on vacant structures, many owners dismantled them and sold off the scrap. In 1990, 4,610 people lived in Woodland Park, 584 in Cripple Creek, and 258 in Victor. Tourism has replaced mining as Teller County's chief industry, particularly since the introduction in 1991 of limited-stakes gambling in Cripple Creek.
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