The county seat (1891, 9,494 feet) is named for a rocky trickle notorious for crippling humans and animals. Cripple Creek lies on the lip of the crater of an extinct volcano whose lava extrusions contained gold veins that formed a “bowl of gold.” This discovery by Cowboy Bob Womack led Horace W. Bennett and Julius A. Myers to replat part of their Broken Box Ranch as a city, which by 1900 had 10,147 residents, three railroads, and two electric streetcar lines. Even two fires in the same week, which leveled downtown Cripple Creek in 1896, did not check growth. Residents rapidly rebuilt with fireproof brick from six local brickyards. Prominent Denver architects John J. Huddart and Thielman Robert Wieger apparently designed many of the new red brick and stone commercial buildings. Nearly all carry the date 1896.
After a statewide vote, gambling became legal in Cripple Creek's commercial core in 1991. A modern-day gold rush took place as long-desolate downtown commercial lots sold for as much as $2 million each. Old structures, and a few new ones, were made into thirty-one casinos before gambling fever subsided. Casino builders often demolished everything but the streetfront facade and built a completely new structure behind it. Inside, split-level design and mirrored walls visually expanded interiors jammed with slot machines. Fanciful, neo-Victorian interiors sport wood trim, chandeliers, pressed metal ceilings, and carpets in hues of lavender and mauve. Honky-tonk piano players and cocktail waitresses outfitted in dancehall finery add to the carnival.
A share of the gambling proceeds is ear-marked for historic preservation and guidelines enforcing, for example, the three-story height restriction downtown and a buffer zone in which commercial buildings are reserved for non-gambling uses. Despite housing, parking, and policing headaches, optimists contend that gambling revenues will help pave Cripple Creek's dirt side streets and may even bring a stoplight to the town. Locals and tourists want to preserve the town's historic scavengers—a herd of semi-wild burros—who roam the streets, chomping, braying, and glaring at tourist cameras.
The entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark District. Bennett Avenue, Cripple Creek's main street, is bordered by red-brick commercial buildings with glazed storefronts and recessed entries. Many facades show fine face brick, often with exuberant detailing—sandstone pilasters, decorative friezes, and egg-and-dart molding. The once solid row of storefronts along Myers Avenue are mostly gone, replaced by weedy vacant lots. During the 1930s and 1940s, hundreds of frame and brick homes were demolished. Yet a core residential district survives along Carr, Eaton, and Golden avenues on the north side of Bennett. One of the more ornate Victorian homes, 315 East Eaton, has been converted to a bed and breakfast.
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