In the late 1980s, my family's visits to Cripple Creek always ended at the same place, a comfortably shabby pizza joint with a wobbly pool table, a jukebox filled with old Hank Williams songs, and cheap pitchers of beer. It was a ritual that we perfected over several seasons; a tradition we only shared with our closest friends.
The name of the caf has been forgotten, and the pool table probably rests in a landfill somewhere. But it was Cripple Creek at its finest, at least to us. We thought we had found the perfect mountain town one that had all the scenery and intriguing history, but none of the pretension and glitz found in other parts of Colorado.
But we didn't live there. Those who did in the '80s had to make do with a town that hadn't changed for decades. Wooden pipes that dated to the 1800s snaked underground. The main street, Bennett Avenue, was the only one paved. Propane tanks kept businesses heated. The cemetery was a field of broken headstones and knee-high weeds. Fewer than a dozen people were employed by a city that operated on a budget in the low six figures. Businesses struggled to make it through each winter, bitterly cold and windy at 9,500 feet.
Twenty years later, Bennett Avenue is still lined with brick buildings whose facades hearken back to the Old West. But underneath those buildings is a brand-new, state-of-the-art infrastructure a sewer and water system, a natural gas system, no more wooden pipes. Behind the facades, chrome slot machines glimmer. The casinos employ 2,300 people, more than two times the city's population. Sophisticated police, fire and emergency services departments have expanded exponentially. A full-service medical center is being built on the edge of town.
And the city now operates on a $16 million budget, with the casinos taking in $2.6 billion in bets each year.
That translates into millions of dollars for Cripple Creek, via fees charged to the casinos and the town's once-a-year distribution from the gaming tax that Cripple Creek shares with Central City and Black Hawk, the state's other two historic gaming towns. Those proceeds market share are determined by the wager amount.
Some residents are surprised when they learn the amount of money that gambling brings to their town. And many, especially the old-timers, grumble about the changes.
Discontent between those who remember the lean years, and the movers and shakers who only know the new incarnation of the city, resembles what unfolded in Cripple Creek in its earliest years. Prospectors, the working men who struggled to survive on the mountain, tried hard to find their fortunes in the ground, but it took men who knew business to build the gold camp into a powerful economic force.
"What other industries could you bring to a town of 1,100 people that could bring in that kind of money?" asks Mayor Ed Libby. "Maybe you could make Saturn V rockets."
(Footnote: A year's worth of wagers in Cripple Creek nearly equals the total amount the United States budgeted for production of the revered Saturn V.)
Rockets aren't being produced here, but Libby and other city officials are unveiling yet another weapon in the quest for income and growth: a trio of tourist attractions, led by the Pikes Peak Heritage Center, an 11,600-square foot interpretive center perched above the city that will showcase the area's history starting in August. A museum in the old Cripple Creek Jail called the Outlaws & Lawmen Museum will open at the same time, on the other side of town. And the city is pursuing an American military history museum.
Libby and others believe those facilities, combined with the already-popular Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine, Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, Cripple Creek District Museum and Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company, will allow the community to take off in a different direction.
"I've traveled a lot," Libby says. "When you go across the country, looking for a historical narrative perspective, there's not a better opportunity for a family than to come to Cripple Creek and discuss all the things that have taken place here. It's as strongly defined and as a good a narrative as anywhere."
It was really quiet
By the late 1980s, when my family savored the roughhewn charm of this low-key mountain town, its population had dwindled to about 700 people. Some residents worked at "the mine" (the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company) or taught in the small school system; many of the rest sold souvenirs out of glass-fronted gift shops or served ice cream or pizza to tourists in the summer months. A few worked at the Mollie Kathleen, which had been turned into a tourist attraction, or the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad, whose open-air cars took summer visitors into the hills. Volunteers and a small staff ran the district museum.
It was a town far different from what it used to be, one of the most famous gold camps in the world. But residents loved it anyway.
"It's always been a pretty nice town," says Kathy Larsen, who moved with her family from Houston to Cripple Creek in 1987. Larsen, her husband and two children settled quickly into the slow-paced life. "It was really quiet, and that's why we liked it."
She volunteered and worked for a while at a friend's gift shop downtown. That's where she first heard the talk about gaming.
It was late January 1990 when a city councilman introduced the idea. Limited-stakes gaming had worked in Deadwood, S.D., a town with a similar history.
Maybe it would work in Cripple Creek.
"I was kind of ambivalent about it at first," Larsen says. "So I asked some people I knew who had been born and raised here. They said they felt it was a good decision for the town, so I volunteered to help raise money to pay the people to circulate the petitions."
Other residents rallied as well, and the town even recalled three city council members who opposed gaming. Residents voted on the idea 152 were for it, and 38 against and the town set out to persuade the Colorado Legislature to put the proposal on the ballot.
The push was successful, and Colorado voters approved it. On Oct. 1, 1991, Cripple Creek unveiled its new look, with gleaming Bennett Avenue buildings meeting historic guidelines on the outside, and filled with the newest high-tech gaming machines on the inside.
Art Tremayne was one of the old-timers Larsen consulted. Tremayne was born in Cripple Creek in October 1917, the son of homesteaders who settled in Four Mile in the 1800s. The Cripple Creek of Tremayne's youth was a thrilling place, he says.
"It was a mining town. It was a really rough town."
He got his first job as a mucker, shoveling ore into carts for $3 a day. He worked in the mines for years, working his way up to hoist operator, and later owned several businesses. In 1996, he was hired by the city to restore the historic but neglected Mount Pisgah Cemetery, and the 89-year-old still works there today.
Tremayne says he loves Cripple Creek, a town that survived economic peaks and valleys over the decades. But he admits that by the 1980s, the town was struggling.
"It was going downhill pretty bad," he says. "I think it would have survived, but we needed something."
He thought Cripple Creek was made for gaming, and gaming for Cripple Creek. It wouldn't be the first time the two came together. Tremayne remembers his youth in Cripple Creek "when there was quite a bit of gambling and prostitution still going on."
So when the idea of gaming was introduced, Tremayne joined in the push.
"I owned jukeboxes that I placed all over town, and I was going to put a few slot machines in the same places," he remembers. "I thought it was a good idea."
Eager, would-be millionaires had searched for gold in Colorado since the 1860s in areas west and north, but nobody had paid much attention to Cripple Creek. Then, in 1891, a ranch hand named Bob Womack discovered gold on Pikes Peak. Later that year, a group of businessmen formed the Cripple Creek Mining District.
Word got out, and by 1900, the area that once held a handful of hardy ranchers had swelled to a collection of towns with a population in the tens of thousands, according to historian Marshall Sprague's book, Money Mountain.
Cripple Creek was the largest, with a handful of smaller towns set up along the hillsides. Growing to as large as 55,000 people, it was a booming city, its crowded, dusty streets edged by department stores and drugstores, groceries and saloons, bookstores and churches. Schools filled with 4,000 students who lived in the district and hotels with tourists who traveled to the gold camp by train. Two opera houses entertained residents and visitors, and thousands clogged the streets for frequent parades.
Up on Bennett Avenue, gambling houses flourished. Johnny Nolan's, The Branch and the Board & Trade attracted the moneyed businessmen who staked the mines in the district. Hardworking miners, men with a little cash in their pockets, frequented the smaller gambling houses built next to brothels on Myers Avenue, the city's "sin street," writes historian Leland Feitz in Cripple Creek: A Quick History.
But the golden era ended, and by the early 1900s, Colorado, like most states, had outlawed gambling. Cripple Creek had been ravaged in a labor war that idled 3,550 men and ended with 33 dead. For the next several decades, gold was still mined, but the Great Depression took its toll.
When World War II erupted, the government shut down the country's mining of metals. By the time the war ended and the mining ban was lifted, most of the mines didn't reopen. Many miners had moved on to more lucrative jobs in uranium mines on Colorado's Western Slope. The region was headed for a slow disintegration into a collection of ghost towns.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon announced the end of the gold standard that since the 1930s had prohibited private citizens from buying gold. In 1974, Americans could once again buy gold, and that same decade, surveys showed gold remained in the Cripple Creek District. But gold mining never took off as it had nearly a century before.
"In the late '80s, the economy of the entire Pikes Peak region was struggling," says Clarke Becker, executive director of the Colorado Rural Development Council, a group that studies issues related to community development. He has lived in Teller County since 1978, and in the 1990s, was mayor of Woodland Park, then a Teller County commissioner.
"It was about 1991 that things started to turn around in Colorado Springs," Becker adds, "and quite often, we see that as Colorado Springs starts to change, so does Teller County."
Change probably isn't a strong enough word for what happened in Cripple Creek in 1991. Thirty-six casino licenses were issued. The Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company submitted permits for its Cresson Project, a massive mining effort that started four years later.
Real estate became a hot commodity. Word got out that casinos and the mine were hiring, and wages were better than they were in Colorado Springs and other much-larger cities.
Almost overnight, the languishing town was transformed.
"Since then, we've gone from a budget of $330,000 and 12 employees to a budget of $16 million and 100 full- and part-time employees," says Paul Harris, hired as Cripple Creek's first city first finance director in 1995.
Wins and losses
Like many others, Harris was attracted to the region's natural beauty. He lived in Colorado Springs for a year after moving from California, and would often head up Ute Pass to go mountain biking at Rampart Reservoir. On one trip, he saw an ad in the local paper for city finance director.
"I was always looking at the mountains from Colorado Springs," he says. "I wanted to live there."
Cripple Creek's location is a selling point. It sits at the foot of Pikes Peak, surrounded by dense forests of pine and spruce, with a panoramic view framed by no fewer than 14 peaks rising more than 14,000 feet in elevation. Snuggled in a valley, it glimmers, especially on cold winter nights.
It was just one of those nights that seduced Ed Libby when he drove into town the first time. Libby and his family were living in California's Napa Valley in the 1990s.
"We wanted to get out of California, and we looked at other parts of the country," he says. "I heard about Cripple Creek, and came here to take a look."
It was February 1995, and Libby drove his rental car down the hill into town at 2 in the morning.
"It was cold and icy, one of those nights when the snow crystallizes on everything," he says. "Everything had a crystalline glow. It was a cloudless, beautiful night. It was breathtaking. I was really taken with the place."
Libby moved his family here the next year, and in 2004, dove into politics and was elected mayor. Today, he owns part or all of many small businesses in town a hardware store, a gas station, a car wash, a fuel company, a waste transfer station company, a caf and a construction business while he attends to the duties of mayor, an unpaid, elected position. He donated the land for the city's new medical center, slated to open later this year, and for the military museum that's in the planning stages.
If Tremayne personifies the old guard in Cripple Creek, then Libby represents the new. He believes in his town, but something has bothered him as the years have gone on: He didn't see Cripple Creek's story being told, at least in a way that would entice people to visit. He and other city employees saw a town that had been buoyed by gambling, but didn't have enough alternatives to offer visitors.
"Even though gaming has achieved the critical mass for it to be a year-round experience, our business is still very much seasonal," Libby says. "The town's seasonal visitors show up around the end of June, and by the end of August, the crowds are gone. That makes it difficult, for small businesses especially, to survive."
Looking back on the changes gaming brought to Cripple Creek, Libby says "its effect surprised a lot of people. A lot of them thought they would be able to operate and generate an income off this experience, but the costs made it difficult."
There were also setbacks.
"A tremendous amount of the underpinnings of the community left in the early days of gaming," Libby says. "We lost the hardware store, a local doctor, grocery stores."
When Libby arrived, there were 18 retail shops; today there are five. On the upper and lower parts of Bennett Avenue, storefronts sit empty, their glass fronts like blank stares.
The smallest casinos have closed, forced out or gobbled up by the biggest ones. Of the 36 casino licenses issued in the early days, 17 remain, owned by nine different entities. A result of consolidation, today's elaborate casino complexes include restaurants, hotels and coffee shops. Most are large-scale operations the newest one, in construction right now and set to open next year, will be Cripple Creek's largest casino, a 65,000-square-foot complex.
The casinos are sophisticated operations that dwarf small operators like Tremayne, who has abandoned his vision of a few jukeboxes next to slot machines.
"That proved impossible," he says.
Time will tell
Some of the most dedicated gamblers probably have learned a little about Cripple Creek's history when fuzzy burros stuck their heads into car windows. The burros, part of a wild herd that wanders the town, are descendants of the animals used by miners 100 years ago. Others might recognize the town's name from The Band's classic song, "Up On Cripple Creek."
Resident Kathy Larsen laughs, saying, "Yeah, if I tell people, especially people from out of state, that I live in Cripple Creek, that's what they ask about the burros or the song."
Wanting more recognition than a 1969 music lyric or a wandering donkey, city officials got together in the late summer of 2004 to draw up a wish list for their city. What did they wish for? Something that would draw visitors to their town, enlighten and educate them, and send them on to other attractions in Cripple Creek and the region.
The result of their brainstorming, the Pikes Peak Heritage Center, has some residents excited and others wary. Will it be a drawing card to the community? How will it coexist with the casinos? Some have whispered that the center was too big, too expensive, too much for the small town to manage. Others were worried it would take some of the attention from other longtime attractions or the casinos.
Still others talk about a lack of communication between city officials and residents. Why weren't they asked about the location? Why is the center outside the city limits, where it might stop people from continuing on to the town? Most won't complain on record.
Art Tremayne served as mayor of Cripple Creek four decades ago. He says city officials got together back then and talked about ways to get people to visit, but they didn't think on the grand scale of the Heritage Center. And, like other old-timers, he frets about the location.
"We wouldn't have put the center at the top of that hill," he says. "I think it should be right in the middle of town."
Lodie Hern has lived in Cripple Creek since the 1960s. At one time, she owned the Old Homestead House Museum, a museum in an original brothel dating to the late 1800s.
She says when people ask her about Cripple Creek, she tells them all the reasons it's unique: "Our mining, the courthouse, the old churches. There was a strong culture here at one time. This was quite the place."
If the Heritage Center brings people and makes it "quite the place" again, will Hern support it?
"Time will tell," she says guardedly.
Kathy Larsen, who checks on the progress of the center every day as she drives to her current job at the mine, says people she knows are curious.
"Quite a few people are excited about it," she says. "I'm reserving judgment until I see it. It's a gorgeous building from the outside."
The center is projected to cost about $3.7 million, money from grants, donations, the city's Historic Preservation Fund and other city funds. The land was donated by the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company. Inside, exhibits focus on the region's natural and human history, the mining industry and recreation.
Libby and others who have worked nearly three years on the center are gambling on its potential to catalyze a second round of change in this mountain town. Asked what Cripple Creek will look like in 20 years, Libby responds:
"I think you will see a growing community, maybe 1,800 or 2,000 residents; a complete community with quality schools, quality emergency services, retail stores, a medical center.
"I think it will be a community that has learned how to use its history to entertain and educate its visitors. It will be a strong and respected contributor to the region."