Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining District: A Sense of Place

By Steven Wade Veatch

No one really stays the same in life; our experiences shape us. Places change us. For me, a place, the Cripple Creek Mining District, influenced my life and made significant changes in me. I remember childhood days going to Cripple Creek, my mind spiked with curiosity and a sense of fascination, and with wide eyes marveling at the tall head frames marking where mining took place in the late 19th century. Over the many decades that followed I developed a strong bond to Cripple Creek where a true sense of place developed through a growing knowledge of the history, its legends, it geology.  
Memories of rock hunting, attending Victorian melodrama, and exploring the landscape make this place special. I learned to play the bluegrass song Cripple Creek from memory on my guitar and pursued a master’s degree in Earth Science. These things anchored me to the gold camp while shaping my mind and my life.

A mining scene in the Cripple Creek  Mining District.
Original watercolor art by Steven Wade Veatch.

The decades blend and blur, but the story of dreams, desires, and building a mining district in the sleepy hills next to the quiet granite of Pikes Peak remains compelling. The Cripple Creek Mining District lies on the southwestern side of 14,115-foot-high Pikes Peak in southern Colorado. Bob Womack, a ranch hand and itinerant prospector, discovered gold in late October,1890 that all of the other prospectors missed. His discovery sparked a rush of prospectors into to the area under a quiet sky. Soon low-grade ore deposits in unyielding igneous rocks led to the unearthing of rich veins of gold. Miners spread across the district and dug fortunes out the six-square-mile bowl of gold. The high concentrations of gold telluride minerals made this place like no other in North America. The area soon became known as the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

Cripple Creek, looking northeast. The partly wooded knob on the left is Rhyolite Mountain.
Just beyond the town are Mineral and Carbonate hills and in the background is Pikes Peak. Teller County, Colorado. September 181903, plate 4-B in U.S. Geological Survey. Professional paper 54. 1906d 
The nationwide Silver Panic of 1893 and with it tough economic times made people consider how their whole lives could turn out to be nothing with an endless supply of extraordinary ordinariness. Cripple Creek made a difference: a golden beacon of promise shone across the nation from Cripple Creek as newspapers carried exciting stories of gold. Cripple Creek brought the nation new hope. This state of affairs brought thousands of out-of-work men, fortune seekers, and fortune makers who poured into the gold camp searching for work, wealth, and wonder. Together the miners, mine owners, merchants and all the people of the mining district consumed life at a fever pitch. The gold rush to Cripple Creek forever changed the landscape where mountain men once explored and the Ute Indians roamed.
Cripple Creek sprawled around the base of Mount Pisgah where grassy hills, dotted with wildflowers, became an instant city of tents and log cabins. The wind buzzed as it passed the corners of the cabins while the sun rose over the goldfields. Soon lumbermen built sawmills that produced a supply of sawn boards for the well-to-do townspeople who built large, two- or three-story frame houses. In this brawling, raucous, free-for-all mining camp food was expensive, water scarce, and whiskey plentiful.

Cripple Creek, looking west from Gold Hill. The Midget and Conundrum mines are in the foreground and Mount Pisgah is in the background. Teller County, Colorado. October 3, 1903,
plate 4-A in U.S. Geological Colorado Professional Paper 54. 1906.
By 1900, 500 mines had been located and more than a dozen towns established—including Cripple Creek, Victor, Altman, Independence, Elkton, Anaconda, Arequa, Lawrence, Cameron, Mound City, Goldfield, and Gillett.  Many of the gold mines were located either in or near the City of Victor. During that peak year 8,000 miners produced more than 878,000 ounces of gold. A number of the mines were well capitalized business operations with large payrolls. The Portland Mine boasted 700 workers who worked for $3 a day in wages. The district continued its growth despite several horrific fires and major labor conflicts in 1894. Then in 1903 through 1904 labor strife surfaced againwhen anger gloomed like a darkness, scores of men were killed, and 225 miners sent packing out of the district.

Bull cliff and town of Independence, Vindicator mine to right. Teller County, Colorado.
October 7, 1903, plate 25-B in U.S. Geological Survey. Professional paper 54. 1906
The district’s population in 1900 climbed to 50,000 people served by hotels, restaurants, lawyers, and brokerage houses. A number of assay offices, overflowing with lab equipment, operated in the district. Bankers had long lunches with mine owners in restaurants graced with china plates, white napkins, and sparkling glasses. Children attended crowded schools, and newspapers printed the headlines of the day. Busy mining men took time out for a drink of whiskey in saloons; business was brisk at dance halls, pool halls, and theaters. A notorious red-light district on Meyers Avenue sprang to life each evening when the sun slid behind Mineral Hill.
The people who traveled to the Cripple Creek Mining District brought their institutions and customs, including fraternal organizations, band concerts, opera, theater, and religion. Sunday church services were an important part of life in the gold camp. Miners celebrated the Fourth of July with enthusiasm that included parades and games. Sporting events were a big draw in Cripple Creek with the townspeople attending boxing matches, baseball games, and firemen’s races.
As the gold camp grew, railroads linked the area to the outside and kept the district provided with food, supplies, and equipment. Teamsters drove horse- and mule-drawn wagons with creaking wagon wheels along a winding dirt road to bring in supplies while muleskinners hauled ore to local smelters.
Streets bubbled with activity from curb to curb while the pace of business filled the air with whispering motes of gold dust. Each morning the sun greeted Bennett Avenue—illuminating outdoor advertising of patent medicines painted onto the bricks of commercial buildings—and brought the promise of energy, commerce, and hope for the day.
The gold camp had its share of production problems.  The gold in Cripple Creek was unlike the gold ore in other western mining camps. Cripple Creek’s gold was locked in gold-telluride minerals.  This mineralogy required different methods of ore reduction. The chlorination process, instead of the standard stamp milling and amalgamation process, separated gold from gold-bearing minerals in its host rock.  Later in the district cyanide leaching—a more efficient process—replaced chlorination.
Water became a serious problem as underground workings deepened and hit the water table. To mitigate this issue, drainage tunnels were driven to drain the mines. The Carlton Tunnel, completed in 1941, was the longest of these drainage tunnels and drained the deepest levels of the Vindicator Mine. These tunnels of hope filled with murmuring water emptied into Fourmile Creek.
Mining precious metals from the hard rock of Cripple Creek’s gold mines contributed to the recovery of the nation after the Silver Panic and contributed to the economic development of Colorado. The Pikes Peak region’s economy boomed from the goldfields. The district created 30 millionaires from its large and famous mines. Winfield Scott Stratton, a Colorado Springs carpenter, prospected in the hills for 15 years and struck it rich on the 4th of July 1901 when he claimed the Independence Mine. He later sold it for $11 million. Spencer Penrose and Charles Tutt sold the C. O. D. Mine to a French syndicate. Penrose used his share of the profits to build the celebrated Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and to invest in Utah copper mining.
After WWII, most of the mines were not profitable and shut down. In 1976, Texasgulf and Golden Cycle formed a joint venture, the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining Company to restart mining in the district.  This year marked the revival of gold mining in the district. The Cresson Mine was permitted in 1994 as an open pit mine and gold production increased each year.  Through mergers and acquisitions, ownership of the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company changed. Today, the Newmont Mining Company owns the mining operations. In 2014 the company poured 266,000 ounces of gold; and in 2015 poured its five-millionth ounce.
Limited-stakes gambling, approved by the voters of Colorado in 1991, added to the resurgence of Cripple Creek. The historic brick buildings on Bennett Avenue re-energized as casinos. Today gold is mined around the clock in the goldfields again, and is changing the landscape once again. The renewed mining combined with limited-stakes gambling constitute a rebirth of the district and revitalized Cripple Creek and Victor.
When I go to the Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, I feel the presence of grandparents and ancestors working in the mines and making a living there. I feel of the sun and shifting mountain breeze. I see the headframes and prospects that dot the land, and smell the burning coal in the steam engine that leaves from the depot next to the Cripple Creek District Museum. I sense the identity and character of the district that is valued deeply by residents.  I am connected to this place. I spend time there, and share my feelings and the stories of the unique human experiences that makes this the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

The World’s Greatest Gold Camp has refused to fade into the mists of history, but remains the source of legend.

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