Scammers, scoundrels, gamblers and entrepreneurs. Gambling has a long and colorful history in the Pikes Peak Region, starting in Colorado City, founded in 1859. During the region’s first Gold Rush, the rollicking little city at the foot of Ute Pass was wide open, home to miners, manufacturers, laborers of all sorts–and those who attended to their needs.

Peeking at cards

Peeking at card

Colorado City

Gambling has a long and colorful history in the Pikes Peak Region, starting in Colorado City, founded in 1859. During the region’s first Gold Rush, the rollicking little city at the foot of Ute Pass was wide open, home to miners, manufacturers, laborers of all sorts – and those who attended to their needs. When Gen. William Palmer founded Colorado Springs in 1871, his genteel little city banned racetracks, gambling, breweries, distilleries, liquor sales, saloons, and bawdy houses, but never mind-Colorado City was just two miles to the west.

As boom after boom rippled through the region, Colorado City’s saloons serviced local residents as well as newcomers looking to sit in on a high-stakes poker game in one of the back rooms. Pretty girls catered to their needs, while sharp-eyed dealers kept the games honest.

But itinerant grifters, con men and skilled professional gamblers occasionally passed through, including “Eat ‘Em Up” Jake of Dodge City Kansas. According to an account published by the Pittsburgh Press in 1902, “Eat ‘Em Up” came by his nickname in an 1889 game in Colorado City.

“Money was plentiful and gambling was easy enough in Colorado City,” the newspaper reported, “but the stranger had to be on the square. Crookedness in a game of cards simply meant death to the man who practiced it and the average stranger was not willing to take the chance.”

But “Eat Em Up” wasn’t an average stranger.

“He suddenly found himself in a hole in a big game of poker, and he had staked his last cent,” the Press continued. “The pot was +a, a four-figure pot. He had in someway secured an extra card in the deal. He had a hand that it would take a royal to beat, but he had an extra card, and he was in a fearful dilemma. He knew that if he slipped the card up his sleeve or hid it about his person in any way, he would get shot. The players had just ordered a round of sandwiches. His sandwich was placed before him on the table and he picked it up and catching the attention of the other players diverted somewhat, he slipped his extra card in between the slices of bread and began to eat it with the hurry and relish of a starving beggar.”

He won the pot and apparently worked the scam successfully throughout the mining towns of the west. The Press
reporter noted that “Eat Em Up’’ no longer gambled—he was a policeman in a southern city and “a rattling good fellow and an efficient officer.”

Cripple Creek Act 1

On the other side of Pikes Peak, only a dozen miles from Colorado City as the crow flies, gold was discovered at Cripple Creek. Within a few years, the Creek was a bustling city of 20,000 souls and money was more than plentiful—it was everywhere. The saloons, brothels and gambling halls of the new boom town soon eclipsed those of Colorado City, but the good times were short-lived. The mines played out in the early years of the 20th century, and Cripple Creek, like Rip van EWinkle, fell into a sleep that would last nearly nine decades.

Up the Pass

From the early 1920’s until the late 1940’s, there were as many as three restaurant/casinos in Woodland Park. The most notorious of them, the Thunderhead Inn not only reputedly featured and adjoining casino with slots, roulette, craps and
high-stakes poker games, but also a neighboring building with topless dancers and female “companionship”. Every night, limousines from the Broadmoor Hotel transported guests up Ute Pass for a little action. Rowdy behavior wasn’t tolerated–the Thunderhead even had an adjacent holding pen, a small barred building where drunks and miscreants were stored until they calmed down.

While gambling was theoretically illegal in Woodland Park and much of Teller County, elected officials had traditionally looked the other way. Proprietors of such establishments were often pillars of the community, generous donors to charity and to churches, and all ran very tight ships. They provided employment, attracted visitors and helped boost the otherwise forlorn regional economy.

That changed in the early 1950’s, when the state’s puritanical  Governor, Dan Thornton, launched a campaign to get rid of gambling. Apparently inspired by an article in the Denver Post that depicted Teller County as a wide-open gambling mecca, Thornton launched raids on the Brock’s Crystola Inn, the Ute Inn and the Ouray Inn. Casino owners, presumably warned of the impending raids by their friends in law enforcement, spirited their gaming paraphernalia away to safe locations, but the good times were over.

Cripple Creek reborn

In 1991 Colorado voters legalized limited-stakes casino gambling in three mountain towns—Blackhawk, Central City and Cripple Creek—and a new gaming boom began. Within a few months, a dozen casinos had opened along the Creek’s once-crumbling Bennett Avenue, historic storefronts were renovated and restored, and thousands of eager gamblers swarmed the again lively old city. In the 25 years since gaming returned to the backside of Pikes Peak, millions have tried their luck at slots, video poker, table games and other devices. Bet limits have been loosened, casinos can now stay open around the clock, and multiple special events attract visitors year-round. And although the old-timers would doubtless be glad to see today’s prosperity, they might wonder what happened to the saloons, bawdy houses, and card sharks of days gone by. Too bad guys—the bawdy houses are long gone, the saloons have been replaced by respectable bars and brewpubs and “Eat ‘Up Jack” has long since passed away. Today’s sharks and scammers are after bigger game, the games can’t be rigged and as long as you don’t bet more than you can afford, you’ll have fun! And if you lose—well, you’re in good company. This reporter’s grandfather reputedly lost a bundle gambling in Colorado City in the 1890’s—so I wonder whether he sat down at the table with “Eat ‘Em Up”…