Descending Into History
In the early years of the last century, gold mining in Cripple Creek and Victor wasn’t quite as romantic, colorful, or exciting as we might imagine. Mining was hard work by hard men trying to scrape a living out of the unforgiving rock of a soon to be played-out mining district.
In 1891, Bob Womack, an itinerant ranch hand/part-time prospector, noticed gold-bearing placer deposits in the Cripple Creek area. Few believed Womack’s claim—after all, the slopes of Pikes Peak had been thoroughly prospected 30 years before, during the 1859 “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush.
The placers were scarcely worth mining, but Womack’s discovery nevertheless triggered a second gold rush after the discovery of rich vein deposits. Within 10 years, Cripple Creek and Victor had become substantial little cities, home to thousands of miners, merchants, saloonkeepers, and fortune hunters. Shrewd eastern businessmen like Spec Penrose and Charlie Tutt made fortunes, as did ordinary folks like carpenter W.S. Stratton and plumber Jimmie Burns.
Smooth-talking mining promoters convinced gullible investors worldwide to support their schemes, creating hundreds of companies to serve as investment vehicles. In 1902, more than 500 mining companies with operations in Cripple Creek and Victor were listed on the Colorado Springs Mining Stock Exchange, then among the largest stock exchanges in the world. Some were real companies, but most existed only on paper. Many were headquartered in the gleaming new Mining Exchange Building in the heart of downtown Colorado Springs. It seemed as if the good times would continue indefinitely… until they ended.
In 1903, the district was rocked by violent confrontations between the Western Federation of Miners and the capitalists who controlled the industry. The mines had become steadily less profitable as rich deposits were mined out, putting pressure on wages and leading to unsafe below-ground practices. The Colorado Labor Wars may have been the deadliest labor/management dispute in American history. The owners prevailed, as troops machine-gunned the WFM building in Victor and drove out the union for good, but the industry never quite recovered. You can still see the Gatling gun pockmarks in the building’s stone and brick façade, located at 110 North 4th Street in Victor. Fire gutted the structure a decade ago, but local preservationists are working to repair and rebuild it.
Gold production in the district peaked in 1901 and declined rapidly in the next decade. Even as hundreds of companies folded and the swindlers and scammers left town, a few substantial mines continued operations.
It wasn’t easy. Water became a problem, and drainage tunnels had to be driven to allow mining to continue on the deep levels where rich deposits might still be found. The added tunneling increased operating costs and made it even more difficult to create a mine that was both sustainable and profitable.
One of the operating mines was the Cresson. It hadn’t amounted to much until the owners hired an ingenious young mining manager, Dick Roelofs, who introduced then-innovative “room and pillar” techniques to the mine and made it far more efficient. On November 25, 1914, miners working at the 1,200-foot level of the mine broke through to a cavity in the rock. It was a giant, glittering geode: a cave as long as a bus, as high as a telephone pole, and wide enough to fit a small car. In mining terms, it was a vug, created over millions of years by hot gold-bearing solutions percolating through the rock and crystallizing on the walls and ceilings. Dick Roelofs immediately posted armed guards at the entrance of the cavity and summoned the mine owners and the company’s attorney to Cripple Creek. He escorted them to the site that afternoon. Entering the vug, they saw “a glittering jewel box, a huge treasure room filled with millions of gold crystals & flakes of pure gold.”
The crystals weren’t pure gold, but sylvanite (silver-gold telluride) and calaverite (gold telluride). By any reckoning, they were looking at a vast fortune, a king’s ransom in gold. During the next few days, miners removed the high-grade gold and carried it out in gunnysacks. They then mined the walls and roof back a few feet, removing tons of high-grade ore. After millions of years in the making, the vug was mined out in four weeks. The glittering jewel box yielded 60,000 ounces of gold. Based on today’s gold price of $1,250 per troy ounce, that’s $75 million—not bad for a month’s work!
No active underground mines remain in the Cripple Creek district, but the Mollie Kathleen mine still offers tours for guests who want to take their experience underground. Visitors ride the mine elevator down 1,000 feet to try double-jacking, hand-mucking, and pushing a 1-ton ore cart on an hour-long tour offered April to October. The mine is located on the left of Highway 67 descending into Cripple Creek, right across the road from the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center.
The Center not only includes bathrooms and amazing interactive displays, but also offers special outside dog runs for small and large dogs. Service animals are welcome inside. Coloradoans and tourists alike can appreciate and learn from the history and excitement found in modern day Cripple Creek. Visitors have the opportunity to see history played out in museum and mine…and the chance to strike it rich themselves.