In 1890, Cripple Creek was a quiet cow pasture on the west side of Pikes Peak, 18 miles as the crow flies from colorado springs. At least one forlorn prospector believed that there might be gold in the hills rising from the valley, but few paid any attention to his claims. After all, Colorado’s Rockies had exhaustively prospected since the 1850s. It was ludicrous to believe that this ground, so close to the gracious settlement of colorado springs and Manitou, could possibly yield any significant amount of gold. Sure, you could find specks of ore here and there and tiny gold flakes in the streambeds, but that was true of every mountain stream in Colorado.

Bob Womack had come to the Pikes Peak region as a boy 25 years earlier, ending up as a rancher and part-time prospector in what was then called West Pikes Peak country. He was a merry fellow—a fine horseman, a determined tippler, and a persistent prospector. Womack’s prospecting was centered upon tiny rock fragments he found in ravines and streambeds. Assays showed that the rock was gold-bearing, but it took Bob 15 years to locate the source of the“float.” He blasted a tunnel, staked a claim, and ignited the greatest gold rush in American history.

The rock was sylvanite, a silver-gold telluride. The low hills surrounding the meadows and streams of Cripple Creek were the remainders of an ancient volcanic caldera, laced with rich deposits of sylvanite and calaverite, another gold telluride.

During the next decade, the Cripple Creek area population increased from 15 people in 1891 to 20,000 in in 1900. It was the last of the free gold camps, where anyone could dream of staking a claim, getting a grubstake, and leaving a rich man. So they came— prospectors, dreamers, schemers, gamblers, miners, and capitalists. As Marshall Sprague wrote in 1953, “There were mule-skinners, ministers, railroaders, hammers-men and drillers, tram-men and skippers, timbermen and hoisters. Men in city clothes were mostly lawyers or brokers or pimps or politicians or assayers or labor union leaders or bunco steerers.”

Cripple Creek produced 27 millionaires in an era when an ounce of gold was worth $20.67 (about $1,270 today). Some frittered away their fortunes, others lived quietly prosperous lives, and still others used their golden windfalls for the lasting benefit of the Pikes Peak region. These are the stories of six who made it and one who didn’t.

Spencer Penrose & Charlie Tutt

One December afternoon in 1892, Charlie Tutt’s boyhood pal Spencer Penrose showed up at Tutt’s Colorado Springs real estate office. Both young men were from prominent Philadelphia families, but neither had yet amounted to much. Although Tutt was reasonably solvent, Penrose was broke. Tutt sold Penrose a half-share in a Cripple Creek claim for a note, and the two plunged into business ventures together. Tutt’s mine was eventually successful, but the two soon figured out that there was money to be made in Cripple Creek real estate and milling ore. Their partnership lasted until Tutt’s death in 1909, when his 20-year-old son, Charlie Jr., took his place. Penrose’s investment in Utah Copper brought him the vast wealth he used to create the Pikes Peak Highway, build the Broadmoor Hotel, and endow the El Pomar Foundation. When Penrose died, his wife became president of the El Polmar Foundation; today, Tutt’s great-grandson Thayer Tutt serves as president. El Pomar now has $.5 billion in assets, the Broadmoor is a world-renowned resort, 300,000 people drive up the Pikes Peak Highway annually, and the Tutt & Penrose building still stands on Bennett Avenue.

Winfield Scott Stratton, Jimmy Burns, Jimmy Doyle, & John Harnan

Since 1872 when he first settled in Colorado Springs, W.S. Stratton had been a house carpenter in the winter and a prospector in the summer. Solitary and moody, he had spent 17 years searching for gold in the Colorado Rockies. He was smart, organized, and far more knowledgeable than most of his peers, but to no avail—he had found nothing. Since Stratton was never in good health, his prospecting days appeared to be over at age 44… until he chose to investigate Bob Womack’s story about Cripple Creek. Jimmy Burns and Jimmy Doyle were firemen in Colorado Springs. Burns, 44, had worked as a steamfitter and a plumber and had looked after the harum-scarum Doyle, 23, since he was a 12-year-old orphan. They listened to Womack’s ravings and decided to go take a look at Cripple Creek. Neither Jimmy knew anything about mining, so they followed Stratton’s lead. They found a tiny parcel near Stratton’s Independence claim and called it the Portland, after the Maine city of their birth.

Burns and Doyle started to dig, driving a shaft 30 feet into the ground. They didn’t find any ore and complained of their failure to Harnan, a fellow Irishman who was sorting ore for Stratton. With nothing to lose, they offered him a one-third share if he could locate a vein. Harnan quickly figured out that they had dug right past a rich vein of sylvanite, claimed his one-third share, and made all three lucky Irishmen millionaires.

While the Portland was an incredibly rich mine, the Independence was one of the richest in American history. Stratton took out millions from the property before selling it to a London syndicate for $11 million in 1900. Before his death in 1902, Stratton funded dozens of charities and charitable endeavors and created the country’s best streetcar system in Colorado Springs. He willed most of his fortune to establish and maintain the Myron Stratton Home, a home for poor children and impoverished elderly people. The streetcar system closed in 1932, but the Myron Stratton Home is still there, beautifully situated on what was once rolling countryside south of Colorado Springs.

In 1891, Burns told Stratton what he planned for his life: “I’m going to make a million, get a beautiful wife, send my brats to school back east, and build a house as big as General Palmer’s, and then I‘m going to tell those goddamn
millionaires in Colorado Springs to go to hell!” Burns did exactly that and built a spectacular opera house on Pikes Peak Avenue as well. The Burns Opera House was torn down in 1973, but Burns’ mansion still stands, now a somewhat run-down apartment house. Burns nevertheless occupies splendid quarters. His white marble mausoleum in Evergreen Cemetery, illuminated by Tiffany stained glass windows, eclipses the modest tombs of those “goddamn millionaires.” Doyle quarreled bitterly with his partner and mentor over profits from the Portland, went to jail in Colorado Springs for eight months, returned to prospecting without success, and eventually moved to Denver to become a chief clerk in the state land office. He died in Denver in 1954 and was buried beneath a modest granite gravestone in Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Harnan sold his shares in the Portland in 1897 for $1.75 million. Within 15 years the money was all gone, dissipated in poor investments and riotous living. He died in Reno at 83 in 1940 “destitute and with no relatives known to acquaintances,” according to his obituary in the Nevada State Journal. In a last interview with the paper, he might have spoken for all the thousands of men and women who passed through Cripple Creek in the 1890s. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I still think I know where there is a mine. I have had fun aplenty and perhaps there are still a few living who had fun at my expense.”

And what of Bob Womack? Like Harnan, he died poor, never having made any money from his extraordinary discovery. There was gold in his claim, but not enough to mine profitably. Stratton took care of Womack until 1902, when Stratton died and willed Womack $5,000. It’s not clear that Womack ever received the bequest since the will was tied up in litigation for many years. In 1904, Womack was partially paralyzed by a stroke and then bedridden. He died at 66 in 1909 and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery beside his beloved niece, 17-year-old Dorsey, who had died of typhoid fever two weeks earlier.