For as long as people have been calling it home, living in Cripple Creek has always been a gamble. While its history says it was home to one of the last big gold strikes of the late 19th century---the Independence Lode---the fellow who discovered it, Robert Miller “Bob” Womack, died not with the proverbial pocketful of gold but more likely with a pocketful of lint. Others, though, did just fine.
How big was the strike? Consider this: in the months before October 1890, Cripple Creek was home to maybe 500 full-time residents. Once word got out on the motherlode find, miners, merchants and madams---there were plenty of all three---Cripple Creek’s population soared to more than 10,000.
Cripple Creek, about two hours southwest of Denver and an hour from Colorado Springs, still wrestles with the ever-perplexing question of relevance. One on hand, its natural surroundings---spectacular mountain vistas as far as the eye can see---rival any in all of Colorado. But its off-the-beaten-path location make it more a detour than destination.
When legalized gaming came to Colorado in 1991, Cripple Creek was hanging by a thread. Its population had spiraled down to 350 full time residents---about the population of one of Denver’s new, upscale apartment complexes. And while it might be hard to swallow the idea that gambling saved it, there’s no doubt that it at least stanched the bleeding. Today, with nine casinos operating and a reasonably steady tax base, the population has skyrocketed to 1,200, give or take.
While still not reaping the benefits of other places not nearly as picturesque, things have stabilized in Cripple Creek. Much of the credit goes to gaming but also to a never-say-die determination from the town’s government.
“We’re trying to promote a family, fun adventure,” said Kelly Branyik, marketing and events coordinator for the town. While wanting to remain respectful, Branyik says Cripple Creek has a lot to promote and “doesn’t want to be like Black Hawk and Central City.” That is, it doesn’t want to be known as a gambling-only kind of town.
“We talk about our mining history and outdoor recreation,” said Branyik, a former Peace Corps volunteer and auto industry copy writer. “Tourism has been a goal of ours for some time. There are exciting things to do here.”
“We have quite a few museums,” said Branyik, including the Old Homestead House. Cripple Creek also touts its rich mining history with mining tours during the warmer months. The Mollie Kathleen Mine, she said, is a ‘must-see.’ “Basically, you can go a thousand feet underground and take a tour of what it was like long ago.”
While the town’s rich mining and glory days history is a thing of the past, Cripple Creek still has a fully-functioning and profitable mining operation. Newmont Mining is still taking gold from the ground. Last year, said Branyik, 400,000 ounces of gold were mined.
Branyik says the casinos are also looking to shore up visits and more predictable tourism. “It’s going to take some time,” she said, “but we’ll be adding up to 400 hotel rooms by 2021.”
One of the winter’s premier events is the town’s Ice Festival. “We’ve been doing it twelve years,” she said. Five teams from across the country vie for invitations to compete. The town buys 600 blocks of ice from Ohio, ships them here and each February teams compete. “Every year we have a theme.” This year’s theme was Super Heroes. Visitors on Bennett Avenue got to see their favorite frozen icon, including Batman, Superman and the Guardians of the Galaxy.”
With Spring and the warmer months drawing near, Branyik wants to introduce the world to Donkey Days. “It’s our 88th year,” she said. Donkeys, for those who don’t know, are part of the town’s legacy. They were used in the mines to carry ore and anything else. The festival is part history, part humanity.
Part of what’s raised goes to the welfare of the animals who, she said, are penned nearby and often roam freely around town. “They’ll come right up to your car,” she beamed. Doing right by the animals, said Branyik, originated with Teddy Roosevelt who once made a visit to Cripple Creek. When he saw the way the animals were being mistreated, he urged the banning of donkeys in mining. His suggestion worked. Today, Cripple Creek’s donkeys are a tourist draw and cared for as a part of the town’s rich history. And one look at the town, whose history is preserved in its architecture, it’s a rich history, indeed.