Most visitors to Cripple Creek, Colorado, might naturally assume that the town's history began in the late 1800's with its famous gold rush. Actually modern Cripple Creek history began over 60 million years ago, in the Paleocene Epoch, when powerful geological forces began the uplifting of the massive granite formation that formed Pikes Peak and the surrounding area. About 30 million years later several million years of volcanic activity left millions of ounces of gold under Cripple Creek and its surrounding area. Most of the gold was in the form of gold-telluride ores, created when hot, acidic underground water carrying dissolved gold and other minerals invaded the volcanic rock formations around Cripple Creek. The microscopic gold bound with the telluride metal in Cripple Creek's volcanic rock, forming rare gold-telluride ores. This gold ore is difficult to identify for all but trained prospectors and geologists. For 25 million years the gold lay hidden, except for trace amounts that eroded into area streams and gullies.
In 1890 the Cripple Creek area was ranching country with fewer than 500 residents. A local cowboy named Bob Womack had discovered traces of placer gold in 1878 and maintained for years that a rich source was waiting to be found. In October 1890, Womack staked a claim on a site in Poverty Gulch, just north of the current town. Womack’s claim of gold was not taken seriously until the following April when Ed De LaVergne a Colorado Springs mineralogist, examined Womack's ore samples. Though only an amateur mineralogist, LaVergne had recently seen similar gold-telluride ore samples from Europe, and recognized Womack's find. He staked his own claim, and in April, 1891, formed the Cripple Creek Mining District. With the mining district’s formation came a flood of prospectors, and the rush was on.
During the next 10 years gold production exploded and the town grew rapidly. By 1900 over 55,000 people resided in and around Cripple Creek. The district boasted an estimated 150 saloons, plus dance halls, theaters, hotels, restaurants, shops, and an extensive red-light district. There were 41 assay offices, 91 lawyers, 46 brokerage houses, and 14 newspapers (including one serving its many black residents). Almost 500 mines pulled millions of dollars worth of gold from the ground annually. Production peaked in 1900, with over 878,000 ounces of gold produced. The town managed this growth despite two major fires in 1896 that left most of the town in ashes (and directly led to the rebuilt brick and stone structures now seen on Bennett Avenue and at the Hotel St. Nicholas), and major labor conflicts in 1894 and 1903.
Gold production declined after 1900, and a consolidation of mining properties began. By the early 1940’s gold production was down to 125-145,000 ounces per year. Declining production and improved mining efficiency reduced demand for miners, and the businesses that served them. The last mine closed in 1962, and the town dwindled, relying on a modest summer tourist industry. By 1990 the population had fallen to under 600 people.
In 1991 Colorado approved limited-stakes gambling in Cripple Creek, and the town’s renewal began as many of Bennett Avenue’s historic brick buildings were refurbished as casinos. In 1995 Independence Mining (acquired in 1999 by the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company) established a new open-pit mining operation on the site of the former Cresson Mine. The new mine now produces over 250,000 ounces of gold annually, and is the largest gold mining operation in the continental United States.
During the past decade visitors have discovered Cripple Creek casinos, the area's natural beauty and it's many historic attractions. Today Cripple Creek is home to almost 2000 residents and attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.