“Well, boys, this sure is some cripple creek.” ——Levi Welty
Next year’s Hafla reunion, scheduled for September 2020 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will be held in the shadow of one of the American West’s most famous landmarks, Pikes Peak. The iconic mountain is named after a young army officer, Zebulon Pike, who “discovered” it in 1806 while mapping the Rocky Mountains for the first time. “The summit of the Grand Peak,” he wrote, “which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of fifteen or sixteen miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended … I believe no human being could have ascended to its summit.” 1
Contrary to Pike’s estimation, thousands upon thousands of people have since reached the summit of his eponymous mountain, many of them, beginning in 1916, in automobiles and motorcycles competing in the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, also known as The Race to the Clouds. Next year’s Hill Climb will be held at its traditional time—the last Sunday of June—well before legions of Aramcons descend upon Colorado Springs for their biannual gathering. Nonetheless, the more adventurous souls among attending annuitants will have a chance to hike or drive to the top of Pikes Peak if they so wish. Another exciting option is to visit the nearby former gold rush town of Cripple Creek, set on Mount Pisgah in the shadow of Pikes Peak.
Both Pikes Peak and Mount Pisgah were once centers of gold rushes—the latter to first a genuine and then a genuine rush. The Colorado or Pikes Peak gold rush, which started in 1858 in what was then the western-most reaches of the Kansas Territory and lasted until1861, was the penultimate gold rush in US history, second in size only to the legendary California gold rush of 1849. Among its notable and enduring legacies is the founding of the Mile High City, Denver.
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In 1892, Mark Twain published a novel, The American Claimant, in which is found the famous phrase which has become synonymous with prospectors seeking their fortunes in the American West: “There’s gold in them thar hills.” There was indeed gold hidden in “them thar hills” surrounding Pikes Peak, enough to spark a succession of major gold rushes. Those recurring episodes of gold fever inevitably inspired incidents of skulduggery perpetrated by parties more notable for their greed and lax ethical standards than for their trustworthiness and prospecting skills. In one infamous case, the falsely-circulated mere rumor of gold lurking along the banks of a nearby stream gave rise to a fevered influx of fortune-seekers. The only person to finish ahead in this farcical charade was the man whose nefarious plotting inspired the mayhem in the first place.
Taking advantage of hordes of prospectors whose brains had been addled by the region’s initial outbreak of gold fever, a charlatan, last name of Bradley, “salted” a hole on neighboring Mount Pisgah and made off with bags full of dollars eagerly paid by gullible miners mistakenly thinking they were purchasing shares of a claim that would make them rich. In a meandering sort of way, Bradley’s faux mini-gold rush was responsible for the naming of a nearby stream and, subsequently, the naming of the gold rush town that later arose along its banks.
A would-be prospector named Levi Welty, having been conned by Bradley, decided to establish a cattle ranch in a high valley intersecting Mount Pisgah’s southern slope. One day, in a freak accident, he accidentally shot himself in the hand with his shotgun. The loud noise spooked one of the calves in his herd. In a panicked attempt to escape by leaping over a fence, the poor critter broke its leg.
“Well, boys,” Welty told his sons after the incident, “this is some cripple creek.”
And that’s how Cripple Creek, Colorado got its name, at least according to its most famous citizen, adventure journalist Lowell Thomas, the same Lowell Thomas who traveled to the deserts of Arabia during World War I to chronicle the exploits of British officer T.E. Lawrence, bestowing upon him the moniker “Lawrence of Arabia” and helping give birth to a legend that endures to this day.
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Some years later—in 1890 to be exact—a man named Bob Womack discovered a rich vein of gold along Cripple Creek in the ironically-named Poverty Gulch, setting off what proved this time to be a genuine gold rush. An estimated half-a-million gold seekers flocked to the Cripple Creek area, set in the shallow crater of an extinct volcano, in a frenetic dash for instant wealth. “Suddenly a dozen towns sprung up in the area,” Thomas, whose father joined the crowd, later wrote, describing the ensuing bedlam, “and three railroads came snaking their way up the craggy mountainsides. There seemed to be a new bonanza every day. The West had never seen anything like it, nor ever would again.” At the Cripple Creek gold rush’s height, nearly 500 mines were operating in the surrounding goldfields, “the greatest concentration of gold ever mined by man.” 2
Today the gold at Cripple Creek has all been panned out, but carefully-restored vestiges of the one-time boom town remain, transformed into a tourist mecca for visitors interested in boomtown history and culture and in trying to strike it rich in modern-day fashion at one of the town’s casinos.
“Welcome to Cripple Creek,” the City of Cripple Creek declares on its website, “a historic gambling and mining town that’s one of the most dynamic and scenic tourism destinations in Colorado. The grandly restored Old West brick buildings along Bennett Avenue, surrounded by majestic mountains, boast nine unique state-of-the-art casinos, as well as great restaurants, shops, and hotels.
“The excitement that drove the Greatest Gold Rush Ever still lives, where treasure seekers and hooligans from near and far try their hands at poker, blackjack, roulette, craps and slot machines with the highest casino paybacks in Colorado.”
There’s much to see and do within and beyond the city’s limits if one chooses to visit Cripple Creek. One can visit a gold mine or ride on a narrow-gauge railroad. Other activities available in or near Cripple Creek include horseback riding, mountain and road biking, hiking, white water rafting, and more.
Hafla attendees will have their choice of an abundance of outside activities during their time in Colorado Springs, with Cripple Creek being near the top of the list of available options.
For more information on Cripple Creek and its many attractions, visit:
1 Quoted in Lowell Thomas, “Good Evening Everybody: From Cripple Creek to Samarkand” (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York: 1976), p.26.
2 Thomas, “Good Evening Everybody: From Cripple Creek to Samarkand,” pp. 24–25.