Rocky Mountain Bonanzas
True West|February - March 2022
Explore mining history from Cripple Creek to Grand Encampment.
By Candy Moulton

It happened all across the West: a spark from a stove or fireplace set one wooden frame building on fire, and with dry wood, lack of firefighting resources and sometimes wind, the spark often led to a conflagration that could take out many adjacent buildings, even entire business districts. Cripple Creek was one of the most prosperous mining towns in Colorado by 1896, when not one but two devastating fires swept through the town. They happened in April, just four days apart.

The first blaze started in the middle of the town’s central business district at the Central Dance Hall, on April 25, 1896. The blaze began at about 1 a.m. and spread quickly when the volunteer firefighters ran out of water. Before long, other gambling and parlor houses had been consumed by flames, and other buildings were demolished when firefighters used explosives to blow them up while trying to stop the path of the fire. By 5 a.m., the fire was out, but the devastation was widespread. More than 300 buildings were destroyed and two people died.

The mining community had barely accepted the reality of the fire damage, when on April 29 a kitchen fire at the Portland Hotel quickly consumed the hotel and spread to other businesses including the Booth Furniture Store, El Paso Lumber Yard and the Harder Grocery store.

Both fires were accelerated by the dynamite stored in buildings throughout the town, which led to bigger, more devastating fire activity. In the second fire, a 700-pound dynamite stockpile at the grocery store certainly contributed to an increase in destruction.

When the ashes in the second fire had settled, Cripple Creek realized that more than a thousand houses had been destroyed, and about 5,000 people were homeless. The destruction of the business district covered some 40 blocks, and the total damage was estimated at $3 million. The number of people who died isn’t clear, but certainly there were two deaths in the first fire and at least four in the second. The number of explosions and the extreme fire conditions made it impossible to truly know whether there were more victims.

Cripple Creek Rebuilds

Miners and mining camp residents began rebuilding almost immediately, often using brick rather than wood as a key component of new structures, because the fires didn’t have an effect on the mines. The mining activity at Cripple Creek had started with the El Paso mining claim filed by Bob Womack on October 20, 1890. His ore assayed at $250 in gold per ton, and the run was on. Within a decade, miners pulled more than $18 million in gold from nearly 500 mining properties in the Cripple Creek District.

Today, the Cripple Creek Heritage Center’s displays highlight the history of this gold camp. During the summer, tours are available of the historic Mollie Kathleen Mine. Nearby Victor also has a rich mining heritage. Learn more at the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum.

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