Paul Andersen: A tale of two towns — Cripple Creek and Aspen
We gaze down on the town site of Cripple Creek from Tenderfoot Pass on a sunny summer day. The downtown core climbs up a hill. A scattering of homes dots gentle meadows. The city, framed by distant mountain ranges, is picturesque and idyllic.
Graeme and I are on our annual mountain bike tour, and we roll down a long hill to the main drag. This historic gold mining city of brick and stone is strangely hushed, a noticeable contrast to Aspen’s summer busyness.
The more we see, the more we understand. Cripple Creek is a gambling town with 16 casinos. One of them, Bronco Billy’s, displays blue awnings along one whole block where historic buildings form an extended gambling mall.
“Here but for the grace of God could be Aspen,” opines Graeme as we search out a cafe for breakfast, one that doesn’t have slot machines. I offer a correction: “Here but for the grace of the Paepckes could be Aspen.” The only restaurant we find is inundated with slot machines.
Gambling towns are one-economy attractions for a homogeneous demographic. As a result, they seem bereft of community vitality, at least when compared to the economic and cultural diversity of Aspen.
Cripple Creek is a historic city like Aspen, but there are few, if any, local businesses here. The downtown core is polished and historically themed, but there’s nothing real behind the diorama.
COVID has gutted Cripple Creek because the gambling public — mostly older and vulnerable to the virus — has forsaken the slots. If you’re not pulling levers on one-armed bandits here, there is not much else to do. Why risk the virus for that?
Aspen, by comparison, is vibrant thanks to a diverse social energy that derives from the town’s artistic and recreational values. Even during COVID, when concerts, shows and intellectual activities are shut down, people still come.
It wasn’t that way in 1893, when Aspen’s economy faltered with the devaluation of silver in favor of the gold standard. Cripple Creek, founded in 1890, attracted Aspen miners who faced unemployment when the silver mines shut down overnight.
That’s because Cripple Creek was founded on gold, claiming the title of the richest gold mining district in the world, with 21 million ounces mined in the early years. Today, an entire mountain of mine tailings is being reworked by a cyanide gold leaching operation.
After looking over Cripple Creek, Graeme and I roll down the Shelf Road to Canon City, a 4,000-foot plunge. From there, we climb back 4,000 feet on the idyllic Cripple Creek Railroad grade to Victor, a city that has no gambling and so retains a more authentic sense of history and community.
Cripple Creek was made a National Historic District in 1961. Sprawling across a former cattle pasture at 9,494 feet, the town feels like Leadville. Historic mine structures are everywhere, and the architecture is Victorian.
But gambling has made Cripple Creek a predatory commodity that relies on the strike-it-rich mythos that underpins casinos. By contrast, Aspen shifted to skiing and culture where Cripple Creek stayed with mining and gambling.
Cripple Creek is not without charm. The whistle of a steam locomotive echoes across town and wild burros wander the streets. Tourists flock to these placid, long-eared leftovers from the mining era for selfies. Cripple Creek has alluring qualities, but the soul of the town feels corrupted.
Of the half dozen popular gambling towns in Colorado, Cripple Creek advertises itself shamelessly as a mini-Las Vegas. Aspen gambled with a far different bet on culture, which has paid off with much greater prosperity and sustainability
Aspen’s elites are among the wealthiest in the world, drawn by skiing and rich cultural amenities. The only gambling done in Aspen is betting that monster homes will win land-use approvals. Serial home ownership is where the big money is in Aspen, which underwrites most of the amenities.
When Aspen fell into the Quiet Years, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke saw that it was reborn, not with gambling, but with music, art and ideas. Cripple Creek turned to the dark side of gambling, and that was a losing bet.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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