John Hazlehurst

John Hazlehurst

Will the real estate bubble ever burst? Given the soaring cost of new construction, the national popularity of our fair city and region, and the strong local economy, it’s difficult to imagine any real change in the foreseeable future.

Year-to-year price increases may slow down a bit, but the sun will shine brightly on our ever more valuable homes.

Or will it? All booms end, whether with a bang or a whimper. Let’s look at our city’s first and most interesting boom, triggered by the discovery of gold in Cripple Creek in 1890.

When penniless prospector Bob Womack staked out the El Paso Lode near Poverty Gulch on October 20, 1890, his discovery was largely ignored. He was just another delusional guy looking for precious metals in the bucolic cattle country west of Pikes Peak. 

Never mind Womack’s claim that ore samples assayed at $250 a ton — it was just more BS. Many Springs residents had been taken in by a previous scam, when a couple of enterprising grifters had salted some ranch dirt from the same area with gold dust and created a fake gold rush. Those memories may have slowed the real rush, which eventually began after Womack’s discovery.

It was one for the ages. In Money Mountain, his history of Cripple Creek, Marshall Sprague tells us just how extraordinary it was when “a peaceful alpine pasture was found to overlay one of the great treasures of history.” The pasture was only a few miles from Colorado Springs, and the discovery forever altered the city.

Unlike the vast gold mining districts of South Africa, Alaska or Australia, Cripple Creek was small and easily accessible. Money flowed in, much more flowed out and Colorado Springs boomed. Some impecunious residents, like Jimmie Burns and W.S. Stratton, struck it rich — and many more, like Womack and my grandfather Charles Farnsworth, tried and failed. 

I never met Grandpa Farnsworth — he died of tuberculosis in 1906, when my mother was 8 years old. He didn’t leave his descendants any sacks of golden nuggets, but I’m happy to own the printed and engraved evidence of his time as an ambitious Cripple Creek mine owner/stock promoter/wannabe rich guy — stock certificates!

He founded, led or promoted The Independence Town and Mining Company, the Great Northern Gold Mining Company, The Flying Cloud Mining Company, The Tenabo Mining and Townsite Company, The Fairview Tiger Gold Mining Company and The Twin Sisters Mining and Milling Company. All but Tenabo were based in Colorado Springs and all issued stock traded on the lively Colorado Springs Stock Exchange.

The Official Manual of the Cripple Creek Mining District, published in June of 1900, lists more than 450 active gold mining companies; 433 were headquartered in the Springs. Cripple Creek gold brought jobs, bank deposits and frenzied building to Colorado Springs. In the 1901-02 annual reports and financial statements of the city, Mayor John Robinson wrote a long paean to the glories of his prosperous town.

“The results are now here,” Robinson said. “A city of beauty, healthfulness, righteousness and culture; a city more widely and favorably known than any other of its size in the whole country; a city with a citizenship of as high average ability, wealth, individual initiative, energy and morality as any other.” 

Minus the florid Victorian tone, John Suthers could have given that speech yesterday. After all, everyone in the country wants to move here and we’re the masters of our fate… or are we? 

Good things come to an end. Mayor Robinson’s optimism was misplaced in the short term, as the gold mines gradually petered out, the Cripple Creek labor wars decimated the mining companies and hundreds went broke. Charles Farnsworth gave up the mining business, moved to Meeker and took a job running the I-Bar-I ranch in 1905. His health worsened, and he returned to the Springs to die.

His mother stayed, as did his wife and children. Hoping for treasure, one of his descendants researched the stock certificates and gloomily penned “defunct” on each one, thereby reducing their collectible value. Too bad — otherwise I could sell them for a few bucks, go up to Cripple Creek and hit a jackpot. And if I lose, so what? My home appreciation will quickly cover my losses. 

Delusional optimism — a typical Colorado Springs legacy…

John Hazlehurst, whose great-grandfather came to Colorado in 1859, is a Colorado Springs native. He has worked as a reporter/columnist for the Indy since 1997 and the Business Journal since 2006.