By Beth Dodd
Have you ever dreamed of coming into a vast fortune? What would you do with it? How would it change your life? This fantasy came true for a lucky few who came to Colorado to prospect for gold and silver. You probably know some of their names – Winfield Stratton in Cripple Creek, Jerome Wheeler in Aspen, Horace Tabor in Leadville, and of course Harry Farncomb in Breckenridge. If you haven’t heard of Farncomb, don’t worry, I’ll come back to him.
The men that I’ve mentioned above were certainly very lucky. Yet the discovery of gold alone does not guarantee great wealth. Take a look at the case of our own Bob Womack in Cripple Creek.
Bob Womack came to Colorado from Kentucky with his father at the tail end of the “Pikes Peak” Gold Rush in 1861. They did not do well as prospectors in Idaho Springs, but liked Colorado well enough to stay and bring out the rest of family. In 1876 they purchased the Levi Welty homestead in Pisgah Park, the future location of Cripple Creek.
The gold fever stayed with Womack, and he rambled the hills around Mount Pisgah looking for it. His conviction was founded in part on good information. In 1874, he was told by a member of the U.S. Geological Survey that there was gold in the area. He helped a group of hopeful prospectors to start the Mt. Pisgah Mining District soon after, but they found nothing. Even so, Womack kept looking for gold for the next 15 years. He dug hundreds of prospect holes and became known as “Crazy Bob”.
Womack was also well known as a drunkard, so no one listened when he really did find a lone chunk of gold ore in 1878. His ore sample assayed at $200 per ton, or about 10 troy ounces of gold per ton. That would be more than $15,000.00 per ton today. Unfortunately, Bob needed investment capital to locate the source of his gold and he failed to attract investors at the Colorado Springs bars where he talked about his find.
The Mount Pisgah Hoax in 1884 didn’t help matters. Three con men salted gold in a prospect hole at Mount McIntyre, 13 miles west of Mount Pisgah. They planted a fake claim sign and called the press. In the excitement, the papers mistakenly identified the location as Mount Pisgah. Bob Womack and other experienced miners quickly identified the fraud, and hundreds of would-be gold barons turned back in disgust.
Womack staked a claim anyway in 1886. The following year, he convinced Edwin Wallace to grubstake him to develop it. Wallace’s money was spent by 1889, but Womack found a new partner, his dentist John Grannis. Grannis had come to Colorado Springs in 1886 to recover from tuberculosis. He took out a loan against his dental equipment to grubstake Womack in return for 50% of any discovery that he made.
In October of 1890, Womack dug a narrow shaft with a pick and shovel for thirty feet into Tenderfoot Hill and found gold ore. It assayed at $250 per ton. He called it the El Paso Lode. This discovery later became the Gold King Mine, and eventually produced five million dollars in gold.
This time Womack’s discovery attracted interest. He placed some ore samples in the window of a Colorado Springs furniture store, which were noticed by geologist, Ed De laVergne. De la Vergne staked a six square mile area around Womack’s discovery and named it the Cripple Creek Mining District. He convinced businessman Count James M. Pourtales to invest, and soon they were mining in earnest.
Eventually, the Cripple Creek District created 28 millionaires, but this did not include Bob Womack. In spite of discovering at least three producing claims, he had no business sense and sold them for a pittance of their value.
It is unclear exactly what happened to Bob’s mining claims. Different sources say that he sold his half of the El Paso to Dr. Grannis for $300, or that he sold it for $500 and a bottle of liquor. It is also rumored that he lost it in a poker game or sold it to pay a hospital bill. Local legend claims that he celebrated the sale of his Womack Placer around Christmas of 1893 by giving away dollar bills to children. He ended up in a fight when he hit one of the grown men who had joined the line of eager children.
That same year, Womack’s family sold their ranch in Cripple Creek and his sister Eliza opened a boarding house in Colorado Springs. Womack helped her with odd jobs around the place. He suffered a stroke in 1904, died in 1909, and was buried in the family plot in Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. It seems he was comfortable at the time of his death, not destitute as claimed by some.
Robert Miller Womack in July of 1902 when he was the Grand Marshall of the 4th of July parade in Cripple Creek.
Bob Womack found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that many of us dream of, but it apparently didn’t do him much good, at least not financially. It is to be hoped that he got great satisfaction from finally finding gold and watching the growth of Cripple Creek. James Marshall, who made the initial discovery that started the California gold rush, did not profit much by it either. Winfield Stratton was miserable in spite of his fortune, and Horace Tabor’s second wife, Baby Doe, died in truly desperate circumstances after once having been the toast of America’s elite.
So how does one behave in a gold rush? I think Harry Farncomb of Breckenridge did it right.
Harry Farncomb arrived in Colorado in 1860 and was one of the first placer miners in French Gulch near Breckenridge. In 1878, Farncomb was searching for the source of the placer gold when he made his great strike. He began to find abundant wires and leaves of gold in a hill at the head of the gulch. He named it the Wire Patch.
Farncomb mined quietly and took control of the hill by buying the land bit by bit rather than filing a regular mining claim, which would have tipped off his competition. In 1880, he deposited several hundred ounces of gold in a Denver bank. Other miners rushed to Farncomb’s Hill, but he already owned all the land. He was accused of cheating and was sued by a group of Denver mine promoters with interest in Breckenridge.
A great struggle ensued that was called the “Ten Years War.” It included a gun battle at the base of Farncomb Hill in which 3 men died. A bank also failed in the turmoil. In the meanwhile, Lincoln City grew up nearby and many of Breckenridge’s richest mines began production in the neighborhood. The Wire Patch Mine produced 7,000 ounces of gold for Farncomb. The attorneys got rich, as did Farncomb, who eventually sold out and retired as one of Colorado’s wealthiest men.
So you want to win the lottery and buy an island in the Bahamas? It may not be that simple. Statistics show that most people who come into sudden wealth will loose it. Perhaps then, the true secret to wealth lies not in the gaining of it, but in the keeping of it.