By Beth Dodd:
Although nothing is left of it today, Gillette, Colorado, was once a bustling town. The old town site is near the modern intersection of CO Hwy 67 and Teller County Road #81, the road to Victor. The town was originally laid out in the large flat valley to the north of Cripple Creek back in 1894, soon after the construction of the Midland Terminal Railway.
The train reached Gillette on July 4, 1894 and would soon connect Cripple Creek and Victor to the railhead in Divide. The site may once have been called Cripple Creek City or Gateway City, but in the end it was named after W. K. Gillett. Gillett worked for the Midland Terminal’s parent company, the Santa Fe Railroad, and was responsible for raising the money to build the Midland Terminal.
The town of Gillett reached its peak in 1896. By that time, its population had grown to about 1,800 people. Conflicting reports claim that it once had between 14 and 25 saloons, several dance halls, and a race track. Whatever the number of bars, everyone seems to agree that Gillette was the place to go for a good time. From 1895 to 1896, Gillette hosted a professional minor league baseball team that participated in the Colorado State League. It was said that the most common occupation in Gillette after mining was gambling. Gillette later became a family-friendly community and had three churches.
However, back when Gillette was still a wild young boom town, the only bullfight ever held in Colorado took place there. The planned three day “Great Mexican Bull Fight, Fiesta, and Equestrian Carnival” featured matadors Cavlos and Garcia, and “La Charrita, The Only Lady Bullfighter in the World!” It was to take place on August 24, 25, and 26, of 1895.
Billed as the first bullfight ever held in the United States, it was perhaps only the first in Colorado. In the late 1860s, Mexican troupes presented supposedly authentic bullfights in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the summer of 1880, a bloodless bullfight was held in New York City, with the future founder of the ASPCA and a troop of police officers making certain of it. Another one was held in Dodge City, KS on July 4, 1894. Professional bullfighters from Chihuahua put on a complete show with actual kills, but when the news got out many communities and states rushed to adopt anti-bullfighting statutes.
While researching the Gillette bullfight, it was hard for me to tell where fact ended and good storytelling began. Modern reports claim that on August 24, 1895 an estimated 50,000 people gathered to watch the matadors perform. However, photos show half empty stands. Some accounts say that the bulls and bullfighters had traveled to Gillette all the way from Mexico and the trip may have caused the bulls to become over tired and irritable. While the matadors were professionals from Mexico, other accounts say that local cattle were used in the Gillette bullfight. Either way, the resulting contest was deemed unnecessarily cruel.
Supposedly, after the lancing of the first bull, the local sheriff yelled at the fight manager, “Stop the fight! Shoot the bull!” Matador Jose Marrero Baez went ahead and killed the animal with his sword in traditional Mexican style any way. The sheriff rushed off and returned with a legal opinion from Attorney General Moses, and forced a deputy to shoot the second bull with his Winchester.
One source claims that the bullfight soon turned into a riot with the sheriff arresting many people and the local militia being called in. After the riot was quelled, the remaining bulls were taken to slaughter, and their meat was given to the poor. Again, the photographs of the day do not back this up. In one picture, a dead bull is seen being dragged out of the arena while the audience watches, apparently undisturbed.
The bullfight had been promoted by local hotel owner J. H. Wolfe, who was the one who claimed it was the very first bullfight held on U.S soil. According to sketchy records, con man Soapy Smith may have made a deal with Wolfe to operate a gambling concession just outside the bullfighting arena built on or near the racetrack especially for the 3-day fiesta. A photograph from the event does show a large tent outside the bullring that is big enough for a makeshift saloon and casino. On March 19, 1896 Smith was again in Gillette where he was arrested on an unspecified charge. He stayed in the town at least 10 days, but it is unknown if he was there as a free man or incarcerated.
Not long after its moment of fame in the summer of 1895, Gillette began to shrink in population as the fortunes of the gold camp waned. Competition from mills in Colorado City forced mills near Gillette to close, and by 1908 only 30 people remained in the town. The valley was purchased by a private owner in 1911 and many of Gillette’s buildings were razed to make way for ranching. It is unclear what the fate of the bullfighting ring was. It may have been quickly removed to make way for more horse racing. The Gillette post office remained open until 1913. The old town site was mostly abandoned by the 1940s.
By 1965 there were only a few buildings left in Gillette. On June 16, a terrible storm devastated the Front Range from Pueblo to Denver, dumping up to 14 inches of rain in a few hours. A small earthen dam above Gillette collapsed, releasing the water from a small lake formerly used for water by the townspeople. A wall of water rushed down and out into the valley where the ghost town stood. The flood wiped out most of what was left of the town, leaving only a few stone structures and houses that were out of the path of the water. Today, a large gully full of boulders on the west side of the valley gives silent testimony to this incredible event.
The stone remains of Gillette’s St. Dimas chapel endured until the 1990s. The Saint Dimas of The Mountains chapel was built by Father Volpe in 1893 and 94. The furnishings of the chapel were moved to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Cripple Creek after the little church was no longer being used.