Gambling Celebrates Teller’s “Wild West” Heritage

Editor’s Note: This month represents the 32nd anniversary of limited stakes gambling, with gaming officially beginning in Oct. 1991. We celebrate this occasion with a variety of stories honoring this tradition.

Gambling Celebrates Teller’s “Wild West” Heritage

Cripple Creek Sports Lively History with Games of Chance

Trevor Phipps and Rick Langenberg

During the Wild West days of the 19th century, people from across the country jumped on wagons to head west for dreams of a better life.

After hearing tales of free land and the chance to find gold, many left with next to nothing to get rich or start up a homestead for their families.

But after they weathered the storm of crossing treacherous terrain, many realized that life in the West was not all fun and games. In fact, gold became hard to find, and homesteading was not for the faint of heart.

After settlers started coming to the west, the cultures became quite different and marked a period in time historians now refer to as the “Wild, Wild, West.” With the area not nearly as populated as today,  many illegal activities took place back in the Wild West.

And with a lack of law enforcement officers, residents would often take matters into their own hands. And activities, such as prostitution, drinking, and gambling, were not necessarily legal, but they were often tolerated.

The Early Unruly Days of Cripple Creek

People really started flooding to the Cripple Creek area once gold was discovered by Bob Womack in 1890. As soon as the colorful character proved there was gold in the hills and got the financial support to back his operations, many started flooding to the region to stake their claims.

Soon enough, the Cripple Creek mining district would become world-renown for the gold found and the cities that settlers developed. And contrary to popular belief, Cripple Creek was actually not the home to very many gold mines, even though the precious mineral was first discovered in the Poverty Gulch area, just west of town.

In fact, the majority of the mines were located south of the city, closer to the towns of Victor, Independence, Altman, and Goldfield. These cities quickly gained the reputation of being home to the rough and tough miners.

Cripple Creek actually grew in fame and popularity as the prime location for businesses that supported the mines and the miners. While the mines in other towns produced gold, Cripple Creek was the primary spot for assayers, supplies, lawyers, doctors, and entertainment.

At the city’s peak in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people would travel from Denver and other faraway places to experience what the town had to offer. Shoppers would hop the train through the mountains to the city to buy items like custom furniture, clothing and groceries including fresh fish.

However, entertainment was probably what the town was most known for. During the city’s heyday, it sported one of the world’s most famous red light districts.

The city could be most famous for its brothels. At one point in time, prostitutes for the rich and the poor could be found all over town.

But the Red Light District also offered other forms of entertainment besides brothels. The city once had a handful of opera houses that hosted events like ballets, concerts, and boxing matches.

The town was also home to a number of saloons that offered live entertainment, and in some cases gambling houses. After a long day in the mines, miners could relax with a drink and then take their chances at slot machines or a card game.

The Popularity of Gambling in Cripple Creek

Gambling was so popular that accounts cite this activity lasting in Cripple Creek and the county even after gaming’s peak days in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1930s and 1940s gambling was outlawed, but the laws were not regularly enforced.

At one point, Bert Bergstrom (who owned and operated the Historic Ute Inn that still stands in Woodland Park today), operated bars and gambling hubs in both Cripple Creek and Woodland Park. Bergstrom was once arrested for his crimes, which put a damper on the illegal activity.

In the years since, building owners have even found slot machines hidden inside the walls of historic buildings. Some of these machines and other gambling memorabilia can be found still at the Cripple Creek District Museum.

The Push For Limited Stakes Gaming

But once mining operations started to slow down in the mid to late 1900s, the area became desolate and eventually relied on tourism for its salvation. This worked well in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the late 1980s, tourism, which gave the CC/V district a big summer boost, discovered tough times due to  much competition from Colorado’s resort communities.   This led the way to the push for  limited stakes gaming, with Cripple Creek teaming up with Central City and Black Hawk in campaigning for an initiative for limited stakes gaming, as a way to revitalize their economies and to preserve their historic buildings that were on the verge of falling down. The town of Victor, though, opted not to join this effort.

The inspiration for limited stakes gaming was based largely on the success of Deadwood, South Dakota, which became the first historic town in the West to save its town with the help of legal slots. Some big  business hitters were involved in the Deadwood gaming revival, including  Daniel Costner, the brother of the famous actor and celebrity, Kevin Costner, according to some reports.

Elected leaders and even press representatives from this paper even did fact-finding missions in Deadwood to check out this limited stakes movement, which was at its infancy at the time.

The voters in Colorado approved the gaming initiative in the general elections of Nov. 1990 by a fairly impressive margin, with a proposed starting date of Oct. 1, 1991. This trend sparked the birth of The Mountain Jackpot newspaper.

Other towns across the region and state considered joining the gaming jackpot, including Manitou Springs and Trinidad.  But in the end, Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk have become the only Colorado towns to allow legal gambling. However, gaming became quite popular across the nation, with virtually every state joining the action. This wasn’t the case when legal gaming began in Colorado in the early 1990s.

When legal gambling first hit Cripple Creek, the city only sported a handful of casinos. But by the first summer, it featured more than 30 before a big shakeout period ensued, with large operators taking over the small.  Through the years, the numbers of gambling hubs has been reduced to around a dozen.

But despite the change in the gambling scene, the city still offers locals and tourists alike the chance to strike it big on slot machines or table game action. The gaming action took another big strike several years ago, when voters agreed to permit no limits on single-bet wagering. This paved the way for more high-rollers, giving limited stakes gaming a more Las Vegas feel, a trend credited for opening the door for more hotel expansions.