On April 25 and April 29 in 1896, in a small city called Cripple Creek, Colorado, two separate conflagrations destroyed over 80 percent of the city and created $2 million worth of damage. Cripple Creek sits at the base of Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Until 1890, Cripple Creek was a small gold mining camp of a few hundred people. However, when a prospector struck gold, the town’s population increased to 16,000 within just a few years.
From March 1970 Fire Journal, page 34: “Chaos during the first Cripple Creek conflagration, as merchants trying to save their valuables joined the curious and the panic-stricken thronging the streets. FROM THE COLLECTION OF FRED AND JIO MAZZULLA.”
Mining towns were often built quickly. The new inhabitants were, one, eager to start hunting their riches and, two, not planning to stay very long. Of course, very few gold miners ever became the millionaires they sought out to be, but the prospect was exhilarating enough for thousands of people to move West and swiftly erect their towns and cities with the cheap, plentiful lumber. Cripple Creek was one of hundreds of gold mining towns in the U.S., but it became a unique victim of two conflagrations in four days.
The first fire on Saturday, April 25 started when a couple's fight led to an overturned gasoline stove. In the March 1970 issue of Fire Journal, an article reports: “The gallon of flammable liquid in the reservoir gave the fire a brisk start, and the flimsy frame construction of the building allowed rapid fire spread.” After reaching about half of the city over the course of four hours, the fire was eventually contained by dynamiting buildings to create fire breaks. Immediately, many property owners in the city sought insurance policies, and the city began cleaning up and building short-term shacks to use as they rebuilt the city.
From March 1970 Fire Journal, page 35: “Some of the ruins of the first Cripple Creek conflagration. Many of the [remaining] buildings here were destroyed in the second fire four days later. H.S. POLEY, WESTERN COLLECTION, DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY”
Their efforts were stopped short just four days later on Wednesday, April 29, when another conflagration—this one a kitchen grease fire—swept through the remaining parts of Cripple Creek. Many people were protective of their standing property and still tired from the firefighting efforts just a few days earlier, which made it difficult for the fire department to make quick and necessary decisions. Moreover, people were both reluctant to use dynamite on the important buildings that were spared from the first fire and also over-using dynamite in other areas, which lead to many injuries.
In the end, reported Fire Journal, “All the hotels in the city, all but one drugstore, and all the clothing and dry goods stores and rooming houses, with 80 percent of the office space, were consumed. Food was scarce, since most of the grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants were gone.” However, state-wide relief efforts were fast-acting. Within just five hours of the second fire starting, a train left Colorado City with blankets, food, and tents. Other cities sent similar trains over the course of the next day.
The city of Cripple Creek rebuilt with brick.
Written by Jenny DeRocher, Simmons College '18 MLIS Candidate.
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