Saving the ghosts in Victor



The Victor Hotel, built in 1899 after a previous hotel built five years earlier was lost in a fire, anchors the historic skyline buildings on Victor Avenue.

Joshua Hardin

The ghosts seem to linger in the once-raucous mining town of Victor, where 18,000 people lived when it ushered in the 20th century.

It’s not so much apparitions – though some claim those, too – as the sense that the town is much as it was when the mining slowed, then stopped altogether and people left. Even in the 1990s as mining resumed and gambling came to the nearby town of Cripple Creek, Victor retained its old, dusty character, along with fewer than 400 residents.

Such “authentic history” is what drew Ruth Zalewski to Victor, which she has called home for 33 years.

The largely unaltered buildings, weathered and tilted headframes jutting from the landscape, and old mine entrances blocked by steel grates may not be charming to all,  but they are true to the legends of the so-called City of Mines, which was part of the richest gold mining district in the world. It was proclaimed a National Historic District in 1985.

As it celebrates its 125th birthday this year, the town boasts about $9 million in recent  improvements such as storm drainage, curbs and gutters, and sidewalks, which make life easier for tourists and locals alike, and some newer amenities, such as trails, an events plaza and a picnic shelter. Building restoration work slowly continues here and there, and the owners of the handful of shops and restaurants say they’d love to see more tourists and more shops.

Most residents are delighted that they rejected the gambling that has transformed Cripple Creek, and that Victor has retained its historical character.

“It’s still an 1890s town,” said Zalewski, president of the board of the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum and a founder and board president of the Southern Teller County Focus Group. “The buildings have so many stories to tell.”

Broom maker Karen Morrison agrees. “It’s in a time warp still,” she said, as she laid out dyed broomcorn for a handmade broom.

She could have been speaking of the Victor Trading Post Co. & Manufacturing Works, which she has run for 29 years with her husband, Sam. It is the epitome of Victor, a shop where the two artisans make everything by hand, using antique equipment and tools. You can spend hours inside and not see everything.

They are known worldwide for making authentic items – brooms, tin cans, letterpress notecards, cookie cutters – that have been purchased for historical sites, movie sets and museums, including the Smithsonian.

Despite their love of old things and old ways of doing things, they’re happy with the recent improvements. Sam Morrison said there were no sidewalks or pavement on Third Street when they bought the building that houses their shop downstairs and their living quarters above it.

“My dream was to have sidewalks,” he said, recalling the mud and dust of the early years in business.

But in one way, he mused, poverty has been a good thing for Victor. It meant the sturdy brick buildings that went up after a devastating downtown fire in 1899 would remain intact, the architecture preserved.

Many local artifacts, too, were saved, thanks to the Victor Improvement Association, which opened the Victor Lowell Thomas Museum in 1959.

 

WHEN MINING OPERATIONS were shut down during World War II, many homes and buildings were vacated with their belongings and furnishings left behind, according to a museum history. When locals noticed that antiques were being scavenged from vacant properties, they formed the association to gather, house and preserve the items.

In the museum today you can see an array of miner lamps, a corkscrew from the Monarch Saloon (a so-called gentleman’s club), clothing from residents and a case of applehead dolls made by Victor resident Mrs. Sherman Meyers. Two rooms are dedicated to Lowell Thomas, the world-renowned broadcaster and writer who grew up in Victor.

The museum attracts about 11,000 visitors in the summer months – similar to the numbers in its first few years, Zalewski said. It is open on weekends through the fall and for special occasions in the winter.

She noted that the Newmont Goldcorp Cripple Creek & Victor Mine allows the museum to run public tours of the operational surface mine during the summer. That has helped raise tourist numbers; about 2,500 people a year take the tour, and the proceeds go entirely to the museum.

It will quickly take you back to the late 19th century, when a few cattle ranches inhabited the ancient caldera west of Pikes Peak. The rapid influx of miners began in 1890 after Bob Womack discovered worthy samples of gold; on July 4, 1891, Winfield Scott Stratton staked the Independence and Washington mines just above what would become the town of Victor. Stratton was the Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District’s first millionaire.

The district brought the last and richest gold rush in Colorado, with production at some 500 mines peaking in 1900. The district mined more than 23 million ounces of gold within about 100 years – worth more than $11 billion in today’s dollars – and produced numerous millionaires.

Newmont Goldcorp today believes there still is plenty of gold in the hills, and in recent months announced that it may explore the potential of renewed underground mining.

Surface mining since the mid-1990s by several companies has recovered low-grade gold ore from reprocessed tailings and surface deposits. Newmont purchased the mine in 2015; it finalized a merger with Goldcorp in April.

The company believes there is more high-grade ore in the ground beneath where historical mining ceased when miners hit the water table. “We’re looking for the gold that the historical miners ran out of time to mine,” said Brad Poulson, a spokesman for CC&V. “No reason to believe those ore structures don’t extend deeper.” 

At a March community meeting in Victor, CC&V General Manager Mike Shaffner said water drainage tunnels built early in the 20th century have lowered the water table, making it possible to mine deeper. And they’ll be searching at some of the historical mine site, such as the Vindicator, Ajax, Mary McKinney and Orpha May.

“I think there’s easily 5 million ounces,” Shaffner said, although Poulson warned that miners are generally “overly optimistic.”

Last year, the surface mine produced 365,000 ounces of gold.

Few of those who work for the mine live in Victor or Cripple Creek, instead choosing to commute from larger towns in the region, such as Woodland Park, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Canon City.

Yet there’s strong community support for the mine – and appreciation for the generosity of Newmont to the towns and Teller County, despite the occasional grumbling about the blasting that sends vibrations through homes and businesses.

The mining history of the region was a tourist draw for years, but that dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s and dropped off drastically after casinos opened in Cripple Creek, shopkeepers said. 

With a renewed vision for Victor’s revitalization, city leaders are working to preserve a future for the town as a destination for people to explore history and the outdoors. At 9,700 feet in elevation, its vistas are second to none, and a trail system provides up-close views of historical mines.

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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