Cripple Creek – American Travel

ONE day, during our stay at Colorado Springs, were invited to take a trip to Cripple Creek. Driving to the station a friend, a resident of the Springs, pointed out to me a little clay hillock, beside the road.

“That,” he said, “is what we call Mount Washington.”

“I don’t see the resemblance,” I remarked.

“Well,” he explained, “the top of that little hump has an elevation of about six thousand three hundred feet, which is exactly the height of Mount Washington. You see our mountains, out here, begin where yours, in the East, leave off.”

Presently, on the little train, bound for Cripple Creek, the fact was further demonstrated. I had never imagined that anything less than a cog-road could ascend a grade so steep. All the way the grade persisted. Never had I seen such a railroad, either for steepness or for sinuosity. The train crawled slowly along ledges cut into the mountain-sides, now burrowing through an obstruction, now creeping from one mountain to another on a spindly bridge of the most shocking height, below which a wild torrent dashed through a rocky canon; now slipping out upon a sky-high terrace commanding a view of hundreds of square miles of plains, now winding its way gingerly about dizzy cliffs which seemed to lean out over chasms, into which one looked with admiring terror; now coming out upon the other side, the main chain of the Rockies was revealed a hundred miles to the westward, glittering superbly with eternal ice and snow. It is an unbelievable railroad—the Cripple Creek Short Line. It travels fifty miles to make what, in a straight line, would be eighteen, and if there is, on the entire system, a hundred yards of track without a turn, I did not see the place. We were always turning; always turning upward. We would go into a tunnel and presently emerge at a point which seemed to be directly above the place where we had entered; and at times our windings, our doublings back, our writhings, were conducted in so limited an area that I began to fear our train would get tied in a knot and be unable to proceed.

However, we did get to Cripple Creek, and for all its mountain setting, and all the three hundred millions of gold that it has yielded in the last twenty years or so, it is one of the most depressing places in the world. Its buildings run from shabbiness to downright ruin; its streets are ill paved, and its outlying districts are a horror of smokestacks, ore-dumps, shaft-houses, reduction-plants, gallows-frames and squalid shanties, situated in the mud.. It seemed to me that Cripple Creek must be the most awful looking little city in the world, but I was informed that, as mining camps go, it is unusually presentable, and later I learned for myself that that is true.

Cripple Creek is not only above the timber-line ; it is above the cat-line. I mean this literally. Domestic cats cannot live there. And many human beings are affected by the altitude. I was. I had a headache; my breath was short, and upon the least exertion my heart did flip-flops. Therefore I did not circulate about the town excepting within a radius of a few blocks of the station. That, however, was enough.

After walking up the main street a little way, I turned off into a side street lined with flimsy buildings, half of them tumbledown and abandoned. Turning into an-other street I came upon a long row of tiny one story houses, crowded close together in a block. Some of them were empty, but others showed signs of being occupied. And instead of a number, the door of each one bore a name, “Clara,” “Louise,” “Lina,” and so on, down the block. For a time there was not a soul in sight as I walked slowly down that line of box-stall houses. Then, far ahead, I saw a woman come out of a doorway. She wore a loose pink wrapper and carried a pitcher in her hand. I watched her cross the street and go into a dingy building. Then the street was empty again. I walked on slowly. As I passed one doorway it opened suddenly and a man came out—a shabby man with a drooping mustache. He did not look at me as he passed. The window-shade of the crib from which he had come went up as I moved by. I looked at the window, and as I did so, the curtains parted and the face of a negress was pressed against the pane, grinning at me with a knowing, sickening grin.

I passed on. From another window a white woman with very black hair and eyes, and cheeks of a light orchid-shade, showed her gold teeth in a mirthless automatic smile, and added the allurement of an ice-cold wink.

The door_ of the crib at the corner stood open, and just before I reached it a woman stepped out and surveyed me as I approached. She wore a white linen skirt and a middy blouse, attire grotesquely juvenile for one of her years. Her hair, of which she had but a moderate amount, was light brown and stringy, and she wore gold-rimmed spectacles. She did not look depraved but, upon the contrary resembled a highly respectable, if homely, German cook I once employed. As I passed her window I saw hanging there a glass sign, across which, in gold letters, was the title, “Madam Leo.”

“Madam Leo,” she said to me, nodding and pointing at her chest. “That’s me. Leo, the lion, eh?” She laughed foolishly.

I paused and made some casual inquiry concerning her prosperity.

“Things is dull now in Cripple Creek,” she said. “There ain’t much business any more. I wish they ‘d start a white man’s club or a dance hall across the street. Then Cripple Creek would be booming.”

I think I remarked, in reply, that things did look rather dull. In the meantime I glanced in at her little room. There was a chair or two, a cheap oak dresser, and an iron bed. The room looked neat.

“Ain’t I got a nice clean place?” suggested Madam Leo. Then as I assented, she pointed to a calendar which hung upon the wall. At the top of it was a colored print from some French painting, showing a Cupid kissing a filmily draped Psyche.

“That ‘s me,” said Madam Leo. “That’s me when I was a young girl !” Again she loosed her laugh. I started to move on.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“I came up from Colorado Springs,” I said.

“Well,” she returned, “when you go back send some nice boys up here. Tell them to see Madam Leo. Tell them a middle-aged woman with spectacles. I’m known here. I been here four years. Oh, things ain’t so bad. I manage to make two or three dollars a day.”

As I passed to leeward of her on the narrow walk I got the smell of a strong, brutal perfume.

“Have you got to be going?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “I must go to the train.” “Well, then—so long,” she said.

“So long.”

“Don’t forget Madam Leo,” she admonished, giving utterance, again, to her strident, feeble-minded laugh. “I won’t,” I promised.

And I never, never shall.