While the rest of the country flashes back to the Great Depression, the tiny mountain towns of Cripple Creek and Victor are in the midst of a miniature gold rush.
The high price of gold has the local mine buzzing, with 200-plus construction workers preparing more than 2,000 acres for operations. Meanwhile, Cripple Creek casinos are hiring hundreds in a ramp-up to July 2, the day voter-passed Amendment 50 will allow them to raise stakes, add roulette and craps, and stay open 24/7.
These once-forgotten towns seem to be bucking the recession. But is it really just glitter?
Nestled under well-mined hillsides, Victor's once-grand downtown crumbles slowly with the brick of its buildings. On a Friday afternoon, the warm mountain sun soaks into the streets and cracking wall murals, and through the thick glass of antique windows. Two boys ride bikes in circles through the center of town, past antique shops and boarded-up windows, then up again toward Elks Lodge, where old theater chairs sit empty on the porch.
Aside from the slow roll of their tires, nothing here seems to move. But actually, Victor's old buildings are coming alive once again with working men, just as they were at the turn of the 20th century.
Once, there were more than 500 mines in these hills. Now, there's just one. South Africa-based AngloGold Ashanti, known locally as the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Co., now runs a sprawling surface mine, the Cresson Mine, bordering the two towns. And the new contract workers it's hiring are filling up rental properties.
Joyce Brown sits in her Aspen Country Cottage convenience store and restaurant, one sneaker-clad foot stretched long across the vinyl cushion of a booth, gabbing with a friend. Aside from the two women, the store is empty, but Brown says business has picked up lately. She just restored a building, converting it into two apartments that rented quickly.
Kathryn Chandler, owner of the Splendid Treasures antique shop, says her three apartments are full, too.
In Cripple Creek, Carrie Miller, owner and broker of Gold Country Realty, says some houses are still for sale, but there's nary a "for rent" sign. She thinks she'd be able to sell new, low-cost homes, if anyone would build them.
But the mini-boom may not last. Contractors will stay a few months to a few years, then they'll likely return to homes in other towns or states. When construction is done, the mine won't actually be any bigger than it's been; activity will just have shifted to new parts of its 4,000 acres. (The older areas will be revegetated.)
So the area won't be looking for more miners, according to spokeswoman Jane Mannon, and the towns aren't likely to reap lots of new profits.
It's hard to imagine the scope of Cresson Mine without seeing it. Digging through the tops of mountains has created vast canyons with thousand-foot walls. Dirt and spent ore pile up like dunes. Everywhere, giant machines rumble past, eating at the rock, tossing up the ground like confetti. The great brown landscape is interrupted only by a few brave trees still clinging to the fleeing ground.
Though the new activity will obliterate 42 acres of aspen and 73 acres of conifer on a hill overlooking Cripple Creek, Mannon says the mine is committed to the community and the environment. One day, she says, the mine will be all grassy hills and tall trees once again, and the town will have benefited from tax revenue and at least $3.5 million in donations the mine has given.
But not all are pleased.
"[The mine] could do more," says Ruth Duran, a gray-haired Victor native.
Carl Poch, a retired business professor and Cripple Creek business owner, agrees. He says local politicians are easily manipulated by powerful mine interests, much to the disappointment of residents who want the area to stay as it is.
"The people who live here are all against it, and there isn't a person that will open their mouth," Poch says. "They're all afraid."
More than a century ago, there was a glimmer in every eye around Cripple Creek and Victor.
The area's gold rush had hit its peak. Streets swarmed. Buildings were endowed with boom-town class — ornate tin-tile ceilings, intricate details on the brick façades.
But the pulse slowed as the 20th century wore on. When precious metal mines were shut down so workers could toil in factories to help the World War II effort, many left and never came back. That's what put Victor to sleep for the following decades.
Nearby, Cripple Creek's neon signs speak of its salvation. In the early 1990s, the town found new gold in gambling that brought in workers and tourists, reviving the town's main road, Bennett Avenue.
Last year was bad for gaming, due to the national economic collapse and the extension of Colorado's smoking ban to casinos. But the new law has industry people optimistic; it will allow casinos to raise their stakes from $5 to $100, not to mention adding the popular table games and the endless hours.
"I think initially there's going to be a lot of excitement," says Bronco Billy's Casino general manager Marc Murphy. "That's what we're hoping for."
To prepare, Bronco Billy's has teamed up with another local casino, the Midnight Rose, to set up schools for aspiring dealers in Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs. The Springs school is operating through Pikes Peak Workforce Center, with classes at Pikes Peak Community College. About 160 students are enrolled in courses lasting nine to 11 weeks.
Including dealers and other staff, Bronco Billy's plans to hire 100 to 125 people.
Nearby, the smaller Colorado Grande Casino is expanding its building to accommodate table games. It's planning to welcome about 30 additional employees.
"It's an opportunity to bring new people to Cripple Creek, and to offer more to the people already coming up here," general manager Eric Rose says. "[But] we're not sure what's going to happen."
Cripple Creek Mayor Dan Baader says he's hoping both gambling and mining will keep his town's economy afloat, but he notes that tax structures greatly limit its ability to benefit from any boom.
That's a disappointment to residents like Poch, who just want to see their old streets improved, the city's new master plan implemented, and canceled outdoor events brought back. Poch wishes the casinos all the best, but he doesn't think the new law will bring lots of additional tourists or jobs. He notes that many casino workers were laid off last year, including more than 60 when Wild Horse Casino closed in October.
"Sunday night," he says, "you can fire a cannon down Bennett Avenue and not hit anyone."