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Back in 1891, rancher Bob Womack was herding cattle in Poverty Gulch, near modern-day Cripple Creek, when something sparkly caught his eye. It was a narrow,two-inch vein of quartz—mixed with phenomenally high concentrations of gold. Womack quickly filed a mining claim but never got to develop it since he foolishly sold the lot one fateful night for $500 and a bottle of whiskey.
Word of Womack’s discovery spread far and wide, and the isolated gold camp quickly swelled. That same year, just 300 yards from Womack’s find, a woman named Mollie Kathleen Gortner discovered another golden vein when she stopped for a breather while out searching for an elk herd. This was the first Cripple Creek claim filed by a woman, and it was developed into the very productive Mollie Kathleen Mine.
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From early on, miners led tourists through the underground shafts by candlelight. For many years miners would be digging for gold on one level while a tour was visiting another, so when production ceased in 1961—due to the fact that the Carlton Mill closed, leaving no way to process the ore—it was natural to continue the tours, which give visitors a rare opportunity to experience what conditions were like in an 1800s-era, vertical-shaft mine.
Today’s version of the tour begins with an exhilarating—and slightly claustrophobic—two-minute descent down the service shaft in an open elevator. When you finally stop at the 1,000-foot level, the guide leads you through a horizontal tunnel, called a drift, where you watch demonstrations of several air-powered drills and ride in a “man car,” which runs on the same rails once used to move ore carts through the mine.
The most impressive sight is a pristine vein of gold, which was discovered (and is therefore still intact) after the mine had closed. This glistening vein really helps you understand the gritty determination and “gold fever” that motivated the miners to toil day after day in these dark, dank tunnels.
The tour ends with the guide handing you your very own sample of Cripple Creek gold ore to treasure—along with the memory.
Visit: Located at 9388 Highway 67, one mile north of Cripple Creek, the Molly Kathleen Gold Mine offers tours departing at least every half hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., May 16 to September 7, and on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., September 8 to October 25.