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To learn more about Colorado’s gaming towns, visit online, or call 1-800-COLORADO (1-800-265-6723).
For information on Black Hawk, call (303) 582-1410; Central City, call 1-800-542-2999; Cripple Creek, call 1-877-858-GOLD (4653) or visit

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Strike it rich
Colorado’s gambling towns offer visitors jackpots of fun, scenery and history

Historic Bennet Avenue in Cripple Creek shimmers at dawn, lined with casinos and gift shops (left). /Jeff Greenberg, Unicorn Stock Photos.
By Margaret Malsam
Published: Mar/Apr 2001

More than 100 years ago, fortune hunters rushed to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in search of gold. They trekked across hot, dusty plains and climbed on foot and horseback into Colorado’s steep, rugged mountains.

Today’s fortune hunters visit Colorado to strike it rich in casinos in the old mountain towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek.

Black Hawk, center of gaming

Luxury hotels with fine restaurants and big casinos line the streets of Black Hawk, a small mining town that is booming again. For gaming and entertainment, Black Hawk takes center stage. Black Hawk has nearly two dozen casinos, and many of them offer live entertainment. Some of the newest and largest developments include the Isle of Capri, Lodge, Riviera (owned by the Las Vegas Riviera), and Mardi Gras. The $150 million Hyatt Hotel and Casino, set to open this summer, will feature large gaming areas, fine restaurants, a health club, and a 350-room hotel.

Central City’s rich history

Located a mile above bustling Black Hawk, Central City has preserved its past with gaming revenues earmarked for historic preservation. This mining town once was known as the richest square mile on earth. Visitors to casinos are only steps away from famous historical sites such as the Central City Opera House (the oldest operating opera house in the country), 1894 Thomas house and the Gilpin County Historical Museum.

In 1878, the Central City Opera House opened its beautiful Victorian doors and started a grand tradition. This summer, Central City Opera will launch the first fully staged production by an American opera company of “Gloriana” by Benjamin Britten. The 2001 season, June 30 through Aug. 12, will feature the regional premiere of “Little Women” and a revival of “La Boheme.”

Many stars of the opera and stage have performed in the Central City summer festivals, including Beverly Sills, Jerome Hines, Lillian Gish, and Helen Hayes. Contact the Central City Opera box office, 1-800-851-8175, for ticket information.

However, there’s more to Central City’s history than a rich musical heritage.
“There’s so much to tell about life in Central City during its boom times,” says Bonnie Cashion, a Gilpin County Historical Society volunteer who dresses in 1880s clothes and explains local history while giving tours of museums.

A two-story building, which was the first permanent schoolhouse west of the Mississippi, now houses the Gilpin County Historical Museum. Some of the most unusual items in this incredible collection of pioneer memorabilia are a pool table that converts into a church pew and a gasoline-burning iron used to press clothes. To get to the museum, take the stairs next to Central Palace Casino on Lawrence Street up to the museum.

A little-known jewel of Central City is the 1894 Thomas House at 209 Eureka St. When Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Thomas moved to Denver in 1917, they left everything behind, hoping to return someday. When the Gilpin County Historical Society received this house, they found a rich time capsule of fascinating early 1900s calendars, clocks, toys, quilts, family photos, advertising art, magazines–even undergarments.

Visitors also enjoy modern amusements in Central City, including several special events. Freedom Fest, during the July 4 weekend, features bands, food booths, beer garden, hay wagon and carriage rides. Other summer festivities include Madam Lou Bunch Day (June 16) and a Jazz Festival (Aug. 17–19). Fall events include a cemetery crawl in September. During some events, the Shady Ladies, a group of local women pledged to promote the history of Central City, wear vintage clothes as they welcome visitors.

Harvey’s Hotel and Casino is the largest of less than a dozen casinos. It is one of the few casinos with a gaming room for those under legal gambling age.

A mile above Central City lies Nevadaville, a ghost town with an old general store and crumbling mining buildings, which house curio and antique shops.

A guide showing a group of children a sample load of ore at the Mollie Kathleen Mine, an authentic working gold mine in Cripple Creek. /Pikes Peak Country photo
Cripple Creek’s attractions

Once billed as the world’s greatest gold camp, Cripple Creek got its name from ranchers, whose cattle were injured while crossing a nearby rocky stream. Many original buildings in this old mountain mining town have been converted to casinos.

Antique slot machines displayed at the Cripple Creek District Museum/Welcome Center complex at Fifth Street and Bennett Avenue provide a glimpse of what gambling was like in earlier times.

In bygone years, the stately Palace Hotel served as one of the bustling city’s more lavish hotels. Now slot machines and gaming tables line the walls. Cripple Creek’s biggest and newest gaming development is the Double Eagle Hotel and Casino at the end of Bennett Avenue.

There are other attractions to visitors to explore, including the Mollie Kathleen, an authentic working gold mine 1,000 feet underground. Located on Highway 67 just outside Cripple Creek, the Mollie Kathleen is the most authentic mine tour that anyone could possibly take, said Mountain Bob Leasure, a veteran miner and professional storyteller from the area.

For a different ride, board the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge railroad at the Bennett Avenue depot for a four-mile trek over a reconstructed trestle that travels alongside mines and ghost towns. The trains run from mid-May through mid-October.

A seven-mile scenic drive above Cripple Creek to Victor reveals many crumbling mines. The Lowell Thomas Museum highlights Victor’s famous hometown celebrity.

Remnants of past mining activity and a general store dot the countryside of the tiny mining town of Nevadaville above Central City. /George Malsam photo
Attractions near Cripple Creek

Named for its mineral springs, Manitou Springs, in the shadow of Pikes Peak, is a scenic, historic town between Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek. Wealthy travelers flocked to the town during the 1800’s to benefit from the healing waters of the natural springs. Today many local artists and sculptors bring their talents to this town of winding streets and interesting architecture.

The ascent to the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak can be reached by the Pikes Peak Highway or via the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in Manitou Springs. The rail trip takes about an hour and offers spectacular views of the region. Touted as the world’s highest cog railroad, rides are offered daily from late April through early November.

The Western Museum of Mining and Industry, located off Interstate 25 near Colorado Springs, explores Colorado’s rich and colorful mining past. Here visitors see how turn-of-the-century miners extracted and processed precious ores. Children can don hard hats and other hands-on mining memorabilia.

Mueller State Park and Wildlife Area, off Highway 67 near Cripple Creek, was the hunting grounds of the Ute Indians. Open all year, the park has camping sites with electrical hookups plus tent sites and trails for hiking, horseback riding and wildlife viewing. Anglers can fish its Four Mile Creek and some of the ponds stocked by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Whether you’re seeking an instant fortune or a jackpot of Western mining history, you’ll strike it rich in Colorado’s gaming towns.

Margaret Malsam is a contributor from Westminster, Colo

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