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Cripple Creek: A Gamble Pays Off

In the late 1800s, Cripple Creek, Colorado was one of the most famous and richest gold mining towns in the American West. During what was known as the gold rush era, thousands of people came to the town in hopes of finding wealth. A century later, however, with the gold rush long over, Cripple Creek had to reinvent itself to survive. In the end, it went back to something from its glittering past.

There's a saying that "money won is twice as sweet as money earned." One married couple gambling at some slot machines in Cripple Creek, Colorado is hoping for the thrill of hitting the jackpot.

Man: "This is suspense. Can I beat it? Well, maybe no, maybe yeah! You never know. You never know."
Woman: "We've hit big a few times and that keeps you coming back. You're hooked."

Even though Cripple Creek is a thriving casino community today, it wasn't always that way. Long-time resident Georganna Peiffer says, about a decade ago, the town faced a dismal future. "It was definitely going downhill. People were not taking care of their storefronts because a lot of them were vacant and they were sitting and just rotting," she says. "Many of the smaller towns in this area are ghost towns. That could have been a strong possibility here in Cripple Creek."

Before gold was discovered in 1890 in Cripple Creek, then called Poverty Gulch, few people had settled there. But when word spread of the riches of gold, the town swelled to 50,000 residents. During the area's 15-year gold boom, 500 mines opened. When gold mining eventually declined, Cripple Creek found it hard to survive. And by the late 1980's only about 300 people were left. Although tourism filled some of the economic void, residents knew they would have to do something drastic to stay alive.

So in 1999, when Colorado offered legalized gambling in the state, Mrs. Peiffer says people in Cripple Creek jumped at the opportunity. "And people who say they don't like the gambling, didn't realize that in the early days of gold mining there was probably more gambling going on than today," she says. "I can actually say that up until the 1950's there were some bars in Cripple Creek that had slot machines. And so there was gambling here, even though it was illegal for a long time. At least now it's legal."

A casino called Bronco Billy's is one of the town's most successful. Co-owner Marc Murphy says "This is a place where you come in, you kick the dirt off your boots, you let your hair down, and you have a good time."

Casinos in Colorado pay 20 percent of their profits in taxes to the government. A portion of that money is used for historic preservation in the state. Mr. Murphy says that's helped Cripple Creek. "The revenues that are generated primarily through gaming have allowed Cripple Creek to improve its infrastructure, some of its historic buildings and begin to grow again," he says.

Some of that money was used to restore a historic opera house where audiences are entertained by emotional 19th century melodramas.

Although Cripple Creek has insured its survival in the near future, it faces challenges ahead. Several casinos have closed, leaving empty buildings. And casino owner Marc Murphy says the town lacks businesses like a grocery store, bakery and movie theater, forcing the 1,500 people who now live there to drive out of town for basic needs. "I think the community is at a crossroads," he says. "I think what we need in Cripple Creek is some new businesses, some new directions that would compliment gaming so that we become a complete community." But tourism is thriving. Today, in addition to gambling, people can visit old, deserted gold mines nearby. And just outside Cripple Creek, the largest open pit gold mining operation in the United States is still finding glitter in the stone.