About Hotel St. Nicholas
& Cripple Creek
Cripple Creek, CO
Most visitors to Cripple Creek, Colorado, might naturally assume that the town’s history began in the late 1800’s with its famous gold rush. Actually modern Cripple Creek history began over 60 million years ago, in the Paleocene Epoch, when powerful geological forces began the uplifting of the massive granite formation that formed Pikes Peak and the surrounding area.
About 30 million years later several million years of volcanic activity left millions of ounces of gold under Cripple Creek and its surrounding area. Most of the gold was in the form of gold-telluride ores, created when hot, acidic underground water carrying dissolved gold and other minerals invaded the volcanic rock formations around Cripple Creek. The microscopic gold bound with the telluride metal in Cripple Creek’s volcanic rock, forming rare gold-telluride ores. This gold ore is difficult to identify for all but trained prospectors and geologists. For 25 million years the gold lay hidden, except for trace amounts that eroded into area streams and gullies.
In 1890 the Cripple Creek area was ranching country with fewer than 500 residents. A local cowboy named Bob Womack had discovered traces of placer gold in 1878 and maintained for years that a rich source was waiting to be found. In October 1890, Womack staked a claim on a site in Poverty Gulch, just north of the current town. Womack’s claim of gold was not taken seriously until the following April when Ed De LaVergne a Colorado Springs mineralogist, examined Womack’s ore samples. Though only an amateur mineralogist, LaVergne had recently seen similar gold-telluride ore samples from Europe, and recognized Womack’s find. He staked his own claim, and in April, 1891, formed the Cripple Creek Mining District. With the mining district’s formation came a flood of prospectors, and the rush was on.
During the next 10 years gold production exploded and the town grew rapidly. By 1900 over 55,000 people resided in and around Cripple Creek. The district boasted an estimated 150 saloons, plus dance halls, theaters, hotels, restaurants, shops, and an extensive red-light district. There were 41 assay offices, 91 lawyers, 46 brokerage houses, and 14 newspapers (including one serving its many black residents). Almost 500 mines pulled millions of dollars worth of gold from the ground annually. Production peaked in 1900, with over 878,000 ounces of gold produced. The town managed this growth despite two major fires in 1896 that left most of the town in ashes (and directly led to the rebuilt brick and stone structures now seen on Bennett Avenue and at the Hotel St. Nicholas), and major labor conflicts in 1894 and 1903.
Gold production declined after 1900, and a consolidation of mining properties began. By the early 1940’s gold production was down to 125-145,000 ounces per year. Declining production and improved mining efficiency reduced demand for miners, and the businesses that served them. The last mine closed in 1962, and the town dwindled, relying on a modest summer tourist industry. By 1990 the population had fallen to under 600 people.
In 1991 Colorado approved limited-stakes gambling in Cripple Creek, and the town’s renewal began as many of Bennett Avenue’s historic brick buildings were refurbished as casinos. In 1995 Independence Mining (acquired in 1999 by the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company) established a new open-pit mining operation on the site of the former Cresson Mine. The new mine now produces over 250,000 ounces of gold annually, and is the largest gold mining operation in the continental United States.
During the past decade visitors have discovered Cripple Creek casinos, the area’s natural beauty and it’s many historic attractions. Today Cripple Creek is home to almost 2000 residents and attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Hotel St. Nicholas and the Sisters of Mercy
The Hotel St. Nicholas has enjoyed a long and colorful history. The hotel traces its roots to the year 1898 and its construction, by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, as the first dedicated general hospital to serve Cripple Creek, Colorado, and the surrounding area at the height of the 1890’s gold rush.
History of the Sisters of Mercy
The Catholic Order of the Sisters of Mercy has a rich history of over 175 years. The Order was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland, in 1831. McAuley, born into a prosperous Catholic family in 1778, was orphaned at age 19. For several years Catherine, a devout Catholic, lived with relatives who disapproved of her practice of Catholicism. Within several years they suffered financial losses themselves, making it necessary for Catherine to find outside employment and residence. She soon entered the household of William and Catherine Callaghan, elderly and prosperous Quakers, as a household manager and companion to Mrs. Callaghan. During the next 20 years and while remaining with the Callaghans, Catherine became deeply involved in ministering to the needy, particularly poor women and children who were often overlooked by other institutions of the day. In 1822, following the death of the Callaghans, Catherine inherited their £25,000 estate (worth about $1 million today), and in 1827 opened the first House of Mercy, in Dublin, as a home providing religious, educational and social services to disadvantaged women and girls.
Although McAuley originally intended to establish a secular society, her work and advice from supportive Dublin clergy led her and two associates to profess vows in December, 1831, and establish the Religious Institute of the Sisters of Mercy. In the early 1800’s there were few social support organizations for the poor, and the need was great. Sisters of Mercy members soon became known as the “walking nuns” because of the frequency with which they were seen moving throughout Dublin ministering to the sick and poor. By the time of McAuley’s death in 1841 there were 10 foundations in Ireland and England with over 100 sisters.
The Sisters in Cripple Creek
The first Sisters of Mercy arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1843 at the invitation of the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Their energy in ministering to the sick and poor in the new world attracted many new members. By 1854, Sisters from Ireland had settled in New York and San Francisco, and continued to spread throughout the country, establishing schools and hospitals.
In 1882, at the request of the Bishop of Colorado and Utah, Joseph Machebeuf, Mother Mary John Baptist Meyers led a group of 5 sisters from St. Louis to Colorado to establishing a hospital and school in Durango, and in 1887 in Ouray, Colorado. By 1889 they were working in Denver. In 1894, Sister Mary Claver Coleman was sent to Cripple Creek to establish the town’s first general hospital.
The Sisters originally operated from an existing wood-framed building at 326 E. Eaton, one block from the current St. Nicholas, and served 307 patients during their first year. A massive fire in April, 1896 destroyed most of Cripple Creek, and led to an incident of drama and irony. As the fire progressed through Cripple Creek, many wooden-framed buildings were dynamited in an effort to slow the fire. While the sisters were evacuating patients to safer locations, a member of an anti-catholic society entered the hospital’s kitchen and attempted to destroy the building by placing dynamite in the stove chimney. To the man’s misfortune, the dynamite exploded prematurely, causing little damage to the hospital, but blowing off his leg. He was evacuated with the other patients, and the compassionate care he received from the Sisters led him to express remorse for his deed. His shoe, which had landed in the tea kettle, was kept by the Sisters as a memento.
Although the original hospital survived, the fire convinced the Sisters that there was a need for a more modern and safer structure. The Sisters engaged John J. Huddart, a well known Denver architect responsible for many Colorado landmarks, to develop a design. Huddart’s design was an elegant three-story brick structure that mixed elements of several design styles to create a stately and distinctive building. Construction of the current St. Nicholas was begun in 1896 and was completed in 1898, at a cost of $12,000. The first two floors of the hospital were used for patients. The Sisters’ living quarters were on the 3rd floor. The hospital orderly occupied the attic. The St. Nicholas took advantage of Cripple Creek’s developing town infrastructure, which was advanced for its day. The new hospital was “thoroughly modern, with electric lights, steam heat, hot and cold running water, and a surgery department”. Dedicated on May 15, 1898, the hospital was in use from March 12, 1898, when it received its first patient, a young miner named Elijah Ayers, who had fallen down a shaft at the Specimen Mine. The hospital was named for and dedicated by then Colorado Bishop Nicholas Matz. In 1902 an addition was made to the hospital to serve as additional living quarters for the sisters.
The St. Nicholas after the Sisters
After almost 30 years of service, the Sisters left Cripple Creek in 1924, and the hospital was purchased and operated privately by a series of local doctors. During the years as mines closed and the population of Cripple Creek shrank, the hospital continued to serve the area. The St. Nicholas Hotel continues to host guests who were born or treated in the hospital during the mid-1900’s, or whose family or friends were. The hospital finally closed in 1972, and was used as a boarding house or stood vacant until its purchase and meticulous refurbishment in 1995, when it joined the list of fine Cripple Creek hotels as the Hotel St. Nicholas.
The Sisters of Mercy Today
The Sisters of Mercy who first built the St. Nicholas as a refuge for sick and injured miners now comprise a worldwide community of 10,000 members, continuing Catherine McAuley’s vision of service to the poor, ill, and disadvantaged. In the United States, over 4,700 members, and worldwide, over 10,000 members support community development, education, healthcare, housing, long-term care, and spiritual ministries.
Hotel St. Nicholas Artifacts
Many of the furnishings and fixtures in the Hotel St. Nicholas provide a window on the past, allowing guests to experience aspects of life in an 1890’s mountain gold-rush town. As you walk through the hotel look for some of these restored period furnishings and memorabilia.
Boiler Room Tavern Back Bar – The hotel’s original coal fired boiler now decorates the tavern’s back bar. Manufactured by the American Radiator Company of Chicago around 1895, the original boiler weighed over 1000 pounds and used up to 100 pounds of coal per day. The American Radiator Company is still going strong today. In 1929 the company merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company, and is now know as American Standard, producer of bath and kitchen fixtures.
Mine Hoist Signals Poster – In the days before widespread phone or radio use, signal bells allowed communications between surface-hoist operators and underground miners. Hoist signals were so critical to mine safety that they were standardized for all Colorado mines. A framed mine hoist signals poster, circa 1935, is located on the ground floor hallway.
Original Architectural Drawing by John J. Huddart – At the turn of the century one of the leading Denver architects was British-born and trained John J. Huddart. Noted for his Classical Revival and Richardsonian Romanesque-style designs, his many landmarks included the Charles Boettcher House in Denver, Colorado’s Fort Morgan State Armory, Denver’s Filbeck Building, and six Colorado county courthouses. Huddart’s work for the Catholic Church’s Denver Archdiocese included Denver’s St. Thomas Theological Seminary and Cripple Creek’s Hotel St. Nicholas. Huddart’s original drawings for the St. Nicholas, drawn in 1896, are displayed in the main lobby.
Original Hospital Regulations – Displayed on the ground floor hallway opposite the office, the original hospital regulations, established by the Sisters of Mercy, provides a flavor for both the healthcare standards and social customs of the day. Patients were advised that “loud conversation, unseemly noise, all conduct violating the ordinary rules of propriety, also…promenading in the halls, was forbidden”. Medical costs were somewhat lower in 1898. Private hospital rooms cost $12 to $15 per week. Use of the surgical room cost patients an additional $3 to $6 per day!
Boiler Room Tavern Wall Photo – While in the tavern view the large photo-mural shot inside a local Cripple Creek tavern around 1900. Taken during the height of the gold rush, the photo provides a look at a turn-of-the-century bar that includes an African-American bar tender. Black Americans made up a significant portion of Cripple Creek’s population in 1900, contributing considerably to the town’s growth.
Gold-Era Iron Safe – Circa 1900, the hotel’s massive safe, located in the hotel office, was manufactured by the Herring-Hall-Massey Company, and is believed to have been in use in Cripple Creek for more than 100 years. This working safe was manufactured in a era when security and art mixed. Ask to see the safe’s painted designs on both the outer and inner doors. The Herring-Hall-Massey Company was founded in New York City in 1841, and operated for over 100 years until purchased in 1959 by the Diebold Company, a modern-day manufacturer of bank vaults, ATM’s and voting machines.
Cripple Creek Panorama Photo – Located in the hall outside the office, this 1892 photo, shot from the hills surrounding the town, shows a panorama of Cripple Creek just two years after the gold rush began. The original St. Nicholas hospital was 6 years from completion when the photo was taken.
Great Fire of 1896 Photograph – Before 1896 Cripple Creek was a “wooden” town. Two major fires in April, 1896, burned most of the town, leading to a rebuilt brick Bennett Avenue, and the St. Nicholas Hospital. An April 25, 1896 photograph, located by the ground floor side entrance, captures the excitement and terror on Bennett Avenue at the height of the fire.
Be sure to check out more of our historical memorabilia during your visit
While these are some of the most visible historic memorabilia, the Hotel contains other period photographs and items of interest for guests. Enjoy your own explorations of the Hotel St. Nicholas, Cripple Creek’s first town hospital and restored historic hotel.