As more people rush to make Colorado Springs their home, many aren’t aware that another town ruled the area first – Old Colorado City. Established in 1859, 12 years prior to Colorado Springs, this part of the area was known among locals as “the wild side of town”, home to blue collar workers, prostitutes, and many saloons, according to Sharon Swint of the Old Colorado City Historical Society. What made this tiny frontier town especially peculiar were the underground cave-like tunnels that connected various buildings, allowing for secret access to seedy basements beneath the streets.
Colorado Avenue was the town’s main street and it operated as many main streets do, full of respectable businesses and shops. However, this road ran parallel to West Cucharras Avenue, a street lined with brothels, gambling halls, and bars where at times, it could feel like the law didn’t exist. Tunnels existed between these two streets, letting people live in both worlds relatively unnoticed.
According to history buff, Mel McFarland, the original construction of the tunnels came about as a security measure during a time of conflict between pioneers and Native Americans. During early raids, these tunnels allowed for escape and transportation between homes. As the local community started to see less conflict and quickly grew, many of these original homes were converted into storefronts, while the tunnels were left intact.
This created a strange phenomenon, as residents would often head to Colorado Avenue to do something innocent, like a quick haircut, only to return drunk and smelling of booze. These people weren’t being served beer at the barbershop though. Instead, they were entering a storefront as a typical customer, but quickly using the tunnels to gain access to where they were really headed, somewhere nefarious on West Cucharras. Once built for protection, these tunnels were now used to allow secret travel to less public places.
At the turn of the 20th century, the popularity of these tunnels boomed, as alcohol bans in Colorado Springs pushed the drinkers of the surrounding community elsewhere. Colorado Springs became known as the town built for the wealthy, though it quickly became apparent that the wealthy had their vices, too. It’s said that during the 1890s, more than 28 bars operated within two blocks of Old Colorado City, many of which were open 24 hours a day. Supporting this economy took a lot of people from every level of income wanting a drink.
Many attribute the success of this area to the fact that many transient miners were passing through, simply looking to spend their earnings and kill time. It’s also worth noting that Old Colorado City was especially unique during this era as the bars, gambling, and brothels were popular among both men and women.
This peculiar tunnel culture wasn’t around forever though. Eventually, the surrounding mines dried up and a lot of the wealth went with them. By 1913, the tunnels had fallen into disuse as the area became known as a wellness center (thanks to Manitou Springs) and an upstanding financial hub of the state. Today, the location of four tunnels are known by the city, with many suspected to have either collapsed or be covered by modern construction. We’ve been told there’s one in the Michael Garmin Museum and Gallery, though it’s closed to the public.
Today, Old Colorado City attracts local tourism, with many shops and modern restaurants. You’ll still find plenty of bars, but the brothels are gone and the closest gambling is now found in Cripple Creek, roughly an hour away. While you probably won’t see any tunnels during your visit, it’s still worth stopping by this historical town that helped build the Pikes Peak region into what it’s become today.