Northeast of Cripple Creek, that once booming city of gold, there’s an empty, windswept meadow where another city rose and fell and never rose again.
Gillett was the “City of Destiny,” proclaimed the Gillett Forum in 1898, the decade prospectors rushed for riches in the surrounding, craggy hillsides. The grandeur was then still mostly unblemished. And the visitor, the Forum said, “after looking from nature to nature’s God, leaves for his home the better man.”
Gillett was the “Gateway City,” coined for its place along the Midland Terminal Railroad, whose vice president and general manager was W.K. Gillett. The town regarded as a “natural residence town” would instead be a city as capitalistic as its namesake.
Gillett was “rapidly growing,” reads a business directory from 1896. The city was 83 blocks, shows an early plat, which also hints at a rowdy incursion. The vision came for Gillett to be the “Monte Carlo of the West,” a gambling epicenter to bustle with 20,000 souls.
The population might’ve reached a quarter of that. The end seemingly came as fast as the beginning.
“Historic Gillett Not Even a Ghost Town Today,” went the 1956 headline in The Gazette-Telegraph.
Life trended toward Cripple Creek and Victor. And, over the years, fire and flood and other acts of nature laid waste to Gillett, rendering today’s nothingness. The arch of a Catholic church was reportedly the last marker to go from this land now overgrown.
“But those who passed the same scene in the summer of 1895 would have found a far different situation,” read the Gazette-Telegraph article.
There was a race track, “for years the pride of the Cripple Creek district” where “many a thorough-bred horse pounded its turf,” reads Muriel Sibell Wolle’s 1949 book on Colorado abandonments, “Stampede to Timberline.” There was that church, built by a “determined priest,” reads another account, “who carried the stones used in its walls down from the hills in a wheelbarrow.” The same account — a tattered, undated pamphlet penned by Virgil L. Kellogg — also mentions infamous con artist “Soapy” Smith as a resident. There were, according to the business directory, 10 saloons to test his credit.
There were also real estate offices, meat markets, ice dealers. There was a physician, a postmistress, a bakery, a sawmill. There was a man named Joseph H. Wolfe, “owner of a hotel and the largest casino in Gillett,” recounted The Colorado Springs Free Press.
He was “quite the man about town,” the paper explained, “and his size and rugged appearance made him a fine example of the Eastern interpretation set down for the citizen of a western boom town.”
And there was, 125 years ago this month, a bullfight.
It was Aug. 24, 1895, billed the first episode of its kind in the U.S. Though, Dodge City, Kan., contends that, claiming an infamous affair in 1884.
Gillett’s legacy is wrapped up in that brutish spectacle. If Gillett is at all spoken of today — if ever there is a request to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum — it’s about the bullfight. The archivist, Hillary Manion, hasn’t had such a request since she started last November. That Gillett existed was news to her when The Gazette inquired.
“First, you’re going to have to figure out if it’s Gillett, Gillette or Gillet,” advised Matt Mayberry, the museum’s director. “I’ve seen it all three ways.” (We went with “Gillett,” based on our findings).
The material in the museum’s basement is limited. If not for the grainy photos of proof, the tale of the bullfight would be hard to believe.
There are discrepancies, elements of fiction. But all of the tellings include the same colorful characters, starting with Wolfe.
An arena was built, ads posted. Leading up to the “GREAT MEXICAN BULL FIGHT,” the impresario was reportedly parading in the streets in a maroon, velvet suit. “The costume was completed with a large, black sombrero that was complimentary to Wolfe’s usual philosophy of thinking big,” wrote the Free Press.
There was also “Arizona” Charlie, the “King of Cowboys,” hired to put on his Wild West show. He either rounded up the beasts locally or in Mexico — reports vary — while true matadors took a train in from the old country. Among them was La Charrita, promoted as “The Only Lady Bull Fighter in the World.” She had “a smile that would raise the blood pressure of a stone image,” Kellogg wrote in his odd narrative.
In the arena was a “fair representation of the rougher elements of the community,” he wrote, “gamblers, swindlers, hangers-on, natural-born drunks.” He retold the festivities beginning with the band’s “off-key tune” — a proper precursor.
Either the first helpless bull was slain and the event promptly called off, as The Gazette Telegraph reported, or fights started and stopped with arrests made in between. At any rate, history collectively recalls the show a shameful failure.
And fail, too, did the rest of Gillett.
History lives down the road in Cripple Creek. Mining trucks rumble on. Ghosts are said to lurk in the Victorian buildings now housing casinos, where drunks stagger on, draining another day of a pandemic. Victims of the last one rest in the potter’s field up the hill.
By then, in 1918, the “City of Destiny” was well on its way to meeting its true destiny, fated to return to this grassy expanse. Here one can still look to “nature and nature’s God” and only imagine what happened and what could’ve been.