Saturday, February 6, 2021

Up on high and mighty Altman's mean streets

 "Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."

 ___ Ernest Hemingway


Altman, highest incorporated town in the world, elevation 11,200 ft., Pikes Peak in distance,Andrew Jame Harlan photo, Denver Public Library Special Collections.

Highest incorporated city in the United States in its day

By Rob Carrigan,

Up in the high and mighty part of the Cripple Creek Gold District, ran perhaps the meanest streets of all. Altman was the highest incorporated town in the United States in its day.

The first stamp mill in the Cripple Creek area was built by a Sam Altman after whom the town was named. Among the most bustling small cities in the district at the turn of the last century, Altman was dominated by union miners and was one of the headquarters during the bloody strikes of 1894. It always seemed to find itself in the center of labor violence during its lifetime.

"It is said violence was so common at one time, a busy undertaker offered to give group rates if all killings were done on Saturday. The town covered the entire top of a hill, had several hotels, restaurants and saloons, " according to Henry Chenoweth, writing of Altman.

"Along the main thoroughfares of Main, Baldwin, and Brown Streets were wooden, false-fronted buildings. Four restaurants, six saloons, six grocery stores, a schoolhouse and 200 homes already dotted the hillside by the time the town was platted," writes Jan Mackell Collins in her 2016 book "Lost Ghost Towns of Teller County."

"Almost immediately, a few roughnecks moved into town. On Oct. 10, 1893, Felix Parrow, Robert McCullough, Harry Cavanaugh, and Jim McDonald showed up at W.R. Goodey's saloon. The men spent the entire night and early morning playing cards for drinks. Around 4 a.m., the men suddenly broke into a fight as a ruse to rob the place. Barkeeper John Ashley was whacked in the head with a gun and "laid out," while faro dealer J.S. Bush was disarmed. In all, the robbers took $610 in cash and another $350 in checks, along with five gold watches and a pair of braclets. Then in November, ex-prizefighter George Lear was labeled a "Green Monster" when he shot and killed a dance hall girl named Irene Goode during a jealous rage. A short time later, Altman bartender Sam Jones killed Lear at Kilday & Sullivan's Saloon," wrote Jan MacKell Collins.

Similar stories raged on for years as the Altman crime spree continued as long as the town survived.

"Nobody seems to agree about the exact altitude of Altman," notes Jan MacKell Collins however.

"The elevation was first reported in the 1894 Cripple Creek District Directory as 10,500 feet. Other sources have claimed altitudes ranging from 10,700 feet to 11,650 feet. At the very least, everyone agrees that during its heyday, Altman was the highest incorporated city in the United States," she writes.

Neil McGee poses next to a brick furnace inside a smelter plant in Altman, about 1900; tools hang on the wall. Denver Public Library Special Collections.

The American Eagle Mine dominated what was left of the skyline of Altman, into this millennium.

"One of the dozens of people making the final trip to the overlook was Liz Hunter. Her parents, Cherry and Ed Hunter, were well known in the area. Her father has a building that bears his name in Cripple Creek. Under the 60-foot tall American Eagles Mine headframe sits a commemorative bench placed in her parents' honor.," wrote Nathan Heffel, of Colorado Public Radio in 2016, at the time of the last public tour of the American Eagles Overlook. The American Eagles Overlook and Historic Mine was situated in the middle of the active Cresson surface gold mine, owned by Newmont CC & V — the largest of its type in Colorado.

An inscription reads, “May all your labors be in vein.”

Liz Hunter held a personal ceremony at the overlook, taking a bag of flower petals and sprinkling them on her parents' bench, at the time. The strong winds carried them over the entire mine site, reported Colorado Public Radio.

“It’s sad that it’s closing. It’s such a wonderful place,” Heffel quoted Hunter. “It’s so beautiful to come and just look at the beautiful Sangre De Cristos, Pikes Peak, have a picnic lunch, see the mines. Be close to mom and dad."

Altman was one of many towns that formed around the rich mines of the Cripple Creek District, according to Western Mining History. The town was situated at the highest point in the district and covered most of the hill.

"Altman had a central role in the Cripple Creek miners' strike of 1894. The Western Federation of Miners Local 19 was based in Altman during the strike. This resulted in many violent incidents in and around Altman as deputies hired by the mine owners made their camp above the town on Bull Hill," says Western Mining History.

"Miners in Altman responded to the threat by barricading the entire town and announcing they had seceded from the country. They were said to have made a catapult that would hurl dynamite bombs at the deputies camp. Colorado state militia would be brought in to restore order. The strike ended after five months, with the miners scoring a major victory over the mine owners."

At the end of the 19th century, Cripple Creek was the largest town in the gold-mining district that included the towns of Altman, Anaconda, Arequa, Goldfield, Elkton, Independence and Victor, about 20 miles from Colorado Springs on the southwest side of Pikes Peak. Surface gold was discovered in the area in 1891, and within three years more than 150 mines were operating there.

The Panic of 1893 caused the price of silver to crash; the gold price, however, remained fixed, as the United States was on the gold standard. The influx of silver miners into the gold mines caused a lowering of wages. Mine owners demanded longer hours for less pay.

In January 1894, Cripple Creek mine owners J. J. Hagerman, David Moffat and Eben Smith, who together employed one-third of the area's miners, announced a lengthening of the work-day to ten hours (from eight hours), with no change to the daily wage of $3 per day. When workers protested, the owners agreed to employ the miners for eight hours a day – but at a wage of only $2.50.

Not long before this dispute, miners at Cripple Creek had formed the Free Coinage Union. Once the new changes went into effect, they affiliated with the Western Federation of Miners, and became Local 19. The union was based in Altman, and had chapters in Anaconda, Cripple Creek and Victor.

On February 1, 1894, the mine owners began implementing the 10-hour day. Union president John Calderwood issued a notice a week later demanding that the mine owners reinstate the eight-hour day at the $3.00 wage. When the owners did not respond, the nascent union struck on February 7. Portland, Pikes Peak, Gold Dollar and a few smaller mines immediately agreed to the eight-hour day and remained open, but larger mines held out.

On March 16, an armed group of miners ambushed and captured six sheriff's deputies en route to the Victor mine. A fight broke out, in which one deputy was shot and another hit by a club. An Altman judge, a member of the WFM, charged the deputies with carrying concealed weapons and disturbing the peace, then released them.

Calderwood was leaving on a tour of the WFM locals in Colorado to raise funds for the Cripple Creek strike, and so appointed Junius J. Johnson, a former U.S. Army officer, to take over strike operations. Johnson immediately established a camp atop Bull Hill, which overlooked the town of Altman. He ordered that fortifications be built, a commissary stocked and the miners be drilled in maneuvers.

On May 24, the strikers seized the Strong mine on Battle Mountain, which overlooked the town of Victor. The next day, at about 9 a.m, 125 deputies arrived in Altman and set up camp at the base of Bull Hill. As they started to march toward the strikers' camp, miners at the Strong mine blew up the shafthouse, hurling the structure more than 300 feet into the air. A few moments later, the steam boiler was also dynamited, showering the deputies with timber, iron and cable. The deputies fled to the rail station and left town.

A celebration broke out among the miners, who broke into liquor warehouses and saloons. That night, some of the miners loaded a flatcar with dynamite and attempted to roll it toward the deputies' camp. It overturned short of its goal and killed a cow. Other miners wanted to blow up every mine in the region, but Johnson quickly discouraged them. Frustrated, several drunken miners then stole a work train and steamed into Victor. They caught up with the group of fleeing deputies, and a gun battle broke out. One deputy and one miner died, a man on each side was wounded, and six strikers were captured by the deputies.The miners subsequently captured three officials of the Strong mine who had been present when the shafthouse was blown up. A formal prisoner exchange later freed all prisoners on both sides.

With 1,300 deputies still in Cripple Creek, Sheriff Bowers was unable to control the army he had created. On June 5, the deputies moved into Altman, perhaps as a prelude to storming Bull Hill. The deputies cut the telegraph and telephone wires leading out of town, and imprisoned a number of reporters. Concerned that the paramilitary force might get out of hand, Gov. Davis Hanson Waite again dispatched the state militia, this time under the command of General E.J. Brooks.

When Colorado state troops arrived in Cripple Creek early on the morning of June 6, more violence had already broken out. The deputies were exchanging gunfire with the miners on Bull Hill. Gen. Brooks quickly moved his troops from the train station to the foot of Bull Hill. As Sheriff Bowers and Gen. Brooks began to argue about what course of action to take next, the deputies took advantage of the lull and attempted to charge the miners.The miners sounded the whistle at the Victor mine, alerting Gen. Brooks. Soldiers of the state militia quickly intercepted the deputies and stopped their advance. Brooks ordered his men to occupy the top of Bull Hill, and the miners offered no resistance.

The deputies turned their attention to Cripple Creek itself. They arrested and imprisoned hundreds of citizens without cause. Many inhabitants of the town were seized on the street or pulled from their homes, then clubbed, kicked or beaten. The deputies formed a gauntlet and forced townspeople to pass through it, spitting, slapping and kicking them. With Bull Hill in his possession, Gen. Brooks began detaining the deputies. By nightfall, Brooks had seized the town and corralled all of Bowers' men.

Waite threatened to declare martial law, but the mine owners refused to disband their deputy force. Gen. Brooks then threatened to keep his troops in the region for another 30 days. Faced with the prospect of paying for a paramilitary force which could only sit on its hands, the owners agreed to disband it. The deputies, which Gen. Brooks had dispatched via rail to Colorado Springs, began dispersing on June 11. The Waite agreement became operative the same day, and the miners returned to work. Union president Calderwood and 300 other miners were arrested and charged with a variety of crimes.

Only four miners were convicted of any charges, and were quickly pardoned by the sympathetic populist governor.

In 1892, Gov. Davis Hanson Waite had been nominated as the Populist candidate for Governor of Colorado and he was inaugurated on January 10, 1893. A passionate supporter of the Populist's Omaha Platform, he was nicknamed "Bloody Bridles" for an 1893 speech, in which he proclaimed, "It is better, infinitely better that blood should flow to the horses' bridles rather than our national liberties should be destroyed."

Lower edge of Altman about 1900 with the Isabella Mine below, Teller County, Colorado, includes a slope covered with small log cabins, wood frame residences, outhouses, sheds, smelters, mines, and tailing dumps. The narrow gauge Golden Circle railhead, switchback, ore and coal bin spurs, show around the large multi-structure ore processing plant with tall smokestacks and ore bins. Denver Public Library Special Collections.

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