It's the Pits

Mining made history in Victor. But will a new gold rush devour its future?

Whether the overlook survives or not, Range View Road is history. And several of the ghost towns that used to be visible from the road--Elkton, Stratton, Winfield, even Altman, at one time the highest incorporated town in America--are gone, too. Slowly but inexorably, substantial portions of the area's past are being devoured by the mine, and Hopkins says he's had few assurances from CCV about the fate of what remains.

"My feeling is, they're planning to mine right up to the city limits if we let them," he says. "I've been talking to them for eighteen months. I just sent them a letter last week saying, 'You know, we've talked and talked, and I don't have anything in writing from you guys agreeing to any one of our concerns.' I want something. Otherwise, I'm going to have to start taking action on my own."

But whatever action the mayor might take is bound to face stiff opposition. Just how many CCV employees live in Victor is a matter of some debate--Hopkins estimates 13, while Komadina says it's more like 45--but there's little question that the town is deeply divided about the mine. Some see it as an economic godsend, in the tradition of earlier mining booms; others regard it as the primary threat to preserving that heritage.

The controversy has stirred up plenty of hard feelings and acrid politics. Hopkins and his city council, more critical of the mine than previous administrations, have survived two recall attempts in the past two years. Dueling weekly newspapers have adopted strongly contrasting editorial positions with regard to the mine. Allegations of deep-seated political conspiracies and brazen conflicts of interest abound. Victor may be the only town of 600 to boast both an aggressive chapter of People for the West--a pro-mining advocacy group--and an equally ardent contingent of part-time residents involved in historic-preservation efforts.

"Everybody knows how everybody else feels in a town this small," says Steph Hilliard, editor of the Gold Rush, a local weekly that some Victorites have accused of being biased in favor of the mine. "You're either on one side or the other. And if you're not on 'our' side, you must be on the other."

The issue will come to a head this fall, as Victor seeks to establish a "buffer zone" around the town and a group of pro-mining candidates vies to unseat the current city council. David McCormick wonders if the embattled town can control its own destiny in the face of the mine's considerable economic and public-relations resources. Pleas for assistance from state mining and preservation agencies have produced few results, he says.

A former Denver restaurateur, McCormick sold his interest in Racines and Goodfriends a few years ago to concentrate on building his businesses in Victor, which include a commercial building and a small rental home in addition to the Midnight Inn.

"My grandparents and great-grandparents were hard-rock miners here for years," he says. "I've been coming up here since I was a little kid, and I've been living permanently here for the last nine years. I'm not about to give this up without a fight. I'm not against mining, but this high-impact mining has to be carefully scrutinized."

"The mine's goal is to make money," adds city councilman Marshall Winblood. "I understand that. But ten years down the road, they're going to be gone--and we're stuck with whatever they leave."

The drive from Cripple Creek to Victor is only six miles, but the psychic distance is much greater. It's a lot like leaving a phony movie-set version of a mining town and stumbling across the real thing.

Long before the casinos opened in Cripple Creek, the two towns were headed in different directions. During the gold rush of the 1890s, Cripple Creek was the home of the bankers, the financiers, the angle boys; the miners staked their claim to Victor, the City of Mines--or, as it's known now, "the unpolished gem of Teller County." Victor itself is riddled with old underground shafts, drifts and stopes dating back to the early days of the boom, when a local entrepreneur set about digging a foundation for a hotel and hit paydirt instead, right in the middle of town.

Over the years, Victor has clung fiercely to its blue-collar mining heritage, even as the mines dwindled and the moneybags moved on to greener pastures. While other gold camps tried to reinvent themselves as ski resorts or tourist traps, the City of Mines stayed true to its roots; locals even voted against the limited-stakes gaming measure that has transformed Cripple Creek into a slough of slot machines.

Victor remains the least pretentious of Colorado's mining towns, a place where lovingly restored Victorian buildings abut vacant storefronts in a pastiche of charm and funk. Gambling in Cripple Creek has brought an influx of casino employees to Victor, doubling the population in the past five years and generating complaints about loose dogs and junked autos. But dramatic as the gaming-related growth has been, it's been overshadowed by an even more unsettling development: the resurgence of mining in the district.

In the 1960s, the Golden Cycle Gold Corporation, an old mining concern with ties to the original gold rush, quietly bought up many of the mining claims in the district. The claims lay dormant for years, but eventually, rising gold prices and new surface-mining techniques began to make the prospect of reworking the old gold fields more attractive. Golden Cycle, a Colorado Springs-based company whose board of directors includes former Colorado governor John Love, entered into partnerships with a series of major mining companies, but the project didn't get under way in earnest until the early 1990s.

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