It's the Pits

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

The current Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Company is a joint venture between Golden Cycle and the Pikes Peak Mining Company, which owns two-thirds of the project. Pikes Peak was purchased by Independence Mining in 1993; Independence, in turn, is a subsidiary of Englewood-based Minorco U.S.A., the North American arm of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate headquartered in Luxembourg. But CCV's complex chain of ownership doesn't end there: Minorco is controlled by South Africa's Anglo American Corporation, whose holdings include the De Beers diamond cartel and a veritable octopus of precious metals and minerals concerns operating on four continents.

Victor took little notice of CCV's operation during its first years of exploration and permitting procedures. But even before the first gold was poured, in early 1995, the mine had become a substantial economic presence in town. CCV is the city's biggest water customer, buying around $400,000 worth of water a year--a revenue stream that accounts for more than a third of Victor's budget. And mine employees tended to take an active interest in local politics. One current and several past city council members work for the mine; before Minorco took over, the mine's project supervisor also served as the city's mayor.

Such cozy ties soon led to charges that city officials were putting the mine's interests before those of local residents. One of the most vocal critics has been Bill Clymer, a former hard-rock miner who founded an organization called Citizens for Victor! in 1992. Although small in number, his group has challenged CCV on a number of fronts, from the bulldozing of ghost towns to its state water-quality permit.

"Just because they buy water from us, that shouldn't buy the whole town," Clymer says. "That doesn't mean we have to support every activity of theirs. People forget that before gaming came along, Cripple Creek was supported by the history of its gold camp. You can't market it after it's bulldozed, and we're losing tourism every year."

Clymer has blasted several city and county leaders as well as the Gold Rush newspaper, claiming they've all been "bought off" by the mine. His stance has earned him few friends in the opposing camp--editor Hilliard of the Gold Rush describes him as "just like a nasty little ankle-biting dog"--but Clymer doesn't care. "If someone localizes their opinion, they have a lot of people come down on them," he says. "There are only four or five people here who have the balls to say anything."

At the opposite pole from Clymer's group is the local chapter of People for the West, a pro-mining group based in Pueblo that bills itself as a grassroots organization but is heavily financed by mining companies. Victor's Two Mile High Chapter has won national recruiting contests in the organization for two years in a row and claims to have more than two hundred members; Clymer dismisses the group as "a bunch of patsies" and suggests that the bulk of the local membership is composed of mine employees.

Several months ago, chapter president John Wilcox challenged Clymer to what amounted to a showdown on Victor Avenue, in which the two groups could compare the size of their memberships, but Clymer wasn't interested. ("Screw that," he says. "I wasn't going to waste my time talking to those guys.") Instead, Wilcox's bunch staged a mock funeral for Citizens for Victor!, then passed out samples of Victor's drinking water in an effort to lampoon local concerns about the potential for highly acidic runoff from the mine.

People for the West hasn't been quite as visible in Victor in recent months, possibly because Wilcox ran afoul of state officials earlier this year by sending a letter to local registered voters. The letter claimed the voter rolls in Victor were "grossly inflated by the names of persons with questionable qualifications" and insinuated that those using absentee ballots had better cancel their local registration. Several recipients of the broadside complained to Colorado Secretary of State Victoria Buckley, who informed Wilcox that his letter "appears to have an element of intimidation" and urged him, in no uncertain terms, to refrain from future mailings.

Wilcox's letter was clearly aimed at Victor's growing contingent of part-time residents, many of whom own summer homes in the area, pay taxes and water fees year-round and consider CCV to be something less than an ideal neighbor. A group of part-timers known as the Tommyknockers has been active in getting out the vote in Victor and may have tipped the scales in the 1995 elections that swept Mayor Hopkins and other mine opponents into office. Tommyknocker Marilyn Fay says the group is not political but strives to support Victor's heritage and its economic future.

"I have a personal financial investment in this town," says Fay, who's owned a house in Victor for 27 years and is now restoring another home on Victor Avenue. "If you've been a Victor resident for as long as I have, you're looking for some change, but I would like to see the historical aspects protected. Victor is the last turn-of-the-century mining town in the Rocky Mountains that has not been discovered by the developers. It's truly an uncut jewel."

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