Life in the Old West

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Crazy Bob Womack launched Cripple Creek gold strike but died in poverty


Known to many as “Crazy Bob” for his wild early years as a cowboy, for his constant boozing, and for the years he spent digging in Poverty Gulch, Bob Womack discovered the ore that ultimately led to Colorado’s greatest gold strike at Cripple Creek. But more than 15 years after his discovery, which led to millions of dollars in gold, Bob died in poverty in Colorado Springs.

Bob’s early years were spent as a “happy-go-lucky cowpoke” with average abilities and nothing to distinguish him except a great love for liquor. He was locally renowned for being able to gallop by a bourbon bottle on horseback, lean down, and grab the bottle up with his teeth.Bob, his father, and his brother, Will, made the rounds of gold diggings all over the Colorado/Kansas Territory before settling down on land his father bought near Cripple Creek. (The creek got its name for the very rough, bolder strewn stream bed and surrounding terrain that often led to lame stray cattle.)

Sources for the story are contradictory about the time frame, but in either 1874 or 1878, Bob was digging and poking around Cripple Creek and found an unusually light weight, gray colored rock that he thought might be “float” — best described as a piece of rock broken off of the gold lode and washed downstream from it. Bob sent the float to Denver to be assayed. It assayed at $200 a ton, i.e., mining and processing a ton of the ore would likely produce about $200 in gold.

It took Bob Womack until 1890 before he discovered the gold, in an area he had named Poverty Gulch. During those years, Bob dug repeated holes and mined areas he thought held his lode. His constant digging and prodigious drinking earned him the nickname “Crazy Bob,” but he persisted. He was an entertaining figure at area saloons, always willing to tell his story about the $200-a-ton float, and always hoping someone would stake him and invest in his search for gold.

In the end, Crazy Bob’s discovery and hard work led to a major gold rush at Cripple Creek by 1893. By 1900, the town of Cripple Creek had a population of 25,000. During that period, the gold yield from Cripple Creek was something around $18 million. The good news was that Bob Womack’s mine, the El Paso, earned about $3 million.

Although the whole era of the Cripple Creek gold rush produced millions and millions of dollars — one source said Cripple Creek mines produced something near a half-billion dollars in gold from 1900-1920 — Crazy Bob Womack never really got the credit he deserved as one of the early discoverers of the wealth.

The bad news for Bob was that he sold the El Paso claim for $300 before the money started coming in — during a drinking spree. He eventually moved to Colorado Springs with his sister. Although near the end of his life Bob sobered up and worked as a backup cook in his sister’s hotel in his last years, Bob’s rough life caught up with him and he suffered a severe stroke. He died virtually broke in Colorado Springs in 1909.