Pioneer Profiles: Bob Womack

This series, “Pioneer Profiles,” explores some of the interesting characters that define Colorado history.

***

Bob Womack was probably the least-likely person ever to have his share of fame, but because of his love of the Colorado back country, he became what is locally known as Cripple Creek’s first official resident. Born in 1844, Bob had a happy childhood filled with his father’s wonderful stories of the gold fields and the silver rush. He was never very motivated to do much, but it wasn’t long before he began to dream about striking it rich. Determined to do it right, he set about learning every phase of the mining process from placer mining, to loading ore cars, to stock promotion. He also learned how to detect fraud and to take assays.

Bob didn’t really like hard work, but he did like riding horses. There’s a rumor that he was able to lean from the saddle and snatch a bottle of bourbon from the ground with his teeth. He’s also reputed to have ridden his horse up the stairs of the first parlor house in Colorado City. He rode all over the Front Range, even following Fountain Creek up to its source at St. Peter’s Dome, crisscrossing the Rockies so often that he grew a reputation as a local land expert. When some surveyors came upon him in a restaurant, they listened to him expound upon the back country of the Front Range in great detail, naming streams and rock formations. When they went up to do a survey, they found his descriptions to be pinpoint accurate—so accurate that the lead surveyor stayed behind in Colorado Springs to correct Zebulon Pike’s faulty triangulations of Pikes Peak. A year later, the surveyors returned and asked Bob to escort them to Cripple Creek, the creek they’d heard about at the base of Mount Pisgah. They completed an accurate survey and registered only one ranch in the area, where Bob had been working part-time in the summers.

Bob and his brother bought that ranch, and his brother William and his wife took over the main ranch house. William’s wife had several daughters, and when Bob couldn’t take all the females in the house any longer, he built himself a small shack on the very edge of the property, near the creek in what became known as Poverty Gulch. Once settled into his new cabin, Bob bought a white colt which got stung by a bee shortly after he brought it home. The colt’s nose swelled up so much that he whistled when he breathed, so Bob named him Whistler. Bob used to ride Whistler from Poverty Gulch along Cripple Creek and then northward up along the mountain ridges, keeping his eye out for quartz, a common clue to gold or silver veins. Bob knew that tiny deposits of gold were in the gravel in the area, but he was really looking for a vein embedded in a crack of solid rock. Picking up samples that looked promising along the way, he looked for the vein that might lead to lifetime wealth.

Over the next three years, Bob sent sample after sample to the assay office in Denver, while at the same time he punched cows and lost so many calves that he had to pay for them with his wages. When he wasn’t reimbursing ranchers for lost cows, he wasted his money on card games and whiskey. He kept ore samples in his pocket, and he’d hand them out to anyone he thought might be willing to test the ore and grubstake him.

Bob really loved being a cowboy, even though he wasn’t very good at it. He liked being away for weeks and sometimes months at a time, riding Whistler and looking for predators that might hurt the cattle. He also did small fence repairs along the way, always keeping his eye out for telltale signs of gold. One day in July of 1885, one of his bosses showed up with two well-dressed gentlemen from Denver: Horace Bennett and Julius Myers. Myers and Bennett sized Bob up as a crackpot prospector who didn’t really have a whole lot of authority or knowledge of anything in the area. They completely wrote him off.

Myers and Bennett were, however, infatuated with the land; they fell in love with its rich grass, interesting outcroppings and many trees. Bennett ended up buying the Womack homestead along with three others for $5,000 down.  With big dreams for something they weren’t quite sure of, Bennett and Meyers began platting the streets of a new town, calling it Cripple Creek and naming the two main streets after themselves. Their plans to restructure the ranch’s management included getting rid of Bob Womack. He was unshaven and smelled like whiskey, but the worst part was that he kept urging Bennett to grubstake him. He kept handing Bennett ore samples, but Bennett just threw them in the trash.

Enter naive Dr. Grannis, a dentist in Colorado Springs who came to the area to try to combat tuberculosis. Grannis bought Bob’s story of the phantom mother lode, even paying for a couple of assays before fully grubstaking him. This was the first time anyone took him seriously, and Bob’s confidence soared. Now that he had the money to get serious about it, Bob started mining, working harder than he ever had in his life. “On October 13, 1886 Bob staked a gold claim, the first actually recorded by him since he began his search in 1878,” according to Marshall Sprague’s Money Mountain.  In October of 1890 Bob Womack struck gold, naming it the El Paso Lode. Samples assayed as high as $250 a ton, over $6,651 by today’s standards. Unfortunately the gold didn’t last, and Bob went back to being a cowboy. And a card player. And a drunk.

Bob Womack was never a man interested in celebrity. As a matter of fact, if you walked down the streets of Cripple Creek at the turn of the century, you wouldn’t be able to tell Bob Womack from any of the other old crusty prospectors who lived there. He spent his money as fast as he made it, gambling and drinking, but happily watching the sunsets from the front porch of his shack, his rifle across his lap so he could shoot jackrabbits.

He did make one good friend, Winfield Scott Stratton. Stratton, who made history by selling his Independence Mine for $10 million, felt sorry for Bob, since he’d always been down on his luck. Stratton had once had a hard time getting grubstaked too, so he felt a certain kinship with Bob, slipping him a few bucks now and then when times got hard. When Stratton died in 1902, his will left Womack a $300 monthly stipend for the rest of his life (imagine spending $8000 a month in today’s economy). Womack relied on this benevolence for the next seven years until his death in 1909. Both men are buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

Photo By: Penrose Library Digital Collection