Motorists winding their way along the two-lane mountain road that leads to the historic mining communities of Cripple Creek and Victor pass by a clearing known as Gillette Flats. The old ghost town's claim to fame occurred in 1895, when it was the site of the first and only bullfight held in Colorado - before an audience of 50,000.

Today, the lush meadow filled with wildflowers and dotted by a few houses is well-known for an obscure watering hole by the roadside.

"This is truly God's country," said Susanne Finch, inhaling deeply and soaking in the early morning sunshine, songbirds and slight breeze.

She stopped not long ago to fill several 5-gallon containers from the natural spring. Finch just moved from Indiana to a cabin in the area, which, like some other nearby residences, doesn't have running water.

"There's a lot of people who don't have wells and can't afford cisterns," she said. "I think this is a wonderful thing."

The spigot - off South Highway 67 at mile marker 57 - continously flows with artesian water that rises on its own accord from the belly of the Earth.

The free water supply has become a lifeline for many residents. Each day, from sunup to sundown, a steady stream of passers-by pull over and fill small containers, gallon jugs and large cisterns.

Often times, there's a line, Finch said.

Many people swear by the water.

"I love this water - it's good, clear, cold and really refreshing," said Doug Estrada, a Woodland Park resident who recently grabbed a few bottles on his way to Cripple Creek.

"It's the best water around," agreed Mykl Maxwell, who loads 350 gallons of water weekly for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, critters and other needs. "It comes from a natural underground spring over the hill and is high in mineral content."

'It's a mystery'

But the provenance of the spring and its plumbing is somewhat of a mystery.

The water has been available for free to anyone for years and years, for so long no one, apparently, remembers how it became a community asset.

Almost like a folktale, there are different versions in the telling of who owns it, and who - if anyone - monitors it.

Cripple Creek and Victor officials say their municipalities do not lay claim to it or test the water. Neither does Teller County or the county sheriff's office.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment does not have any information about the spring, according to spokesman Mark Salley.

"As far as we know, it does not meet the definition of a regulated public drinking water system, i.e. selling water to more than 25 people per day for at least 60 days per year," he said in an email. "Unregulated systems are not overseen or sampled by CDPHE."

The family of former Teller County Commissioner Bill Buckhanan had owned the land for decades and decided to let residents use the water, according to locals. Buckhanan retired, sold the land in 2013 and moved to Texas. He could not be reached for comment.

The current owners, a Kansas couple, have put the property up for sale.

But whether the watering hole would become part of the real estate deal is a topic of debate.

"We don't know - there are indications that it is and indications that it isn't," said Mike Slaback, owner of Your Neighborhood Realty, which is listing the property.

"They don't really know - it doesn't show up on surveys," he said. "It's a mystery."

But one thing is a certainty: "A lot of people depend on that water," said Teller County administrator and spokeswoman Sheryl Decker. "We've had no complaints. Some people occasionally ask about it, and we refer them to the state."

No specific regulations or laws exist in Colorado that govern private well-water quality.

'Drink at your own risk'

Two water samples The Gazette obtained July 19 and July 26 at the spigot and submitted to El Paso County Public Health Department's laboratory tested negative for E. coli and positive for coliform, a potentially harmful bacteria.

That doesn't mean the water is contaminated, however.

Coliform can appear when the ground has been disturbed by wind, runoff, rain or other events, according to the health department. It had rained in the area the nights before the samples were collected. It could also mean an animal brushed up against the spigot.

The runoff water that collects in a large round barrel until it spills over and returns to the ground also was cloudy the first day of the testing, which locals said was unusual.

"This time of year, the sunlight makes algae," said Gary Slagle, who lives in the area.

Locals regularly clean the tank, he said.

Some worry about septic systems in the area infiltrating the watering hole, but Slagle said the water comes from deep underground and "it would take tremendous surface runoff to work its way down there."

"We've lived here eight years and have been drinking it ever since," he said. "I've never heard of anybody getting sick from it."

Marie Howell, who said her family was poisoned by heavy-metal toxins in the drinking water in St. Petersburg, Fla., stops by the watering hole one to three times weekly and uses it for drinking and cooking.

She said she wouldn't consume the water from Gillette Flats if she didn't know it was good.

Maxwell said he and his girlfriend have been drinking the water for two years and have never gotten ill.

It is "drink at your own risk," people point out.

Why should the water even be tested for quality, wonders longtime resident Georganna Peiffer, who at times has used the water.

"It shouldn't need to be - it comes directly from a spring underground," she said.

Act of benevolence?

Newcomer Finch said she was told that a benevolent gentleman is "kind enough to let us have water."

The watering hole is something like the ubiquitous office water fountain, where many people get caught up on the news and shoot the breeze while filling their containers.

"Everybody I've met is extremely friendly," Finch said.

Maxwell said he heard that decades ago while a homesteader was drilling for a well, the natural spring sprung and was tapped for public use.

He also thought it was deeded to the county with the stipulation of remaining public in perpetuity.

Not so, according to Teller administrator Decker. The county has nothing to do with the spring, she said.

Longtime area resident and real estate agent Reed Grainger said he's never tasted the water - he's never had a reason to - and while the price is right, "People have a misconception that no one appears to stop anybody from getting water there, but it's not like there was any dedication that it would be available."

Many who live in the area are in the same boat as Maxwell - it's their sole water source.

And they hope the generosity of whoever the spring belongs to doesn't dry up.

"It saves us a lot of money," he said.

"We couldn't have our animals without it," said Kelly Benson, Maxwell's girlfriend.

"It's been a blessing."

The sound of Maxwell's gasoline-powered pump he uses to fill a 100-gallon and a 250-gallon cistern interrupts bird chatter and busy horseflies. It was taking too long to transfer the water by hand, so he bought the pump. Now, in about 10 minutes, he's on his way.

At home, Nigerian dwarf goats, ducks, miniature black sheep, and assorted dogs and cats await.

"It's nice up here, away from the traffic and hustle and bustle of the city," Maxwell said.

Some users worry about the consequences if it were to be shut off from public use.

"People go out of their way to get water there," the real estate agent Slaback said. "They rely on it."


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