Before casinos came to Cripple Creek nearly 30 years ago, donkeys would have been more at home in the old mountain mining town than one-armed bandits.
For three days this past weekend, the pack animals reclaimed their former status during Cripple Creek’s annual Donkey Derby Days, which celebrates the town’s heyday during Colorado’s Gold Rush in the late 1800s and early 20th century.
The wild donkeys, fabled to be direct descendants of the beasts of burden from the town’s Gold Rush days, are raced and admired for three days. Participants run a half-mile race alongside the donkeys, overcoming obstacles while completing tasks.
“We came because we’ve never seen a donkey race,” said Africa Alonso, who drove from Denver with her husband and two sons for the festival.
The wild donkeys are loose in the summer and always have the right away, said Clinton Cline, the president of the Two Mile High Club, the group that organizes the festival —now in its 87th year — and cares for the donkeys.
“We have a joke here that if you turn a corner and there’s a person and a donkey in the street, you should hit the person,” Cline said. “The town will give you less grief.”
Cline, who is retired, moved to Cripple Creek 14 years ago, so all he’s known as a resident is the casinos. Cripple Creek, he says, does a good job balancing its Old West past with today’s lure as a gambling vacation spot.
“Gambling and the Old West make sense together,” said Cline.
During derby weekend, artist Rod “Little Bear” Sutton, 68, showcases his jewelry and sculptures along with other artists’ work at a gallery in the Heritage Center, the museum and information center for tourists at the entrance to the town.
As a resident of Cripple Creek for 30 years, he’s seen the change from antiques and souvenirs to wall-to-wall casinos.
Before gambling was legalized, Sutton says Cripple Creek was a perfect Western town. The gambling didn’t seem to threaten it, at first.
“The casinos still had that Western flair,” Sutton said. “But now they’re throwing luaus.”
He said mining and gambling are similar in some ways: both have the potential to harm the Earth and the culture, but the town needs the jobs and tourism the industries create.
The new industry pulls the town in one direction, its past, symbolized by Donkey Derby Days and its National Historical Landmark status, pulls it in another.
“That is Cripple Creek,” Sutton said. “It’s a good bond.”
“That is Cripple Creek. It’s a good bond.” Rod “Little Bear” Sutton on link between gambling and donkeys in Cripple Creek