Cripple Creek: The Song and The Legacy

Go to any Old Time jam session in the area surrounding Galax, VA (“The World Capital of Old Time Music”), and the tune “Cripple Creek” will be played before night’s end. This melody has echoed through the hills and hollers of Appalachia for generations, becoming a staple in bluegrass and old-time music. Its lively tune and catchy lyrics capture the spirit of a bygone era:

“Goin’ up Cripple Creek, goin’ on a run,

Goin’ up Cripple Creek to have a little fun…”

These lyrics depict adventure and joy, but many musicians don’t know the song’s origins. Spoiler Alert: It has nothing to do with Cripple Creek, Colorado, or similarly-titled songs like The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek” or Neil Young’s “Cripple Creek Ferry.”

Despite the namesake town in Colorado, it’s Cripple Creek, Virginia, that lays claim to the song’s legacy. Whereas Cripple Creek, Colorado, was a gold mining town, its Virginia counterpart was known for its lead and iron ore. Consequently, Colorado gets most of the Cripple Creek glory. Let’s face it, mining iron ore isn’t nearly as romantic a notion as mining gold, so gold gets most of the lyrical fame.

Historian Perspectives on the Song’s Origins

Bob Coltman, a music historian, suggests that the tune of “Cripple Creek” likely predates the Cripple Creek, Colorado, gold strike in 1891. He believes the lyrics and the song’s title might have been added around the turn of the century. This aligns with the views of many Virginia musicians, who affirm that the song refers to the location in Wythe County, VA.

Henry Reed, a fiddler from Glen Lyn, Virginia, and a key figure in preserving Appalachian music, also spoke of the song’s origins. He recounted to Alan Jabbour (founding director of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center) how he first heard “Cripple Creek” from a man passing through the Tug River region, where Reed and his brother were employed as blacksmiths. This personal connection further roots the song in Virginia’s cultural and geographical landscape.

historic mill on Cripple Creek
A historic mill sits along Cripple Creek

A Song Anchored in Cripple Creek’s Pioneer Roots

The region’s history stretches back to 1654, when European explorers first entered the Blue Ridge Mountains. By the mid-1700s, settlers had built a community around Fort Chiswell, drawn by the discovery of lead by John Chiswell in 1756. These pioneers found a haven in the rich soil along Cripple Creek and the New River.

Cripple Creek was established in the early 19th century, around the time when pioneers were moving westward. The town quickly became a haven for those seeking a fresh start. Its strategic location along the creek provided a vital resource. Early Scots-Irish settlers built mills along the creek, harnessing the water’s power to grind grain and saw timber. Mining also became a significant industry, with rich deposits of iron ore found in the surrounding hills. The arrival of the Norfolk and Western Railroad in 1887 marked an era of industrial growth. The construction of a zinc smelter and numerous charcoal furnaces for iron production transformed the area into an industrial hub. These industries not only sustained the local economy but also attracted more settlers, turning Cripple Creek into a lively community.

Cripple Creek’s Cultural Heritage:

Cripple Creek’s cultural heritage is a broth simmered from the traditions, music, and stories of its early settlers. The Appalachians have always been a melting pot of cultures, strongly influenced by Scots-Irish, German, African, and Native American traditions. Each culture added its unique flavor, creating a stew that nourished the town’s character. This diverse heritage is reflected in the town’s customs, celebrations, and, most notably, its music.

Music has always been at the heart of Cripple Creek’s cultural identity. The town’s connection to the old-time song “Cripple Creek” is a testament to this.

Cripple Creek iron furnace
This once-flourishing iron furnace has been idle for decades

Goin’ Up Cripple Creek To Have A Little Fun…

In the 21st century, Cripple Creek, VA, has transformed from an industrial hub to a picturesque tourist destination. The town’s reinvention as a tourist destination beautifully marries its historical significance with the allure of outdoor recreation. The creek offers fishing opportunities for trout and smallmouth bass, camping at the Raven Cliff Campground, paddling the New River, and hiking or riding a bicycle along the New River Trail.

And the scenery is stunning. The majestic Raven Cliff rises high in the clear Cripple Creek valley, part of the Jefferson National Forest. The Raven Cliff Furnace Trail takes hikers along Cripple Creek, leading to an intact iron ore smelter, a relic of the town’s industrial past. After backtracking to the trailhead, the Raven Cliff Trail offers an old railroad grade, stunning stream views, and a passage through a blasted bluff before descending to Cripple Creek and a ford.

In Cripple Creek, Virginia, the past and present intertwine, creating a tapestry of history, industry, and music. With its deep historical roots and vibrant cultural heritage, this small community continues to capture the imagination of all who learn its story.

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