A Brief History of Breckenridge: What Color Do You Like Your Gold?

breckenridge colorado historyLinda Kay Peterson pointed to the mountains as we stood outside the Breckenridge Welcome Center.

“Look at the Ten Mile Range,” she said, “because that is the genesis of our mining town.” It’s a genesis that, according to Peterson, began 65 to 70 million years ago.

Peterson is a volunteer and tour coordinator at the Summit Historical Society, as well as the events coordinator for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. She’s a cheerful, lively, well-spoken woman with an easy laugh and an impressive knowledge of Breckenridge’s history.

During our hour-long conversation and a brief stroll around town, cut short by the bitter wind, Peterson recited names and dates and anecdotes about the town as effortlessly as she had introduced herself moments before.

She continued the story: “The geological upheavals that made the mountains forced some of the lighter minerals to the top. As the glacial age came through, it sort of sheared off the sides of the mountains, and those minerals — particularly gold — came down through the mountain streams to the Blue River.”

downtown shopping in breckenridge colorado
A once-bustling mining town has been transformed into a busy ski and shopping destination.

On Aug. 10, 1859, a party arrived over Hoosier Pass and started panning for gold; after finding only 40 cents worth, the gold rush that would eventually create the town of Breckinridge (as it was spelled then) began.

That winter, 23 men stayed in the newly-built Fort Mary B, named in honor of the one woman who stayed with them. “We have not had a job description of what she did during the winter,” Peterson said, giving my imagination a taste of Mary’s less-than-dignified career choices before she continued, almost disappointingly, “We think she was probably the cook and helped to keep things as domesticated as possible.”

In an 1860 attempt to get a post office, the miners decided to name their town after the then-Vice President of the United States, John C. Breckinridge. It worked, and the first post office between Denver and Salt Lake City staffed by English-speaking postal workers was built. (When Breckinridge joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, the miners changed the town’s name to its current spelling.)

The second evolution of mining was placer mining (sounds like ‘plaster’ without the ‘t’). Like panning, which only lasted three years in Breck, placer mining is a type of surface mining, using gravity-driven water pressure to blast away entire hillsides. In the 1870s, placer mining gave way to hard rock mining, which is still being done in Breckenridge, and dredges were used on the rivers from 1896 to 1943. Twenty-four hours a day they unearthed the riverbed, processed the specimens on board the dredge, and then dumped what they didn’t want over the side.

“They basically destroyed all of the rivers in Summit County,” Peterson said: “the Blue River, the Swan River, the Snake River.” Amazingly, when the town of Breckenridge started to reclaim the Blue River, it found the riverbed about 50 feet below the rubble.

As we walked north along Main Street, Peterson pointed out a number of historic buildings, telling the stories of people who had lived and died in the shops, homes and saloons of Breckenridge. Stories filled with ghosts and hangings, town fires and 25-cent baths and local ne’er-do-wells Pug Ryan and Gassy Thompson (who is, I imagine, aptly-named and makes for a far more interesting narrative than, say, Vice President Breckinridge).

breckenridge colorado history museum
The Breckenridge Welcome Center hosts a number of exhibits that explore the town’s rich history.

Peterson explained the dichotomy of early town life: “You had the miners, on the one hand, who were living a very rustic life. On the other hand, you had people from back East who really wanted the finery they might have had in the Eastern states.”

Finery like china, lace from Belgium or fine crystal. “That’s in a striking juxtaposition to the poor soul who’s living in an unheated cabin trying to survive the winter.”

We wandered up the street, back from whence we came, to the Barney Ford House Museum, a renovated house catty-corner to the Welcome Center. “I personally think this is one of the more enlightening stories about early day Breckenridge,” Peterson said.

Barney Ford, one of Colorado’s most influential pioneers, was born to a black slave and a white plantation owner in 1822. In his early 20s, he was put to work as a cook on a riverboat that plied the Mississippi.

“When he finally escaped with the help of a British actor in 1844, in Illinois,” Peterson told me, “a British actor who performed Shakespeare on the riverboat as entertainment helped him, allegedly, by dressing him up in the garb of a woman and walked him down the gangplank.”

While in Colorado, Barney Ford pushed for equality of rights for African Americans. “He was about 100 years ahead of his time in terms of the civil rights movement,” Peterson said.

The wind had picked up quite a bit when we left Main Street, and we tucked our chins into our coats as Peterson paused outside an old livery across from the museum and talked about Edwin Carter. “He and Barney Ford are perhaps two of the most influential pioneers in Breckenridge, only because Edwin Carter became a naturalist and an environmentalist when he saw the destruction that the mining industry was doing to the wildlife.”

It was the beginning of a spirit that would become distinctly Coloradan; Carter’s influence and his respect of nature live on in today’s statewide open space programs.

picture of breckenridge ski slopes
When the slopes opened in 1961 at the Breckenridge Ski Resort, the town came to life again.

Of course, Carter’s love for the environment manifested itself ironically — as with all naturalists of the time — by killing and stuffing by the thousands the creatures he loved. “He was so prolific in his collection that he had as many as 10,000 species, many of which were birds,” she said. His collection became the beginnings of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

In 1887, Tom Groves walked into town with Tom’s Baby, the largest gold nugget ever found in the state and, until the April 18, 2006, birth of Suri Cruise, the most famous Tom’s Baby in the United States. The nugget weighed a little over 13 pounds and would be worth (at the time of writing) $133,481.25 today. Tom’s Baby promptly disappeared into a box of rocks. When it was rediscovered 85 years later it weighed about eight pounds.

Breckenridge thrived as a mining town until WWII, when all gold mining was suspended by the government. Breck’s population fell to around 250 people by the end of the war. “It never was officially a ghost town, but if you’ve ever seen pictures of the ‘50s, there’s just not much here,” Peterson said.

In 1961, everything changed again when the Breckenridge Ski Resort opened. “They call that the White Gold era of Breckenridge, because it basically rejuvenated the town and led us to being primarily what you see today.”

If you’d like to take a historical tour of Breckenridge, contact the Summit Historical Society at (970) 468-2207 or the Breckenridge Resort Chamber at (970) 453-2913. A variety of walking tours are scheduled regularly throughout each summer, and can be scheduled during colder months.