Historic Breckenridge: Explore Its Victorian Heritage
The core area of the town itself is a National Historic District. The Breckenridge Welcome Center doubles as a two-story museum. Many of the 19th century homes are now museums or designated historic sites. Tearing down historic buildings, even those in disarray, is illegal, and new construction must blend with the Victorian theme.
When you’re ready for some 19th century enchantment, take a day off from outdoor pursuits and sign up with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance for a walking tour of the town or a museum tour. Here’s what you’ll learn:
On Aug. 10, 1859, a group of dauntless prospectors arrived in the nameless town we now call Breckenridge. News of their discovery of gold reverberated throughout Colorado. Others arrived, and Breckenridge became a town, with a layout typical of mining towns in the Victorian era. Main Street ran, and still runs, parallel to the Blue River. It housed stores and offices, with the owners often living on the upper floors of their business. The opposite side of the river was home to the railroad depot, freight warehouses and the red light district, inhabited by the ladies known as the Soiled Doves. The more affluent families lived higher on the hill, and their elegant Victorian homes still grace the blocks along French and Harris streets.
When the miners’ and prospectors’ wives eventually arrived in Breckenridge, they found a town overrun by excessive gambling, alcoholic indulgence and promiscuous sexual activity. These classy Victorian women quickly bonded together and created suitable distractions from these “sinful” activities. They founded community organizations, social clubs, libraries, hospitals and churches, while hosting tea parties and arranging elaborate balls.
Although jobs were scarce, women were a vital part of the Breckenridge work force, filling jobs as seamstresses, cooks, music teachers or laundresses. Some even owned businesses, such as millinery shops, candy stores and stationery stores. And, despite the low wages, many chose to teach school.
Just like today, fashion was a popular discussion among the women of Breckenridge, who believed that proper clothing led to proper behavior. Their obsession with fashion, unfortunately, was their nemesis. Winter snow and summer dust made it impossible to keep their clothing clean. Adding insult to injury, even under the most adverse conditions, rules of etiquette required women to walk slowly. In fact, the rules of etiquette governed most aspects of a woman’s life. These included:
• Women must speak in a gentle tone of voice.
• Patience and kindness are the ultimate virtues.
• When walking through the streets, a gentleman may hold one lady on each arm, but under no circumstances should a proper Victorian lady ever take the arms of two gentlemen.
• On shopping excursions, a woman should never examine an item she has no intention of buying.
The discovery of Breckenridge gold created a nouveau riche society, as well as a need for bankers and shop owners. These folks, who essentially “mined the miners,” built elegant homes, high on the hills of French and Harris streets. Thanks to the Breckenridge planning board’s fierce commitment to historic preservation, these homes still exist, and echoes of the Victorian lifestyle still linger along the streets of this historic district. The Briggle home is an example.
George Engle and his brother built the Engle Bank at 100 S. Ridge St. in 1860. When the brothers grew weary of the banking business, they opened a saloon across the street and called it the Engle Brothers Billiard Parlor and Saloon. The saloon had a fireproof safe in the basement. The Engles gave their customers a choice between the bank vault and the saloon safe. Most chose the saloon.
The Engle brothers’ saloon eventually became the Breckenridge courthouse, built in 1909. The local Masonic lodge grand master mixed real gold into the building’s cement. The bank and the courthouse are featured on the walking tour. The courthouse lobby is not part of the tour but, if time permits, take a look inside. Nineteenth century photos and artifacts line the walls and fill the shelves.
George Engle’s brother-in-law, William Harrison Briggle, also worked at the Engle Bank. Briggle and his wife Katie, a music teacher, lived at 104 N. Harris St. The building was a simple log cabin when they purchased it in 1898. The Briggles added rooms and completely remodeled the cabin. Rumor has it that they painted their home green to represent money, and that they used devalued silver for the sidings of the house. The Briggle house is now a museum that offers a firsthand experience of the Victorian lifestyle.
As a working couple without children, the Briggles were wealthier than many Breckenridge residents. Their home contains well-preserved artifacts that indicate their comfortable lifestyle. Homes with closets, for example, had a higher tax assessment. The Briggles had three. Their kitchen stove, which doubled as an ironing board and a water heater for baths, has a built-in waffle iron on the stove range. The pantry features a sink, which receives water from an outside pump. There’s also a root cellar, which would have been filled with items such as hard-boiled eggs, root vegetables and potatoes.
The calling cards near the doorway indicate the Briggles’ prominent stance in society. Visitors placed these decorative cards in plates that were visible to all the Briggles’ guests. The cards functioned almost like friend pages on Facebook or network pages on LinkedIn. If a visiting wife believed that befriending another member of the Briggle network could benefit her husband’s career, she could ask Mrs. Briggle for an introduction.
The home next door to the Briggle house has a rather sad history. One Mr. Herkle built this 1893 home for his bride-to-be. It had two front doors, which proved to be efficient for weddings and funerals. For funerals, mourners could enter through one door, pass the casket and exit through the other door. For weddings, the honeymooners would use the second door to escape their guests. Sadly, Mr. Herkle’s fiance died before the wedding.
The house across from the Briggles at 314 Lincoln Ave. once belonged to a coal merchant named T.B. Thompson. Only the wealthy could afford coal for heating. Everyone else used wood for heating and cooking. Although Mr. Thompson’s prices were high, he had an altruistic nature. If a family could not afford coal, he would discreetly deliver it, free of charge. The Herkle and the coal merchant’s houses, while registered historic sites, are now private homes.
If You Go
The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance schedules guided Breckenridge walking tours, as well as lectures and occasional Victorian tea parties at the Briggle House. On Halloween, they convert the home into a haunted house, and guides dress as deceased characters from Breckenridge history. For information, contact the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767 or visit breckheritage.org.