Copyright 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins. Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine in 2006.
Blackhawk has been called the “Mill City of the Rockies”, earning its nickname from an early mill. The Black Hawk Quartz Mill was built in 1860 by a company in Illinois, and was allegedly named for an Indian leader from the Sauk and Fox tribes from that state, as well as Wisconsin. Colorado was just a territory, and from 1862 to 1871, Black Hawk was known to the post office as Black Hawk Point.
By 1863, Black Hawk Point featured a fine Presbyterian church, a school and at least nine hotels, including one later owned by silver king H.A.W. Tabor. One of Colorado Territory’s first cemeteries was located on Dory Hill. Both Black Hawk and Central City were incorporated on March 11, 1864. In its early years, however, Black Hawk was fraught with struggles to survive, despite some 13 saloons and three breweries. The town received a reprieve in the form of Nathaniel P. Hill, who built the town’s first smelter. Completed in 1867, the Boston and Colorado Smelting Works utilized a new process from Wales that melted gold ore. By Hill’s actions, Black Hawk Point’s dwindling population sprang back to life. In appreciation, a town near Silver Plume, located along today’s Interstate 70, was named for Hill.
Over 25 smelters and mills proved to be Black Hawk Point’s mainstay throughout its early life. Since a number of mines surrounded the city, it was logical enough for the town to become a refining center in the middle of what locals called “The Little Kingdom of Gilpin”, which included many mines and mining camps. In time, upwards of 60 refineries lined the two-mile stretch along Black Hawk Point’s narrow canyon. Their employees made their homes along Main Street, Gregory Street and Chase Gulch.
In 1871 the post office dropped the “Point”, shortening the name to Black Hawk. Soon there were 2,000 people calling the place home. Amenities included a skating rink, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, two banks, two theatres, four clothing stores and a good number of saloons. It was a gritty little town whose laws closely followed the code of the West. An ordinance against shooting proclaimed that “Any person shooting…another, except in self defense, shall be fined $500 and receive as many stripes on his bare back as a jury of six may direct.” Weekends featured dances for local miners and included entertainment by area prostitutes.
The Colorado Central Railroad reached Black Hawk in 1872, and a two-mile long switchback railroad was built over Bob Tail Hill to Central City. Central was only a mile away, but 540′ higher in altitude. Due to the rough terrain and steep climb, the railroad cost an amazing $65,000 by the time it was finished in 1878. Black Hawk also weathered a diptheria epidemic in 1879, but managed to prevail. J.E. Scobey’s Billiard Saloon, known as the Knight of Pythias Hall after 1885, was located where Bullwhacker’s Casino now is. In 1886, J.H. Phillip Rohling opened the “largest dry goods store in the county.” The National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco, also got its start in Black Hawk. W.L. Douglas, a local shoemaker, was later elected Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. There were also no less than three newspapers in Black Hawk, some of which were said to publish from the Gilpin Hotel. By 1887 Black Hawk had settled its transportation problems once and for all by constructing the Gilpin Tram, a miniature railroad that reached not only Central City, but also the farther out communities of Nevadaville and Russell Gulch. The Tram was in use until 1917.
In 1895, postal authorities once more downsized the name of Black Hawk to just one word. For some time by then, Blackhawk had been victim to the occasional flood due to its close proximity to Clear Creek. The worst of the floods happened on July 30, 1895. In the aftermath, the town raised $32,000 to build a rock flume, or water ditch, to prevent further flooding. Five years later the population hung steady at 1,200. Miners were enjoying their libations at places like Tom Crook’s Palace, a rock-walled saloon that allegedly had been dismantled and brought by wagon from Missouri and once the alleged favored drinking spot of Jessie James.
There were lots of towns surrounding Blackhawk, including the railroad stop of Cottonwood, Hughesville with its Hard Money Mine; Lake Gulch with its famous hermit who lived between there and Caribou before dying in 1944; the railroad stop of Smith Hill, and Yankee Bar above town. During prohibition, bootleggers ran amuck and at least one of their cabins remains standing today in Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
Time marched on, however, and in 1941 the last Colorado Central train left Blackhawk. The town melded into a fun and easily accessible tourist spot along State Highway 119. It was also home to the only gas station in Gilpin County for literally decades. The post office closed in 1950. Only 227 people lived there in 1990, but in 1991, the post office reopened when gambling was legalized at Blackhawk. Today, Blackhawk offers some of the best gaming money can buy, with modern casinos mixed among several historic buildings that include the 1863 Lace House. Photo courtesy of the City of Blackhawk website.