Monthly Archives: January 2014

Blackhawk Sports Early Colorado History

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.Image Photo courtesy of the City of Blackhawk website.

Victorian Vacations in Arizona: Trains, No Planes, No Automobiles

C 2013 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette Winter 2013 issue 

Picture packing a trunk with your personal belongings and toiletries, heaving it into the back of a wagon pulled by horses, and making the rather bumpy and precarious trip to the nearest train depot. There, after purchasing a ticket to your destination, you and your trunk waited—sometimes minutes, sometimes hours, or perhaps an entire day—to catch sight of that large steam locomotive arriving to take you to a far away land. Your trunk was loaded into the baggage car as you stepped into the long corridor of a passenger car with plush but small seats facing one another. Your seatmates would become virtual room mates for the trip, struggling alongside you to make ample foot room and maintain some sort of polite conversation. A whistle, a blow from the smokestack, a lurching jerk, and you were on your way.

This primitive mode of transportation was the best folks of the 19th century could expect, but it was all they had. Prior to that, only wagons and horses provided any type of escape from what was often a dreary existence at home. But trains gave a viable opportunity to travel long distances in relative comfort. Those who could afford a ticket relished the idea of visiting far away lands and meeting other people. Worries were forgotten in the anticipation of seeing something new.

It was not until 1877 that the first tracks, those of the Southern Pacific Railroad, were laid in southern Arizona. Folks must have marveled that just a few years prior, pioneers relied on lengthy and dangerous trips via wagon trips to get anywhere. At least some of those early travelers had in fact been surveyors sent West, specifically to explore and map the Territory for the coming of the rails. The Southern Pacific, combined with the coming of the Atlantic & Pacific to northern Arizona in 1881, was a dream come true. Although construction was indeed slow, by 1883 one could catch a train to California, New Mexico or Texas and beyond.

Still, train travel was slow by today’s standards. It could take days or weeks to get anywhere, and unless you could afford to eat in the dining car (if they had one), your meals came out of a box you brought along (Comedian Groucho Marx recalled munching on the sandwiches and hard boiled eggs his mother sent along in a shoebox for his first trip out West) . And unless you could also afford to bunk in one of George Pullman’s famous sleeping cars, the trek would be made in one of those uncomfortable seats.

The standard weekend and even week-long vacations we have come to know would have seemed a silly waste of time. The cost of riding a train could vary from fifty cents to several dollars; therefore it made sense to get the most out of the trip by staying a month or more at your destination. In some of the larger towns, your best hope was to rent a private home whilst the “landlord” and their family lived in a smaller house out back and worked as your servants. Although they are often referred to now as “mother-in-law” cottages, such places can still be spotted in older historic neighborhoods.

Obviously, only the wealthier class could afford such a trip.  Even those who could spring for a vacation by rail faced other potential dangers along the way. Opening the window for fresh air was out of the question, lest cinders or smoke drift in from the front of the train. The tracks, laid over rough and barren terrain, could become unstable and cause a derailment with the potential for injury or fatalities. Bridges could be washed out by flash floods, also a great concern. Or, the train could be robbed by bad guys who might demand cash and jewelry from passengers at gunpoint.

Was it worth the risk? You bet, because at the end of the track lay a vast ocean to enjoy, or perhaps a luxury hotel, or some sort of theater or other cultural delight. Besides, by 1900 train travel and ticket prices had improved enough to merit quick trips between towns. Day trips also became increasingly available. By the early 1900’s tourists could easily take the Grand Canyon Railroad, the train from Adamana to the Petrified Forest, the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix and many other lines to visit their favorite attractions.

By the time Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, an amazing 1,678 miles of track had been laid. The number had increased to 2,524 miles by 1930, but by then train travel was quickly being replaced by the likes of automobiles and even airplanes. Today Amtrak reigns as the number one passenger railroad in America. The accommodations are only slightly improved, but the days of true train travel are now of a bygone era.