c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
When John H. Gregory made the first gold discovery in the central mining belt on May 6, 1859, little did he know that Central City and other towns like it would soon be dotting the landscape. In fact, Central City and its surrounding “Richest Square Mile on Earth” grew to rival Denver, as well as any other city in Colorado’s mountains. In actuality, Central City sprang from the loins of nearby Mountain City, founded due to John Gregory’s discovery of gold in 1859. Rocky Mountain News publisher William Byers suggested the name of the new camp be tailored to its location in the center of the other gold camps. In October of 1869 the new town managed to have its post office moved from Mountain City; hence Central City was born. In time, Central City grew to be the county seat of Gilpin County and bigger than Denver, at least for a little while.
The mines around Central City produced half a billion dollars in minerals, mostly gold. Yarns of gold discoveries are still plentiful today, including the time Pat Casey struck it rich while digging a grave on Quartz Hill. Central City’s colorful citizens built their homes wherever they could find flat ground, whether it be in the bottom of the canyon or perched high on a mountainside. So closely situated were many homes that the joke around Central City was that “a fella can’t spit tobaccy juice out his front door without putting out the fire in his neighbor’s chimney.”
No doubt Central City was a wild mining town, but it was also a cultural center with much entertainment. The first theater was erected in 1861, with plenty of competition. The grand Teller House was built in 1872. A number celebrities passed through, including Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, midget General Tom Thumb, P.T. Barnum, and George Pullman, who liked the idea of miners folding their bunks into the walls in their tiny cabins to make extra space and incorporated the idea into his train cars. Ulysses S. Grant visited Central City both before and during his presidency, when he was treated to a walk over a silver-bricked sidewalk in front of the Teller House. In addition, U.S. senators Henry Teller, Jerome Chaffee and W.A. Clark came from Gregory Gulch, as did Colorado Senator Henry R. Wolcott.
The Colorado Central Railroad, which had reached Black Hawk in 1872, took several more years to reach Central City. Travel writer Isabella Bird, who visited Clear Creek Canyon in 1873, marveled at the narrow gauge tracks of the Colorado Central Railroad perched precariously along the canyon walls and called the railroad “a curiosity of engineering.”
In May 1874 a fire in the city’s Chinatown nearly wiped out Central City, causing $500,000 worth of damage. Most of the businesses burned, but the Teller House and five other commercial buildings survived. In the fire’s wake, the Belvedere Theater was built and Central City decided an Opera House was in order too. The Central City Opera House opened next to the Teller House in 1878. Performers there in the early days included Edwin Booth, Lotta Crabtee, Christine Nilsson, Madam Janauschek, Emma Abbott and California’s famous Helena Modjeska.
By 1887, Central’s population had climbed to 2,625. The figure may have included Mountain City, which was annexed to Central in 1880. During its heyday, Central City was said to have more than 5,000 people. By 1895 Central City boasted 20 saloons, including two breweries. In 1897, Ignatz Meyer took a building that had formerly housed restaurants, a funeral parlor, the post office and a newspaper and converted it into a saloon. The building later served as a grocery store before being purchased by Emmy Wilson in 1947 and called the Glory Hole. Emmy is best remembered for hanging through the a hole in the ceiling, thus allowing her patrons to gaze up her skirt. The Glory Hole still exists today.
Another landmark is the Gold Coin Saloon, also constructed in 1897. In more recent decades, the Gold Coin became known for bartender “Smiling Jack” Brown who would buy you a drink if you could make him smile (this author failed to do so during a visit in about 1989). In the 1970’s the campy film, “The Dutchess and the Dirtwater Fox” starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal, was filmed there.
Towns near Central City included American City, which in 1911 was the scene of at least one movie filmed by the Selig-Polyscope Picture Company of Chicago and starring leading lady Myrtle Stedman and actor Tom Mix. American City was part of the Pine Creek Mining District, whose headquarters were at the town of Apex a few miles away. Apex also had two hotels, the Palace Dance Hall, a newspaper, a school and no less than two churches. The Pine Creek District also supported mining camps like Elk Park, Twelve Mile, Kingston, South Kingston, Nugget, and its own Pine Creek.
Other towns around Central City included Black Hawk, Bortonsberg, Clifford, Eureka and Dogtown, Gregory Gulch with seven small mining camps, Mammoth City and Missouri Flats, which was absorbed by Central. There were also Springfield, Wide Awake and Yankee Bar. More important cities of the time included Russell Gulch, where William Green Russell made his second strike during the beginning of Colorado’s gold boom in 1859. Most of the gold at Russell Gulch was mined within just a few years, but mining activity continued for over two decades.
Another town was Nevadaville, one of Colorado’s oldest mining towns. Founded in 1859, the population soon numbered at over 1,000. A fire in 1861 did little to deter the town from growing; there were 6,000 people there in 1864. For a time Nevadaville was renamed Bald Mountain, but stubborn miners refused to acknowledge the post office’s change. Miners in particular enjoyed calling Nevadaville home. The town’s peak population was 1200 in the late 1890’s while Central City stayed steady with 3,114 souls in 1900.
As prohibition loomed on the horizon, Central City struggled to stay alive. Bootlegging became popular, especially around Russell Gulch. The last Colorado Central Train came through in 1931. Around that time, author Muriel Sybil Wolle recalled being the only guest of Senator Teller during her stay at the Teller House with its exquisite “Face on the Barroom Floor”. Later that year, former Governor John Evans’ daughter Anne purchased the Teller, restored it to its former glory, and operated it as part of the Central City Opera Association. The Opera House, which had closed some years before, reopened in 1932. Players have included have included Lillian Gish, Buffalo Bill Cody, Walter Huston, Henry Ward Beecher, Julia Harris, Mae West, Shirley Booth, Ruth Gordon, Helen Hayes, and George Gobel.
Even with the Opera House’s success, the city fell on such hard times that many homes in suburban Central City were demolished in order to avoid paying taxes on them. In 1970 the
population hit an all time low at 226. That figure had doubled by 2000, ten years after gambling was legalized in Central City and Blackhawk. The resident population still enjoys casino action, but also has a local grocery and other favorite hangouts.
Today, Mountain City also survives as a suburb of Central City. In its heyday, Mountain City was the subject of a riotous play at Central City’s Opera House, titled “Did You Ever Send Your Wife to Mountain City?” Today, the old town has found new life as a refuge for historic buildings that have been threatened with demolition in and around Blackhawk, Central City and other parts of the district.