c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine in 2006.
Cars whizzing up and down Interstate 70 in Colorado today just might miss Idaho Springs. They don’t know what they’re missing, for Idaho Springs offers history, taverns and restaurants (don’t miss Beau Jo’s Pizza), cool old hotels, museums, natural hot vapor caves and much, much more. The town also serves as the perfect hub while visiting numerous historic sites, not to mention slots and other games of chance in nearby Central City and Black Hawk.
In its very early days, Idaho Springs went by many other names: Idaho, Idahoe, Idaho Bar, Idaho City, Jackson Bar, Payne’s Bar and Sacramento. The earliest name was Jackson’s Diggings, so-called for 32-year old George Jackson’s gold discoveries along Chicago Creek in 1858. Jackson’s diggings coincided with the discovery of a natural hot springs at Idaho Springs, an attraction very much alive and well today.
During its stint as Idaho, the original town was established in 1860 and quickly grew to include thousands of residents. It was said that Idaho is an Indian word for “A Gem of the Rockies”. Within a year there was at least one saloon and gambling house, and two hotels including the Bebee House with its substantial menu, run by F.W. Bebee. There also were about 40 homes in town. The first post office, established in 1862, was a wooden box kept in the living room of Mrs. R.B. Griswold.
In time, the budding camp became so popular that the name Idaho was considered for the new name of Colorado Territory in 1876. The ploy didn’t work, since by then new discoveries in Virginia Canyon (known locally as Oh My God Road) above town had overshadowed the findings at Idaho. A toll road was built through Virginia Canyon to Central City, and Idaho Springs realized additional commerce by becoming a supply town.
In addition, the natural hot springs in town drew people for their health. Like much of Colorado, invalids, tuberculosis patients and tourists in general sought out the healing mineral springs at Idaho Springs. In 1863 Dr. E.S. Cummings erected the first bath house there. Although the early resort was only in use about three years, it was the first of many such spas to come. The year 1868 saw an even bigger bath house as stage coach service was made available to Idaho Springs. The following year, William Hunter built a large log theater and called it Rock Island House. Idaho Springs’ first newspaper premiered in 1873.
The Colorado Central Railroad reached town in 1877. The post office name was changed to Idaho Springs in April of that year, and the town incorporated in 1878. Eventually, Idaho Springs became County Seat of Clear Creek County and was considered an important town in the central mining belt. A Mining Exchange was built in 1879. Castle Eyrie, one of the town’s most prominent homes at 1828 Illinois Street, was completed in 1881, as well as the elite Club Hotel.
Idaho Springs had spent nearly twenty years building up a substantial reputation in Colorado. By 1885, however, the town’s population was inexplicably shrinking. Only 2,000 people were recorded there in 1887. The Placer Inn, now known as the Tommyknocker Brewery & Pub, was built in 1898. The gorgeous Buffalo Bar, still a mainstay of Idaho Springs, opened in 1899. Through 1900, the population was staying steady at 1,900 souls.
Idaho Springs remained unique in that it served many purposes. Vapor Caves, still in operation today, continued to make the place a popular health resort. Nearby mines and a smelter kept the town up with Colorado’s economy. Given its location, Idaho Springs also continued to serve as a supply town and final stopover before prospectors headed further west to Colorado’s goldfields – as well as broke miners returning East.
Lots of towns depended on Idaho Springs. Nearby Masonville was founded in 1859 and named for pioneer Alonzo Mason. Another town, called Ofer or Ophir City, was established in 1860. Spanish Bar, named for its Mexican miners, lasted for about a year beginning in 1860. The quartz camp of Freeland was established in 1880. That same year, Fall River with its mills and early silver discoveries popped up near the junction of Clear Creek. In 1884, Bonito with it Bullion Smelter appeared on maps. All of these places regarded Idaho Springs as the “big city” where supplies, comfortable hotels and restaurants could be found.
And there were more, such as the milling center that was first called Mill City and later Dumont. There were stage stops, such as Downeyville, and in time several railroad stops also materialized along the railroad running by Idaho Springs. They included the original stage stop of Floyd’s Hill. Fork’s Creek became a key railroad station with branches to both Black Hawk and Idaho Springs. There were even nearby resort towns, including Silver Creek for Denver socialites (one time, a formal dance was actually held underground in the newly excavated O’Connell Tunnel).
Other wide spots on the trails to Idaho Springs included the tiny camp of Bard Creek; Conqueror with its large boarding house; Empire and North Empire where lawyers were actually forbidden to practice by law; the braggart town of Gilson Gulch located between Idaho Springs and Central City; Lamartine high in the hills above town; Red Elephant, and Virginia City. Most of these towns no longer exist today, with the exception of Empire and its 1862 Peck House, Colorado’s oldest continuously operating hotel.
In 1892 the 5-mile long Argo Tunnel, originally named the Newhouse, was built from Idaho Springs to Central City. The cost was $10 million. Idaho Springs soon became a catch-all for surrounding towns that were dying out. Beginning about 1900, school children were brought in from the nearby town of Alice, which had experienced moderate success when the Alice Mine sold for $250,000 in 1897, but was quickly becoming a ghost. Nearby towns, such as Ninety Four (founded in 1894) and Silver City met a similar fate.
By 1949, due to Interstate 70 cutting directly through town, author Muriel Sybil Wolle claimed the population had swelled to 12,000. In 1958, Interstate 70 was redirected, but the change was hardly detrimental to Idaho Springs. By the 1970’s Idaho Springs’ many historic watering holes had become legendary. Some of them have gone to the wayside, but the town now offers everything from family dining to night life. Although parts of it have been paved, Virginia Canyon Road still offers a breathtaking trip to Central City. Idaho Springs has always, and remains, a perfect stop over for travelers heading east or west.