c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins
Gold! Silver! Lead! Quartz! Copper! Zinc! Colorado’s newly arriving prospectors could shout any one of these symbolic words of fortune in 1858 and mean nearly the same place.
The Colorado Gold Rush is actually attributed to three Native Americans who passed through the territory on their way to the California goldfields. After failing to find fortune on their own two Cherokee men, Lewis Ralston and John Beck, had joined a gold party coming through Colorado. Somewhere in the vicinity of today’s Interstate 70 the men, along with a Delaware Indian named Fall Leaf, collected some gold dust. For some reason, however, the men chose not to stay in the area and the exact site of their discovery remains a mystery.
Before long, white men made the discovery of gold official. Their names were William Green Russell and John H. Gregory, the latter of which created the rush to Central City and the surrounding region. As the first official gold rush in Colorado, the area now traversed by Interstate 70 just 20 miles west of Denver boomed into one gigantic mining region in just a short time. With the formation of Boulder, Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties in November of 1861, a bucket full of towns sprang up all along the I-70 corridor. Their economies were based on any number of minerals while serving as supply towns, rest and railroad stops. By 1886, would-be prospectors could expect to visit a number of promising cities. There was gold at Alice, American City, Arrow, Central City, Gilson Gulch, Mountain City, Nevadaville and Yankee Hill.
More gold, but silver also, could be found in and around places like Brownsville, Empire and Idaho Springs, which also offered such modern day amenities of the time as eating houses, hotels and supplies. Other silver meccas included Caribou, Fall River, Freeland, Silver Creek, Silver Dale and Silver Plume. Silver Plume also contained lead deposits, as did the sinful city of Cardinal with its many saloons and brothels. Other minerals, including zinc and copper, could be found at Cardinal as well as the town of Hessie. And there were even more towns to choose from, such as the trading center of Apex, Baltimore, the milltown of Blackhawk, Georgetown, Gilpin, Lawson, Nederland, Ninety Four, Nugget and Rollinsville.
Despite being located in such close proximity and within about a 40 mile radius, these early towns that shaped Colorado were rough and tumble, varying in economy, services, morals and values. Their residents were a hardy bunch who risked everything to make their dreams come true in the Rocky Mountains. The number of stories to drift out of “them thar hills” are equal to or greater than the amount of mineral produced. And the history they left behind is more fascinating than anything one could imagine.
Today, most of the towns along the mineral belt are ghosts, but their importance has not been overshadowed. The picturesque towns and cities of Idaho Springs, Georgetown and Silver Plume, with off-shoots to Central City, Blackhawk, Rollinsville and Nederland, survive today as a tribute to Colorado=s heritage, as well as the gold and minerals that made it all possible.