Tag Archives: Idaho Springs Colorado

Idaho Springs, Colorado: Always on the Main Trail

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.

A Quick Look at Colorado’s Central Mining Belt

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.

The Gregory Diggings in 1859, as portrayed in Crofutt's Gripsack Guide to Colorado

The Gregory Diggings in 1859, as portrayed in Crofutt’s Gripsack Guide to Colorado