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Colorado Historical Society signs located at pulloff on US-6 outside Central City and Black Hawk, installed 2001


Until 1859 gold existed mainly in rumor in Colorado—but it was a persistent rumor, dating back to the 1500s. Rumor became reality for thousands of doubters when, in a series of significant strikes beginning with George Jackson’s discovery near present-day Idaho Springs in January, miners began to find bona fide lodes—not just a sackfuls of dust, but vast fortunes. Though not the first strike, John Gregory’s find near present-day Central City in May brought thousands of miners up Clear Creek Canyon who had begun to dismiss the rumor as a hoax. The Jackson and Gregory discoveries, among others, marked the beginning of the real gold rush, bringing tens of thousands of settlers to Colorado. John Gregory was not among them, however; unsettled by fame and fortune, he sold his claim in 1862 for $21,000 and vanished from history. His lode eventually produced $200 million worth of gold.


Finding Colorado’s gold was one thing; extracting it profitably was another problem entirely. Most of it was locked up in maddeningly complex ores, and there existed no efficient, cost-effective means of distilling out the paydirt. Not, that is, until 1867, when a professor named Nathaniel P. Hill perfected smelting. Adapting a Welsh mining process, Hill used high heat and pressure to draw out the precious metals. His innovation threw open the West’s mineral vaults and launched the era of industrial-scale, hard-rock mining; it also established Colorado as America’s nineteenth-century ore-processing center. Mines throughout the West shipped their output here—first to Hill’s Boston and Colorado Smelter (which opened at Black Hawk in 1868), later to massive refining complexes in Denver, Leadville, and Pueblo. Hill eventually became Colorado’s third U.S. senator—and smelting emerged as one of the state’s most important industries.

Images found on this panel:

Photo: Family portrait, Nathaniel P. Hill
Nathaniel P. Hill surrounded by, clockwise, his wife, Alice, and their three children Crawford, Isabel, and Gertrude, c1876.
Photo Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Photo: Smelter workers sitting near machinery
Smelting provided thousands of jobs and brought a skilled population of workers and technicians to the state, like these men taking a break near an ore-crusher at the Colorado and Ohio Smelting and Refining Company at Salida, Colorado, in the early 1900s.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library

Painting: John Gregory portrait
Though John Gregory struck his “mother lode” in Clear Creek Canyon, the dream of every 59’er, the fame he earned for his strike far exceeded his fortune—John Gregory sold his claim for a mere $21,000 before he left Colorado for good.
Photo Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Photo: Gregory Gulch
The Gregory Diggings in the early 20th century. The spot where John Gregory made his historic strike, in the right mid-ground, had by this date been gouged from the hillside and sifted for gold by eager miners. A Colorado Central engine—the first line to penetrate the central Rockies—chugs uphill at the upper rim of the gulch.
Photo Courtesy of the Courtesy Denver Public Library

Photo: Gold Dredge
Placer mining returned to Clear Creek Canyon in the 1930s when large dredges like this one created huge gravel piles while sifting streambeds for gold. Dredging stopped in the area at the outset of WWII, though, and has not returned since its brief heyday.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library


Colorado Central Railroad
As you drive along this stretch of U.S. 6, you are often traveling on the former bed of the Colorado Central Railroad, the first line to build tracks into Colorado's Rocky Mountains. Its route from Golden to Black Hawk opened in 1872, providing what was then Colorado’s richest gold district with rapid, cheap, high-capacity freight service. By decade’s end the CCRR stretched beyond Silver Plume (25 miles west of here) and eastward to prairie ranches and farms, integrating the disparate parts of Colorado’s young economy. It also carried day-trippers from Denver to view the scenic wonders of the canyon, to picnics in the mountains, and to the dance pavilion at Beaver Brook (two miles east of here). The line stayed busy until the 1920s, when dwindling mine yields and increased auto traffic sent railroading into decline. The last train to Black Hawk ran in 1941.

Clara Brown

Unlike most of Colorado’s gold-rush pioneers, Clara Brown had already reaped her bonanza—freedom, which she purchased from her Kentucky slavemaster for $120 in 1856. She reached Central City in 1860 at fifty-plus years of age, set up shop as a laundress, saved enough to invest in some mining claims, and quickly became a prosperous woman. But she shared her wealth freely, spending much of it to build churches and schools, aid the destitute, and help ex-slaves establish new lives in Colorado. More dedicated to philanthropy than to business, she gave away most of her fortune; bad luck and economic downturns claimed the remainder, leaving Clara Brown broke and living on a pension. The former slave died penniless in 1885. But few Coloradans bequeathed a richer legacy.

Images found on this panel:

Photo: Portrait of Clara Brown
Clara Brown, taken between 1875 and 1880 at about age 70. Born a slave, this businesswoman was the first African American inductee into the Society of Colorado Pioneers.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library

Photo: Forks of Clear Creek, refreshment stand
Fork Creek Depot, around 1900. At Fork Creek (once located at the junction of CO 119 approximately two miles west of here) passengers could buy a picnic hamper loaded with chicken, ham, eggs, pickles, and pie.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library

Photo: Georgetown Loop
The scenic Georgetown Loop, in the 1880s. Here, the road crossed over itself to make a steep grade: an engineering marvel.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library

Photo: Railroad trestle over Black Hawk
Builders took six years, from 1872 to 1878, to finally connect Black Hawk and Central City with rails—including a 229-foot long downtown trestle that cut across Black Hawk’s main street at roof level.
Photo Courtesy of the Denver Public Library


Between two and three hundred Chinese immigrants settled near Central City in the 1870s, forming the state’s second-largest Chinese community (behind Denver). Most were former railroad construction workers who moved here in search of better prospects. But then, prospects for Chinese in the West were always limited by language barriers, discriminatory laws, and outright racism. Chinese mine workers in Central City earned lower wages than European immigrants did, and their only opportunities to mine for themselves were on leased claims that others had given up for dead. Yet they made those claims pay. This pattern repeated itself throughout the state: Chinese made the most of less-than-ideal circumstances, carving out livings as laborers, miners, and entrepreneurs—and doing much of the hard work involved in building Colorado. Though most of the early Chinese settlers eventually left, the descendants of those who remained welcomed new Chinese and other Asian immigrants to the state, particularly in the late twentieth century.

Chin Lin Sou

“To his memory is due much respect, for he was a true pioneer.”
—Chin Lin Sou obituary, Rocky Mountain News, August 13, 1894

Few Coloradans bridged the gap between Chinese and American culture as successfully as Chin Lin Sou. A native of southeastern China, he came to Colorado via California, arriving here in 1870 to supervise construction crews for the Denver Pacific Railroad. After migrating to Central City to manage Chinese mine laborers, Chin began operating mines of his own (on claims leased from white owners), and he soon acquired interests in other mountain towns and in Denver. His success created many opportunities for the Chinese community, but Chin also reached across racial boundaries to forge friendships and ties with white businessmen. Although a federal law stripped him (and all Chinese) of U.S. citizenship in 1882, Chin remained an esteemed Colorado resident until his death in 1894. Marchers carried both the Chinese and U.S. flags in his funeral procession.

Images found on this panel:

Photo: Portrait of Chin Lin Sou
Chin Lin Sou (date unknown though probably here in the 1880s), an early Colorado settler and entrepreneur.
Colorado Historical Society

Photo: Chinese placer miners
Chinese placer miners in the late 1800s. Although many of the Chinese in America came from farming or urban backgrounds, they became superior miners by working long hours, running tightly-organized operations, improving existing tools, and working patiently to recover as much gold as possible.
Photo Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society

Photo: Denver anti-Chinese riot, 1880
Although many of the Chinese were able to create a relatively stable and peaceful existence in the mining camps and in Denver, prejudice was always present and ready to boil over into acts of racial violence. Bad feelings culminated in a riot in Denver’s Chinatown on Halloween, 1880.
Photo Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society


Regional map with the following text:

Scenic Byway Logo

Established in 1918, the Peak to Peak Scenic and Historic Byway, is Colorado’s oldest scenic byway. The fifty-five mile route offers matchless views of the Continental Divide, and access to trailheads, ghost towns, and national parks and forests.

The Mount Evans Scenic and Historic Byway climbs more than 7,000 feet in just twenty-eight miles. At a peak elevation of 14,264 feet, visitors have a stunning view of the Front Range and might possibly catch a glimpse of Colorado’s state animal—the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. (The summit is only open Memorial Day through Labor Day.)

Winding through old logging and mining areas, the Guanella Pass Scenic and Historic Byway takes travelers through a variety of Colorado ecosystems. The lower elevations are thick with spruce, fir, and aspen trees. Higher up the road runs through broad meadows, until it crests well above timberline.

Other Attractions

A major gold discovery in Central City/Black Hawk in May 1859 forever changed the future of Colorado. Today, this National Historic Landmark District offers visitors ample opportunity to explore the region’s past. The Gilpin County Historical Society operates three museums in Central City: the Gilpin History Museum, the Thomas House, and the Coeur d’Alene Mine Shaft House. The Central City Opera House, opened in 1878, still plays host to a summer season of operatic performances. Visit the Harvey House and the Teller House, historic homes on the National Historic Registry, for a glimpse into the lives of the city’s well-heeled residents. Just northeast of Black Hawk, in Golden Gate Canton State Park, Frazer’s Barn and the Bootleggers’ Cabin offer glimpses into the frontier past of Gilpin County. In Black Hawk, the Lace House offers and example of the Victorian architecture popular among that town’s residents in the nineteenth century. Central City/Black Hawk also offers limited stakes gambling and other casino-oriented entertainment for visitors.

To the South of Clear Creek Canyon, Idaho Springs, the site of George A. Jackson’s January 1859 gold strike, a thriving gold camp, and now a National Historic District, saw its population jump to 12,000 during the 1860s. It was also a smelting center and by 1903 thirty-one treatment plants dotted the area. After the 1870s, visitors came to soak in the mineral hot springs whose water also was bottled and sold across the country. Today, the Argo Gold Mill, Mine and Museum, the Edgar Mine, the Heritage Center Museum, and the Underhill Museum interpret Idaho Springs mining and frontier history for visitors.

The Georgetown-Silver Plume National Landmark Historic District, southwest of Clear Creek Canyon, has four major components—Georgetown, the Georgetown Loop, Silver Plume, and the surrounding landscape dotted with mine dumps and old structures. In Georgetown visit the Hamill House, the Hotel de Paris, and the Georgetown Energy Museum. Visit the Lebanon Mine Complex as part of a Loop tour, or stop by the George Rowe Museum in Silver Plume.

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