Discovering Tom’s Baby, the largest piece of gold ever found in Colorado
December 7, 2015
On July 23, 1887, Tom Groves and Harry Lytton struck it rich — they found the largest piece of gold ever discovered in Colorado, a record that stands to this day. The discovery happened in the Farncomb Hill area, outside of Breckenridge, and after finding the piece of irregular massive gold, Groves wrapped the 13 ½ pound hunk of glory in a blanket, parading it around Breckenridge — thus earning it the nickname of Tom's Baby.
There are two stories to the tale of Tom's Baby, according to local Rick Hague, a mining historian and member of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Summit Historical Society boards. The first story tells the tale of the discovery of Tom's Baby, the second — its re-discovery.
Groves and his partner Lytton were contract miners in the late 1800s. Contract miners did not own the land they were working on, but paid a royalty for their finds, usually around 25 percent of the gross. Farncomb Hill is an area that is a bit peculiar geologically, Hague said, and for that reason it's very famous amongst mineral collectors even today for its spectacular specimens of wire gold.
"Wire gold is very fine crystalline gold, very unusual — it sort of looks like a Brillo pad — it formed up in that area in underground cavities called vugs," Hague said. "These vugs initially were gas bubbles that occurred during the geological formation of that area. Over time, what happened was that fluids — very hot, high-pressured fluids — forced their way into these underground cavities and deposited mineralization. That's what caused this area to become famous, was they had these vugs, and fluids would come into the cavities underground. They wouldn't completely fill the cavities with solid material, they would deposit some of this wire gold on the surfaces of the cavity, and the rest of it would be empty."
Groves and Lytton were mining away one day underground — drilling and blasting their way through the area. They were most likely hand drilling, Hague said, with hand steels and heavy hammers. After blasting, they went back in to see what had happened, and they discovered in the remaining solid rock one of these types of cavities they had blasted into.
When they looked inside, the cavity was covered with crystal and gold.
"Understandably, they were ecstatic," Hague said. "We don't know precisely what happened, but in the bottom of this cavity was a great big chunk of gold, which originally weighed about 13 ½ pounds."
The trip to Breckenridge was a decent horseback ride or walk from the area they were at in Farncomb Hill, and the two were afraid of being robbed on their way into town.
"So Tom wrapped it in a blanket, put it in his jacket, and carried it like a baby — and that's where the name Tom's Baby came from," Hague said.
Once the two got into town, Groves paraded it around, and the piece became instantly well known.
"I've read a newspaper article that was written that Monday, the following Monday, and already they called it Tom's Baby, so that was early on," he said.
Tom's Baby was taken to an assayer, professionals who would take samples of rock, clean them up and put them through a series of tests to give the miner a certificate that would tell the miner how many pounds of lead or zinc, or ounces of silver per ton were in that sample.
The assayer's shop was located on what is now Ridge Street, currently home to Angel's Hollow restaurant. The problem was, the shop had a large plate glass window, and everybody was a little bit scared of people looking in and seeing this huge pile of gold. So they ended up taking it across the street to the assayer's house, which is now Moe's Original Bar B Que.
The assayer cleaned it up and put it in an acid solution to eat away all of the non-gold material, and weighed it. There is one account of a piece of Tom's Baby falling off — a small piece — during the process.
"That was the last time apparently the piece was seen as 13 ½ pounds," Hague said.
Groves and Lytton contacted the owner of the mine, a local man by the name of Ward who is very famous in local mining history circles. It is said that Tom's Baby was given to Ward, who had a partner down in Denver.
Presumably, Ward, Groves and Lytton made some sort of financial arrangement, where Ward got the specimen, paying the two miners the other 75 percent in cash. Ward took possession of Tom's Baby, with plans of shipping it to his partner in Denver. The last time it was seen was when he handed the gold to the conductor on the train that went out on the narrow gauge to Denver — and then it disappeared.
THE RE-DISCOVERY OF TOM'S BABY
Around 1900, there was a group of people trying to organize what eventually became the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The collections of two Breckenridge folks, Edwin Carter, a naturalist, and John F. Campion, a famous gold specimen collector, were added to the museum, which opened in 1916. Tom's Baby was not found in either collection.
In those days, it was very common to hold large world fairs, and in these fairs, one of the features was exhibits of gold and silver specimens from the West.
"It was a matter of prestige to get it exhibited in one of these things," Hague said.
The most famous one was Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and interestingly enough, Tom's Baby didn't show up in any of these exhibits.
"It is the largest mass of gold ever found in Colorado — it should have been in any number of these exhibits but it was not," he said.
Fast-forward to the late 1960s, early 1970s, and a local pastor of the Father Dyer Church in Breckenridge, Mark Fiester, was writing a book he called "Blasted Beloved Breckenridge." He made it his mission in writing this book to find out what happened to Tom's Baby.
He did a tremendous amount of research, and in 1972, he discovered Tom's Baby in a bank vault in Denver, owned by the Museum of Natural History, now known as the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
"It was in a wooden box, off in a corner buried by a bunch of other stuff, labeled 'dinosaur bones,'" Hague said. "They pull it out — sure enough there is Tom's Baby."
They had found a large mass of gold, and everyone assumed it had to be Tom's Baby, but they couldn't be sure, as no photographs had been taken of the original specimen. Officials managed to find Ward's daughter, who verified it was indeed Tom's Baby. Hague points out that Ward's daughter saw the gold in 1887, and it was now 1972 — "if you had seem something as a child would you remember it at 80 years old?" The piece they found weighed approximately 10 ½ pounds.
"So it's always been a little bit of a mystery what happened to other three pounds," he said.
Fiester found a couple of other pieces that look like they may have come off of Tom's Baby, but had no way to verify it, and those pieces may very well be in the Museum of Nature & Science, Hague said.
Tom's Baby is now housed safe and sound in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and can be viewed behind a thick glass case today.