In Breckenridge, dredging up the past is as important as opening new terrain
Ryan Summerlin November 11, 2015
Unlike build-from-scratch resort communities such as Vail, Breckenridge wears its history on its parka sleeve. Its visitors are just as likely to check out a mining ruin as a ski run.
Larissa O’Neil, Breckenridge Heritage Alliance executive director, said visitor numbers to historic sites have been steadily increasing every year.
“This history really defines Breckenridge,” she said. “It sets us apart from other communities. There’s definitely interest in the history we have, so the town and the Heritage Alliance are invested in putting resources into that.”
The town is at work on two large-scale restoration and preservation projects showcasing its mining history: Wakefield Sawmill, located on Boreas Pass Road, and the Reiling Dredge near French Gulch in the Golden Horseshoe area. The projects are provoking fresh conversation, as competing ideas on the future of historic preservation in Breckenridge rise to the surface.
The Wakefield Sawmill was built in 1938 by Marion Wakefield and operated until the fall of 1959. The proposed plan will be a recreation of what would have been on site at the time.
“Sawmills were a really vital part of all Western frontier towns,” O’Neil said. “They are unheralded and an often-forgotten part of our history.”
O’Neil said sawmills were responsible for an increase in industrial development; they were vital in the construction of commercial buildings, mine structures and homes from material other than logs. The Heritage Alliance plans to restore the Wakefield site as a hands-on historical exhibit.
The project includes reconstructing the original sawmill, covering it with a shelter and installing interpretive outdoor signs. O’Neil said they currently have about $100,000 in funding, mostly from the town, to use on this part of the project.
The town owns the property, but Jay Monroe, who has owned the neighboring parcel since the ’80s, said he is concerned about the scope of the project. The site is also the entrance to his property.
“The project has grown and instead of being something that would be visited by bicycle with a no parking zone, it became something visited by cars,” he said. “Then it was much more elaborate, with a proposed widening of the road, paving for parking … it’s more of a substantial undertaking.”
The key points of difference between town staff and Monroe are winter maintenance responsibilities, driveway design and the visibility of the display.
At the Nov. 12 town council meeting, Chris Kulick, open space and trails planner, presented plans for the site, including six new short-term paved parking spots. The sawmill covering, he said, would stick with the historic look, while being built to last.
“The design is minimal and simple,” he said. “It needs to be there to protect the investment.”
Council members expressed a desire to leave the entrance and parking area unpaved, keeping it in line with the look of other historic sites.
“I’d prefer a more rustic approach,” said Mayor John Warner. “I don’t want it to have a Disneyland look.”
There are also concerns about nearby wetlands to take into account. Kulick said paving would eliminate any risk of plowing debris into the wetlands.
In May 2013 the town council annexed the Wakefield parcel in preparation for the sawmill restoration project. Plans are for the project to go through planning approval this winter, with construction in summer 2014 and the opening in 2015.
“It will definitely take time to acquire all of the pieces,” O’Neil said. “These kinds of exhibits are not that common; there are very few in the western United States.”
“As a low-impact addition to the city I think it’s fine,” Monroe said. “I’m not quite sure how historic it is; nonetheless, it’s a nice accoutrement for the city. We have always supported access across the property and (are) looking forward to working with the town.”
Built in 1908, the Reiling Gold Dredge was the eighth dredge used to mine gold-bearing ground in the Breckenridge area. Until 1922, when it sank in a small pond in French Gulch, the dredge moved up and down French Creek extracting gold from the bedrock. Still in its final resting spot, the dredge underwent a preservation assessment in 2008 and 2009.
The next step is a preservation master plan, which is being developed by the town of Breckenridge, the Heritage Alliance and Summit County, with funding provided in part by the State Historical Fund.
The Engage Breckenridge website has a survey, which is available until Nov. 19, asking residents what they would like to see done with the site, what activities they use the area for and what amenities they would like to see added.
Jeff Cospolich, Great Western Lodging general manager, wrote on the site that he mostly supported restoring the dredge.
“I am all about restoring it, within reason,” he wrote. “If the State Historical Fund will only give us funding if a large portion of French Gulch is changed, I am not in favor.”
A few residents commented they didn’t even know where the dredge was located. O’Neil said they are considering what kind of preservation should be done to the dredge, ranging from leaving it entirely alone to eventually deteriorate to partial restoration. The proposed budget would be included as part of the master plan.
“The dredge is a really unique resource as it’s rare to have only a partially submerged structure at 10,000 feet,” O’Neil said. “It’s really rare we still have one intact, even though it looks like a pile of lumber. In terms of historic preservation … the dredge is possibly the best example in all of North America of this type that still exists.”
Phil C. said he thought the town should spend tax money elsewhere.
“The Reiling dredge is fine like it is and deserves to rot away as a relic of a short-sighted and destructive era in Breckenridge history,” he wrote.
Dredge boats turned the riverbed upside down. As the riverbed and bedrock below were dredged up to the surface, the fine soils of the river bottom were either sent to the depths below or deposited downstream as sediment. As a result, riverbanks were destroyed and few historic buildings survived on the west side of the Blue River.
“Create a museum of dredge mining somewhere more accessible to the public,” wrote Leigh G. on Engage Breckenridge. “Seeing an accurate scale of the destruction caused by the dredge boats will be far more informative and educational than trying to resurrect this one decrepit old boat.”
A number of residents commented in support of preserving the dredge. Maryann R. said she supported a higher level of preservation.
“It is our opportunity and our responsibility to pass on the story without bias,” she wrote. “We should embrace this opportunity and allow future generations to see and learn about our history for themselves.”
The Heritage Alliance’s O’Neil said the group wants to “get a general feeling if this is something worth saving. From my perspective, it’s a special enough historic resource to do what we can to keep what’s there.”
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