History runs deep in Breckenridge with naming of local landmarks | SummitDaily.com

History runs deep in Breckenridge with naming of local landmarks

Anyone who has visited Breckenridge knows it’s a town steeped in history.

Long before it became an official town, miners, traders, mountain men and the Ute Native American tribe all made use of the land.

Today, people from all over visit Breckenridge to ski, shop, eat and explore while locals make the historic town their home. However, the historic roots of Breckenridge are not lost on those who come here.

The town is full of landmarks with names that reflect moments in history. From ski runs, streets, creeks and reservoirs to the name Breckenridge itself, the town pays homage to its past through myriad place names.

Town of Breckenridge

One of the most hotly disputed topics in the history of the town of Breckenridge relates to the name itself.

There are two stories that have emerged about the origin of the name Breckenridge. Some believe the town was named after Thomas Breckenridge, a member of the Fremont Expedition that crossed through the area in 1845, led by John C. Fremont. Others believe the town was originally named after John Cabell Breckinridge, with an “I,” the vice president to James Buchanan.

In the opinion of Bill Fountain, a local historian who has researched the naming of Breckenridge, the true story falls somewhere in the middle.

Thomas Breckenridge, pictured here, was one of two men who inspired the naming of the town. Ultimately, Breckenridge's name was favored over former Vice President John C. Breckinridge.
Photo from Bill Fountain

“When I started on this, I did searches in my documents to see the different spellings,” Fountain said. “Then I started pulling stuff over to help define what some of the stuff might be.”

Fountain started by looking at Thomas Breckenridge’s memoirs. In the memoirs, Fountain discovered that Thomas Breckenridge had gotten into a “skirmish” with a group of Ute Native Americans while on the Fremont Expedition in 1845.

While the memoirs didn’t tell the full story, Fountain later found something that did: An essay by then sixth grader Ella Foote. In her essay, Foote wrote about the Fremont Expedition, citing stories told to her by Charles Runyon, one of the members of the expedition. Runyon told Foote that the town was named after Thomas Breckenridge and explained the story that led to the naming.

In the course of the conflict with the Ute tribe, Thomas Breckenridge noticed one of the his mules was missing. Thinking it would take only two hours to find the mule, he set off on his own search, which ended up lasting two days, Fountain said. Eventually, Fremont sent Kit Carson and another man to find Thomas Breckenridge. When they found him in an area south of what is now the town of Breckenridge, they decided to name it “Breckenridge Pass.”

Fourteen years later, in 1859, Gen. George Spencer lead a party to the area in search of gold. There, he decided to establish the town, naming it Breckenridge after the pass that his party crossed to get there, Fountain said.

In an effort to ensure the town would be granted a post office, Spencer had the idea of changing the spelling to Breckinridge, with an “I,” in honor of the country’s then Vice President John C. Breckinridge. It worked, as the post office was established in 1860.

Breckenridge was once spelled Breckinridge in honor of former Vice President John C. Breckinridge.
Photo from Bill Fountain

In 1861, John C. Breckinridge was appointed as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army, a move that did not please the residents of the town. The residents at the time were from northern non-slave states and did not want to be associated with the former vice president.

“For the most part, what I have picked up is their loyalties were with the north and not with the south,” Fountain said. “When he jumped ship basically, they said, ‘To heck with that guy. We don’t want to be named after him.’ So they changed the ‘I’ to an ‘E.’”

Of the two men that influenced the naming of the town, Fountain believes that Thomas Breckenridge left more of a lasting legacy among its inhabitants.

“First of all, he came through the area in 1845,” he said. “The Breckenridge Pass was named after him and, therefore, the town.”

However, there is no proof that Thomas Breckenridge was part of the group that named the town, Fountain said. For all anyone knows, Breckenridge might have never visited his namesake town.

When engines propelling the Leslie Rotary Snowplow crested the summit of Boreas Pass, the plow's force blew open the railway depot doors, filling the waiting room and office with snow, to the stunned surprise of passengers and workers.
Photo from Mary Ellen Gilliland

Boreas Pass

It’s impossible to talk about the history behind the name Breckenridge without a discussion of Boreas Pass.

The mountain pass originally was named Breckenridge Pass and later inspired the naming of the town, but until recently, there were some doubts whether that actually was the case. In 2008, Fountain and another historian and author named Mary Ellen Gilliland ventured to Boreas Pass in search of the elusive Breckenridge Pass.

Fountain and Gilliland were positive Breckenridge Pass and Boreas Pass were two separate locations.

“We did not think at that time that Breckenridge Pass and Boreas Pass were the same. That never came up,” Fountain said. “But we knew that it was near Boreas Pass.”

Fountain found maps dating before 1882 that showed a Breckenridge Pass but no Boreas Pass, but all of the maps after 1882 only showed Boreas Pass. Fountain described the discovery as a “slam dunk.”

The name of the pass was ultimately changed by the managers of the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad, which went over the pass, Fountain discovered. The railroad chose the name “Boreas” after the Greek god of the north wind.

“I think the railroad should have never been allowed to change the name of the pass,” Fountain said. “They should have called their station house they had up there ‘Boreas Station House at Breckenridge Pass.’”

Men stand in a snow tunnel leading to Denver Hotel in Breckenridge in 1899.
Photo from Jane Dalziel Berger / Breckenridge Heritage Alliance archives

Sawmill Creek and Sawmill Reservoir

The story behind the naming of Sawmill Creek and Sawmill Reservoir is rather simple: The two bodies of water were named after a sawmill in the area.

The naming of the creek and reservoir represented a major industry in Breckenridge in the 19th century. Sawmills were everywhere, said Sandra Mather, a historian and author who has studied Breckenridge history.

“Lumber was needed for so many things that when they were able to get portable sawmills into the area, they just cut down everything in sight because they needed the lumber for such a variety of uses,” Mather said.

The people who lived in Breckenridge at the time used the lumber for houses, mine structures, buildings, wagons, fuel, flumes, water pipes, bridges and more, Mather said.

While the creek and reservoir are now places where people can enjoy the natural environment, people at the time were not concerned about the long-term effect of cutting down the area’s trees, she said.

“You have to think through the eyes of 1860 people, 1870, 1880: Environment was nothing. Mining was everything,” Mather said. “They were going to come in there. They were going to strip away the trees. They were going to strip away the soil. They were going to get down to the bedrock where the minerals were.”

It’s not uncommon to find places named after a landmark that is now long gone, Mather said. People often used other, more identifiable, landmarks to name creeks, rivers and other natural elements.

“That was common,” Mather said. “‘Up on the hill where the stream does this or up over there where Joe has his building.’ That’s how you went from places to places.”

It’s no doubt that Breckenridge’s history is reflected in the names of its landmarks. As time barrels forward, stories of miners, politicians, mountain men, adventurers and Native Americans will always linger in the town of Breckenridge.

Officers Gulch: A local mystery

While local historians have managed to discover the origins of many places in Breckenridge, some remain elusive.

Sandra Mather, a local author and historian who has studied Breckenridge, has worked hard to discover the story behind Officers Gulch.

“There is a story that there was a man named Mr. Officer in Leadville, who had a store of some sort in the Tenmile Canyon,” she said. “That was Officers Gulch where his store was.”

Mather said she’s looked at historic maps and hasn’t seen the store mentioned anywhere.

“I can’t find anything about it,” she said. “You’re not going to prove it unless (you found) somebody’s diary somewhere. That’s a mystery.”

Editor’s note: This story previously published in the winter 2020-21 edition of Explore Breckenridge & Summit County magazine.

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