Summit County mining history runs deep after prospectors first struck gold near Breckenridge in 1859
The year was 1859, two years before Colorado became a territory and 17 before recognition as a state. The Pikes Peak gold rush, sparked by gold discoveries the year prior in the area now known as Denver and the Front Range, led more than a 100,000 prospectors to flood western Kansas territory. These adventurers and fortune-seekers had made a mad dash across a wild country with nothing but a dream to keep them going.
But many of these prospectors found that the claims in and around the Denver area were highly exaggerated. They had expected a gold bonanza like the one a decade earlier in California, one that would change their personal fortunes overnight. Instead, the little gold near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River already had been staked out.
Many of those who came out for the Front Range gold started turning back. Some kept going west to get to California. But a few looked at the mountains standing nearby and saw opportunity, not just massive snow-covered rocks that stood in the way of it.
These were men like Ruben J. Spaulding, Daniel Conner and Felix Poznansky, who each might have a valid claim to being the first to prospect in the Blue River Valley. They all braved the rough, dangerous journey southwest from Denver, through South Park and Middle Park, over the Hoosier Ridge and down into the Blue River Valley, then part of Utah territory.
Local historians Mary Ellen Gilliland and Bill Fountain did deep digging to find lost and buried letters and records that had Conner, Spaulding and Poznansky all claiming gold on the Blue River in the spring and summer of 1859.
Regardless of who could claim the title of first to work the site, Spaulding’s gold strike Aug. 10, 1859, at what is now the Kingdom Park Court mobile home park at 847 Airport Road, was recognized as the “discovery claim” that led to the creation of the first mining districts on the Blue River: Pollard District at the south end of what is now the town of Breckenridge, Independent District in the middle and Spaulding District to the north.
With Spaulding’s strike came the first development in the area. Work began to bend the ferocious Blue River to human will, making it easier to get at the unusually lustrous gold at the bottom. Fearing attacks from Ute Indians a few miles south on the Blue — fears that never came to fruition — Spaulding District miners, under the leadership of Gen. George E. Spencer, established a fort in which to winter.
Thanks to the work of local researchers, including Fountain, it was discovered the fort, Fort Mary B, stood at a place many Breckenridge residents are very familiar with today: the City Market at 400 North Parkway.
The fort gave Spencer the notion that the mining districts in the area needed to be officially recognized as a town, the first west of the Continental Divide on the Western Slope. In August 1859, he started planning a town site. The town was initially planned to be near where the fort was, but Spencer later changed his mind to make it a bit farther south down the Blue. That leads to the very interesting story of how Breckenridge was born.
Spencer’s vision for the site looked to be foiled when he found that Poznansky, one of the first miners in the area who had wintered at the fort, already had claimed the land for a ranch. Poznansky, a Polish immigrant, and the other miners who made up the Independent District intended to create their own town site at that location and name it Independent.
There was then a chance, fateful encounter between Spencer and Poznansky atop the Continental Divide. The two were heading in opposite directions: Spencer on his way down to the Blue to claim the township site and Poznansky on his way to Tarryall, now a ghost town, to get supplies.
Spencer accused Poznansky of jumping his town site. When Poznansky countered that Spencer had said he would make his town at the fort, Spencer said he had changed his mind and wanted it further south on the Blue.
Regardless of Poznansky’s claim to the land, Spencer said he was on his way toward the Blue to take the town site by way of “first improvement.” Federal law at the time permitted town ownership rights and 320 acres to divide into lots for pioneers who built a structural improvement on the land at least eight logs high.
Poznansky was in a fine bind. If he couldn’t find a way to build an improvement on the land by morning, he’d lose his lucrative township opportunity.
Poznansky went on to Tarryall and hatched a wild scheme with associates. A friend of his, William A. Smith, went out in the pitch-black at 11 p.m. with snowshoes and trekked as fast as he could to deliver a letter to the ranch. By dawn’s light, he had managed to reach the Blue and get word to Poznansky’s son that they needed to build an improvement on the land before Spencer, who was just miles away, could make it first.
At 10 a.m., when Spencer arrived at the town site, he stumbled upon Poznansky’s men, who had built a log house eight logs high on top of six feet of snow mere hours after they had started. Against all odds, they had built the first improvement. The game seemed to be up, and Independent would be the first town.
“Stop, boys. I’m done,” Spencer was quoted as telling the men when he arrived at the site while they were still working.
Except the wily and well-connected Spencer wasn’t done, not even close to it. He hatched his own scheme, later approaching Poznansky’s mining partners at the Independent district with a proposal.
Spencer said he would do the expensive and extensive surveying work that was needed to officially create the town site at the location he coveted. In exchange, the miners — with the exception of his rival Poznansky — would each be given one of 12 choice lots at the town site, while Spencer kept the rest of the land.
The Independent miners acquiesced, cut a deal with Spencer and cut Poznansky out. Poznansky accepted that he won the battle and lost the war. The town of Independent never came to be, and the town of Breckenridge was conceived.
(Re)naming a town
The naming of the town of Breckenridge also has a bit of a roundabout history, Fountain found. After poring over many records, he came to what he believes to be the most likely origin story.
Spencer had initially named Breckenridge after the Breckenridge Pass his party crossed over on the way into the Blue River Valley. The pass was named in 1845 for hapless explorer Thomas E. Breckenridge, who lost his mule and went searching for it for two days before returning to his party. The party’s leader, Gen. John C. Fremont, named the pass after Breckenridge to recognize the crazy tale and Breckenridge’s misfortune.
As it turned out, the name was very similar to the name of a very important person: U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, with an “i.”
As with the naming of many frontier towns at the time, Spencer tried to use flattery to lure a bigwig into building something there. Spencer knew the high need for a post office, then the only reliable way to send correspondence anywhere in the country.
Taking advice from politico friends, he changed one letter and named the town Breckinridge when it was formally established in November 1859. Then he got word to the vice president about the town being named in his honor. The ploy worked. On Jan. 18, 1860, Breckinridge got a post office, with Gen. Spencer as its first postmaster.
But Breckinridge had clay feet. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president in fall 1860, southern states seceded to form the Confederacy. John C. Breckinridge turned rebel, becoming a general in the Confederate army.
The settlers of the new mining town, people who were still very much loyal to the Union and shunned slavery for their own hard work, changed the name of the town back to Breckenridge with an “e” to remove the traitor’s taint.
History moved quickly after that. The town boomed for the next few decades. Breckenridge grew from a mining outpost of a few dozen to 8,000 people by spring 1860. The extremely high-quality gold found in places like Farncomb Hill, Gibson Hill, French Gulch and Gold Run Gulch astonished the nation, giving Breckenridge a reputation akin to the legendary myth of El Dorado.
The gold boom quickly led to the United States government creating a new territory out of the region. The Colorado territory was created in February 1861, with Summit County as one of the original 18 counties. It stretched from the Continental Divide to Utah and from Hoosier Pass north to the Wyoming line.
The county seat was initially the town of Parkville, then the largest town in the area. But it was relocated to Breckenridge in 1862. Parkville, on the other hand, began a steep decline, eventually being buried by mine tailings and declared a ghost town by 1882.
Placer mining gave way to destructive lode mining in 1878, when huge silver lodes were found in Leadville. In 1881, Breckenridge saw its biggest mining year ever. As historian and author Gilliland writes in her book, “Breckenridge: 150 Years of Golden History”: “In a decade when 75 cents bought a sumptuous dinner, the region yielded over $1.5 million.”
While gold built the cradle for Breckenridge in the 1860s and the rest of what we now know as Summit County, silver was the lifeblood for the new frontier in the late 1870s and 1880s. The silver boom was fueled by the U.S. government purchasing millions of dollars worth of silver to create currency, making a once less-precious metal the most important discovery in the area in decades.
The clanging of pickaxes reverberated across the mountains as miners started digging deep into the ground, following the veins of precious ore that wound throughout the land’s geology. In 1879, silver towns sprung up and boomed. Towns like Kokomo and Robinson, which were abandoned, and towns like Frisco and Montezuma, which still thrive today.
Wooing the railroad
Frisco started as a tiny mining settlement, with its first resident being a Swedish immigrant named Henry Recen. In 1873, Recen built a cabin on what is now known as Tenmile Island while mining the area.
Two years later, a scout by the named of Capt. Henry Learned came through the area along the stagecoach routes looking for potential sites for railroads to be built. Rail was to become the most efficient way to haul out the gold and silver found farther south.
Seeing the dazzling two-mile square valley at the mouth of Tenmile Canyon, Learned saw great potential for a rail hub but also a beautiful, organized town built around it. He wrote a sign on a log and placed it on Recen’s door to mark the vision: “Frisco City.” The name Frisco was meant to woo a railroad company to town, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co. The Frisco line didn’t wind up coming through, but others did, and Learned made good on his vision. In 1880, he and a group of backers incorporated Frisco City.
Through the boom and lean times since, Frisco has served as a leisurely transport and rest hub for travelers heading south and west after climbing over the divide. To this day, the townspeople take pains to maintain the original character of Frisco and its famed Main Street to the Rockies.
As the gold and silver booms crashed and the economy collapsed during the 1910s and ’20s, the luster of the Blue River Valley and Tenmile Canyon started to fade. Dredges looking for metals in the riverbeds had torn up all the valleys, and there was nothing left to take out of the ground. The railroads, finding no profit in the once-rich land during the Great Depression, closed down the lines. The mining boom was over, and the valley was quiet once again.
By the 1940s, Frisco and Breckenridge had diminished to the point of becoming mere memory. The people scraped by with nothing but their will and muscles to keep them going. They expected nothing more than a quiet mountain homestead. They dutifully contributed what they could to the nation during both world wars, including provisioning soldiers who trained for mountain warfare at a camp near Leadville.
That military installation was Camp Hale, and those soldiers were the 10th Mountain Division, which learned how to prepare for battles in the Italian Alps. When the war ended, many of those mountain soldiers came back as veterans to a place they fell in love with and to encourage the growth of the emerging snow sport of skiing.
One of those veterans, Laurence “Larry” Jump, was among the five men who founded Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. What we now know as “The Legend” opened for business May 14, 1946, with a $1.25 lift ticket and a single tow rope. And the rest is ski history.
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