It is said that human history is considerably short in the Clear Creek Valley compared to the rest of the state, country, and world. And although there have been magnificent recent discoveries of a Folsom culture in Larimer County, Colorado, dating back over 13,000 years, survival in the colder, higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains was near impossible until more modern, recent times.
Before European cultures explored the mountain terrain in search of gold and furs, the Ute Native Americans hunted the peaks and valleys of Clear Creek in search of elk, deer, and other game during the warm summer months. But as fall and winter encroached, the Ute would retire to lower elevations where survival was slightly easier. The Ute Nation controlled nearly all of Colorado west of the continental divide up to the 1880s. But this harsh valley belonged only to the animals in the cold, snowy winter months. The sound of silence must have been beautiful!
The first Europeans to explore the regions of the Rocky Mountains were Spanish conquistadors as early as the 1700s, as well as French fur trappers and traders who migrated south from Canada in the early 1830s. This era of history is illustrated in the names of mountains, towns, and streams throughout the region: Cache la Poudre, St. Vrain, and LaPorte to the north...Sangre de Cristo, San Carlos, Huerfano, and Alamosa to the south. And the Utes, too, left their mark of unique language throughout the region with names such as Uncompahgre, Sawatch, and kinnikinnick. Although the stories of these diverse cultures were stamped on the land centuries ago, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the first English-speaking pioneers traveled up the rugged Clear Creek Valley west of Denver City. The promise of wealth had been lingering in the air since the forty-niners scaled rivers, mountains, and deserts in search of California gold.
In January 1859, George Jackson discovered gold in what was known as the Spanish Bar District along Chicago Creek, near modern-day Idaho Springs. Once word of Jackson’s gold discoveries got out, hundreds soon followed and began digging in the Spanish Bar District and along Vasquez Creek (now known as Clear Creek).
In 1858, two Kentucky-born boys set out for the West. George and David Griffith arrived in the Idaho Springs area too late to stake a claim near Jackson’s discoveries, so they opted instead to follow the creek toward the Snowy Range, or the lofty continental divide. On August 1, 1859, George discovered gold at the base of the mountain that today bears the family name, Griffith Mountain. It is also believed that they discovered silver, but the Griffith’s never attempted its extraction. Nevertheless, in June 1860, the Griffith Mining District was officially formed. Quite soon afterwards, the town of Georgetown was formed, and the mining encampment began to grow immediately. From its humble beginnings as a 640-acre town site in the Kansas Territory (the Colorado Territory had not yet been formed by the U.S. Congress), the town eventually was home to thousands and thousands of people in the 1870s, 80s, and 90’s.
But the town would not be known for its gold mining, but rather for its wealth of quality silver-producing mines. The Griffith’s gold mill was closed by the fall of 1862. It became brutally clear that the gold in and around Georgetown was not easily extracted and that the costs associated with mining it outweighed its worth. Placer mining of gold in the District was a failure. But the future of the town would soon be solidified by the discovery of an exceptionally rich lode of silver ore.
The Belmont Lode, unearthed on the ridge of Mount McClellan, was sufficient to again ignite dreams of immense wealth in the fall of 1864. By this time, the Civil War was ending which allowed investors to begin courting the idea of owning a piece of the Rocky Mountain west. Mining districts continued to spring up in the area: the Upper Union, the Queens, the Geneva, and the Argentine, among others. With successive major silver discoveries, frame buildings began to spring up throughout George’s Town: quaint, tidy cottages painted white with adornments.
In the following years, the dusty little mining town began to flourish into a true community. Banks were formed, attorneys and surveyors arrived, the Barton House opened its doors to visiting investors, a local newspaper was developed, and the saloons and pool halls sprung up to entertain the hard-working miners of the area. Working girls also arrived to keep the men company. Georgetown’s red-light district was situated north of Seventh Street along Brownell Street. As offsets to the rough-and-tumble mining lifestyle, church congregations soon began to build churches, the first being Grace Episcopal Church. A county jail was also built in 1873 on Biddle Street, a portion of which still stands as a south-facing wall in a private home. The downtown commercial district was blossoming with new storefronts offering Dry Goods, Hardware, and Confectionaries.
Very early on in the town’s history, the first fire company was organized to protect the booming town from the threat of a decimating blaze. In December of 1869, the town secured enough money to purchase a fire engine, 50 fire buckets, and 300 feet of hose. The fire engine was a pumper that could siphon water from the creek, as long as it wasn’t frozen over, and shoot a stream of water out of its hose up to 120 feet. In subsequent years, the town added seven fireplugs which changed the way fires were tackled. By building a system for piped water, the town was much safer than most other mining towns.
By 1874, Georgetown utilized four fire companies that specialized in firefighting using different techniques. The Alpine Hose Company No. 2 and the Hope Hose Company enlisted the fasted runners. These companies pulled the hose carts to a fire by man power, and the construction of their firehouses allowed them to dry their wet hoses before the next need arose. Georgetown Fire Co. No. 1, also known as Old Missouri, remained as the Engine Company and serviced the lower residential areas. The Star, Hook, and Ladder Co. specialized in battling fires in the commercial district where two- and three-story buildings sat. These members’ savvy skills on the tall ladders saved important downtown structures. Today, this rich heritage is preserved in the Alpine Hose No. 2 Firehouse where the Georgetown Firefighting Museum now resides.
As the silver mines of the area continued to produce wealth, wooden clapboard-sided structures were soon replaced by more permanent brick structures. In 1874 a magnificent brick schoolhouse was constructed. William Cushman, a banker and investor, built two brick buildings between 1872 and 1874. Also in 1874, the Presbyterian congregation built a stone church on the banks of Leavenworth Creek. In 1880, the Catholics declared they would construct a complex comprised of a rectory, a school, a hospital, and a chapel.
Irish, German, Swedish, Cornish, African American, English, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Russian, and more comprised the population. Georgetown was diverse, and it appeared there was little racism. Women even earned the right to vote in Clear Creek County in 1893, twenty-seven years before the U.S. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The west was a welcoming place for most peoples. Two groups were not tolerated, however: the Native Americans and the Chinese. Locals did not approve of Georgetown’s opium dens and the Chinese’s’ refusal to westernize. Natives sometimes passed through the valley and Georgetown, which frightened the whites, especially their children who had been raised to fear the Natives.
Spirits were high in Georgetown in 1877 when the Colorado Central Railroad finally picked its way through the rugged and unforgiving landscape that is the Clear Creek Valley. Thousands of miners were working the mines in the county, and the outlook appeared bright. The train could now bring not only supplies up the creek, but also investors, tourists, and visions of an easier lifestyle...one similar to the eastern lifestyle that many used to live. However, it was a fact that the government had discontinued the coinage of silver in 1873, and silver ore prices had been declining. The future was uncertain for the Silver Queen of the Rockies.
Major silver discoveries were made in Leadville. The Union Pacific announced plans to build a Georgetown, Breckenridge & Leadville extension which was intended to reach the valued Leadville market before other competitors could build a rail line first. The engineers designed the tracks to “loop” cross over itself with the help of a 95 foot high bridge that spanned 300 feet of creek and track. The Loop Railroad which reached Silver Plume in 1884 heralded a new age in Georgetown that could now cater to visitors, for who wouldn’t want to ride “The Far Famed Georgetown Loop?” Tourists could ride the Loop, picnic at Green Lake, and dance at Pavilion Point...times have not changed all that much in Georgetown.
Georgetown’s 19th-century hotels included the Barton House, which hosted President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875, and Louie Dupuy’s Hotel de Paris. In 1882, Dupuy greatly expanded his original modest bakery and by December, his full-fledged hotel offered oysters, French wine, and exceptionally fine and elegant furnishings in the rooms he rented out. The “Mysterious Frenchman” was well liked and catered to not only the local crème de la crème, but also to traveling businessmen and dignitaries. Further amenities in town even included a telephone connection in 1879 when the rest of the country, and in fact the world, did not possess such technology. The Electric Light Company of Georgetown had been supplying limited power to homes and businesses in 1886, and by 1891, electric streetlights lined the sidewalks.
Rocky Mountain mansions were constructed during the silver booms. One such mansion was the home of William A. Hamill, a successful entrepreneur, statesman, and civic leader; the Hamill house is now a museum open to the public. The Cornish house (today known as the Silver Queen Bed and Breakfast), the Bowman-White house, and the Baily and Nott house (otherwise known as the Maxwell house) are other exceptional examples of Victorian architecture built in 19th-century Georgetown. Flagstone walks replaced the wooden boardwalks typical of western mining towns. Trees and flowers were planted, and plans were underway for the construction of a formal city park.
The quaint community of Georgetown, however, was not to be spared from the tumultuous busts that Colorado is well known for! In 1893, after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Georgetown’s industry grounded to a screeching halt. Even in the year’s leading up to the repeal of this Act, Leadville quickly became Colorado’s second-largest community and overshadowed the Silver Queen. In its heyday, Georgetown’s silver mines produced over $2 million in a single year; in 1879, Leadville mines produced $11 million and $14 million in ‘80. It was the writing on the wall that Georgetown residents and investors had been dreading to read. A terrible financial depression set over the entire state of Colorado, and the entire country soon followed suit. Residents of Georgetown were forced to look for work elsewhere, banks closed, stores shut down.
The town’s population began to dwindle, and by the early 1930s, a scant 300 people still called Georgetown home. The town was a virtual ghost town and was quite impoverished. I have personally talked to old-timers who stated that times were so tough, if a home was abandoned, the wood would often be scavenged for firewood. The Silver Queen had been battered and bruised after its brief brush with fame and fortune. But a new, yet familiar, industry was soon to reinvent the tiny mountain town of Georgetown: the ski industry.
This region was not unfamiliar with skiing, especially with the Norwegian and Swedish heritage of some residents. Early miners used skis to traverse the high mountain passes, although they were called snowshoes at that time. In 1913, an early ski club was formed in Silver Plume. Its members numbered twenty-four, and according to My Rocky Mountain Valley, a man named Ballentine was sent by Thomas A. Edison to perform some mine studies. While in Colorado, he organized the club and held a ski tournament! Ballantine had spent time in Norway and determined to fashion a pair of skis to use for travel during an unusually heavy snow season in Plume. It is said that a form was made by a mining mechanic, “rocks used for weights and the strips steamed into the Scandinavian forms.” (My Rocky Mountain Valley p 21) Mr. Ballantine left in 1915, and the club disbanded. But that was just the beginning.
Loveland Ski Area first tuned on its portable tow rope in 1936. After WW II ended, war heroes of the famed 10th Mountain Division returned to their training roots in Colorado and began skiing recreationally. In fact, Pete Seibert, founder of Vail Ski Resort, got his start in the industry as Loveland’s General Manager in 1955. Arapaho Ski Area followed Loveland’s lead and opened in 1946.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Rockies became much more accessible to local Front Range travelers: Loveland Pass was paved in 1950, an Interstate highway was in the planning and early building stages, and the automobile was a household necessity. Georgetown, again, was on the rise. Restaurants like the Red Ram/Rathskeller opened its doors. New retail stores sprung up. The population was growing. It was also during these years that Georgetown’s place in American history was recognized. Ben Draper, a local historian, began some early preservation efforts, and one man named James Grafton Rogers, who happened to be the first President of the Colorado Historical Society and a resident of Georgetown helped the cause gain momentum. In 1966, Georgetown and Silver Plume were recognized for their importance in telling the American story, and were designated as the Georgetown-Silver Plume National Historic Landmark District. People began to realize that historic preservation could help revitalize a depressed town.
Today, Georgetown is an amazing little community and a testament to persistence and tenacity. The town is still comprised of some dusty old miners, some die-hard ski bums (although I know quite a few, and they are hardly bums), some hard-working entrepreneurs, some fourth- and fifth-generation families, some railroad workers, and scores upon scores of conservationists and preservationists.