Central City and Black Hawk took shape during the boom years after John Gregory discovered gold on May 6, 1859, near the North Fork of Clear Creek in what is now Gilpin County. For much of the 1860s and 1870s, the area was the richest mining region in Colorado, and Central City rivaled Denver as the territory’s cultural capital. The towns lost prominence and population as the area’s mining stagnated and then declined over the next fifty years, but the revival of the Central City Opera House in 1932 helped attract tourists and spur historic preservation. In 1990 Colorado voters approved an amendment allowing the towns to have casinos, which generated millions of dollars for the local economy and historic preservation but also transformed the towns they were supposed to help preserve.
Central City, Black Hawk, and the nearby town of Nevadaville formed around one of the earliest major gold discoveries in the Rocky Mountains. Prospectors had first rushed to Colorado in the fall of 1858 and spring of 1859, after reports of gold finds near what is now Denver. By late spring 1859, however, much of the early optimism had faded and many “go-backers” were returning east with disappointment and empty pockets.
On May 6, just as the Colorado gold rush was being declared dead, Gregory, a Georgian, struck gold near the North Fork of Clear Creek between what is now Black Hawk and Central City; a historic marker now stands at this spot. The news reached Denver a week later, and by early June Gregory Gulch was teeming with more than 4,000 prospectors living in tents and crude lean-tos. The population briefly ballooned to more than 20,000 later that summer, but shrank again when it was discovered that the area’s gold was bound up with quartz, making it difficult to extract and refine. Despite that, in 1859 prospectors in Gregory Gulch mined more than $1.5 million in gold.
As people streamed into Gregory Gulch, small mining camps sprouted up and down the valley. The town closest to Gregory’s find was originally called Gregory’s Diggings but soon became known as Mountain City. At the upper end of the valley about two miles to the west, discoveries on Quartz Hill led to the start of nearby Nevada City (Nevadaville). By the fall of 1859, a new town, Central City, was established between Mountain City and Nevada City. Soon it developed into the social and economic center of the region and became the county seat when Gilpin County was formed in 1861.
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1860 migrants from Illinois established a stamp mill—a facility that pulverizes ore to extract metals—where Gregory Gulch met the North Fork of Clear Creek. The mill was made by the Black Hawk Quartz Mill Company, and the area was soon called Black Hawk Point, then simply Black Hawk. With its relatively flat land and downstream location, Black Hawk developed into the hub for processing and transporting ores from the area’s mines.
Central City and Black Hawk boomed for about five years after 1859. Known as the “richest square mile on earth,” Central City was arguably the most important town in Colorado Territory. Buildings progressed from tents to log cabins to wood frames as the area moved from crude mining camps to established towns. Social and cultural development accompanied physical growth. In July 1859, local Methodists held their first service, and the next year the congregation’s log cabin was the first church building in the Colorado mountains. In November 1860, Bishop Joseph Machebeuf held the first Catholic mass in Mountain City. The most important early structure in Central City was Washington Hall (1861), which was the city’s main public building in the 1860s and later served as City Hall. Former slave Clara Brown opened a laundry in Central City, and future senator Henry Teller started a law office. In 1862 the Central City Tri-Weekly Miner’s Register started publication and the city’s first public school opened.
By the middle of the 1860s, the initial boom in Central City and Black Hawk had slowed down. The ongoing Civil War stifled migration and investment, and by about 1864 most of the area’s easy gold had been mined. Plenty of gold remained, but the ores were much harder to process because they contained gold in combination with sulfides. The Gilpin County economy stagnated while waiting for new infusions of capital and technology to make mining profitable again.
The turnaround came in 1868, when chemistry professor Nathaniel P. Hill of Brown University introduced a new smelting—or metal extraction—process that he discovered in Wales. Hill and a group of Boston investors started the Boston and Colorado Smelting Company in Black Hawk, and by 1870 Hill’s smelter was processing $500,000 of ores per year.
Thanks to Hill’s smelting process as well as the arrival of the Colorado Central Railroad in Black Hawk in 1872, the 1870s was the most prosperous period in Gilpin County history. In 1871 the county’s gold production peaked at $3.2 million, and Central City rivaled Denver in cultural and political influence. Construction boomed. Local lawyer and businessman Henry Teller, who helped bring the Colorado Central to the area, invested in a grand four-story brick hotel called the Teller House, which opened in June 1872 with 150 rooms.
Fire of 1874
Black Hawk never suffered any major fires, but Central City survived two devastating fires in the 1870s. The first, in January 1873, burned sixteen buildings. It proved to be merely a warm-up for the catastrophic fire of May 21, 1874, which destroyed about 150 of the town’s buildings. The Teller House and Washington Hall survived, but many of the town’s early structures were lost. Some people left town instead of rebuilding, but in general Central City was prosperous enough to immediately invest in improvements and new buildings. The town’s streets were widened and graded in the wake of the fire, and in 1875 eighty new buildings went up. To prevent future fires, new building codes prohibited wood construction in the business district.
Mining and construction continued to boom in the late 1870s. Colorado’s admission to statehood in 1876 helped spur investment in the new state’s mines, and in 1877 Teller became one of the state’s first US senators. The most significant symbol of Central City’s ambitions in these years was the Central City Opera House. Central City’s longstanding love of theater stretched back to the opening of Hadley Hall in 1859 in Mountain City; the new opera house was an impressive stone structure completed in 1878 from a design by Robert Roeschlaub. The opera house had a two-day opening ceremony, with vocal and instrumental performances on March 4 and a theatrical performance on March 5. With a capacity of 750 people, the Central City Opera House was regarded as the top theater in Colorado.
In the 1880s, the Central City–Black Hawk area lost some of its luster, for several reasons. First, statehood increased Denver’s importance, and the capital began to exert a strong gravitational pull on Central City’s wealthiest residents. Without its elites, Central City no longer mattered as much in state politics and culture. Second, new silver booms in places like Leadville and Aspen stole attention away from Gilpin County. In 1876 the county had produced about half of the state’s mineral wealth, but in the 1880s that figure dropped to roughly 10 percent. Gilpin County continued to lead the state in gold production, but the big bonanzas lay elsewhere.
The Central City Opera House turned out to be one of the last major buildings constructed in the area. It suffered a quick decline after the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver displaced it as the state’s finest theater in 1881. That year, the three-year-old opera house was sold to Gilpin County for use as a courthouse. Outraged citizens bought the building back, but over the next few decades it hosted more political rallies and wrestling matches than top-flight theatrical performances.
The presence of gold in Central City and Black Hawk saved the area from the collapse that many Colorado mining towns suffered after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. The area even experienced a brief resurgence in the 1890s as gold mining revived and new technologies made production cheaper. The Gilpin County Courthouse, built in 1900, was a product of this period of renewed optimism. Yet even then, Central City and Black Hawk were overshadowed by the gold-mining boom at Cripple Creek. By the early twentieth century, only a handful of mining operations remained.
With commodity prices rising faster than the price of gold, it was only a matter of time before gold mining no longer paid. The moment of reckoning finally came during the inflation that accompanied World War I. In 1917 the Gilpin Tramway was abandoned after providing thirty years of local transportation throughout the mining district, and by 1918 nearly all mining operations were suspended. Some residents moved their houses elsewhere, and abandoned buildings were used for firewood. The Central City Opera House closed on January 1, 1927. Central City had about 500 people left, and Black Hawk had roughly 200.
Opera House Revival
Mining experienced a minor revival during the Great Depression, when cheaper labor and higher gold prices made it profitable again. After the commercial mining of gold was prohibited during World War II, however, mining never fully recovered in Gilpin County. Nevadaville became a ghost town.
Central City began to rely on its rich history to generate tourism. In the early 1930s the Central City Opera House Association restored the shuttered opera house and reopened it in July 1932 with a production of Camille. The association’s summer opera festivals, held almost every year except during World War II, helped bring new visitors and summer residents to the area. By 1940 the festival had grown to twenty-four performances that drew a combined audience of more than 20,000. Summer tourism surged in the decade after World War II, growing to 300,000 visitors in 1949 and more than half a million in 1955. Central City Opera became involved in historic preservation by acquiring the Teller House and several old residences in town to house festival staff and artists. In 1959 the Gilpin County Historical Society was founded, and in 1961 Central City became a National Historic Landmark; the district boundary was later expanded to include Black Hawk and Nevadaville.
As the ski industry transformed Colorado tourism in the 1960s and 1970s, however, visitation to Central City and Black Hawk declined. Central City Opera lost audiences to modern venues such as the Santa Fe Opera and the Denver Performing Arts Complex. In 1982 Central City Opera’s rising debts forced it to cancel its fiftieth anniversary season. The festival returned in 1983 and soon rebuilt its audience, but Central City and Black Hawk continued to face a financial crisis caused by mounting infrastructure costs and declining tax dollars. Buildings were in disrepair and in danger of collapsing, and Central City had no money to fix a water supply that had been condemned by the state health department. After about 130 years in existence, Central City and Black Hawk had only a few hundred residents and faced the distinct possibility that they might soon join Nevadaville as ghost towns.
Inspired by the example of the famous Old West town of Deadwood, South Dakota, where gambling was legalized in 1989 to generate revenue for preservation, residents in Central City and Black Hawk joined with Cripple Creek to push for an amendment to the state constitution that would allow limited-stakes gaming. The original idea was that existing businesses might add a few slot machines and a card table, with half of the revenue going to the state, 28 percent to the State Historical Fund, 12 percent to Gilpin and Teller Counties, and 10 percent to the three towns. In November 1990, 57 percent of the state’s voters approved Amendment 4, which was billed as a preservation measure, and the first casinos opened on October 1, 1991.
One result of the gambling amendment was to flip the historical relationship between Central City and Black Hawk. Central City had always been the wealthier and more prominent of the two, but the same things that made Black Hawk a good mill town—flat land and easier access to Denver—also made it a good casino town. Starting in 1993, casinos in Black Hawk accounted for a majority of gambling in Gilpin County, and within a few years they generated two-thirds of the non-tribal gambling revenue in the state. In an attempt to short-circuit Black Hawk’s advantage, in 2004 Central City acquired a 150-foot-wide strip of land leading from the town to Interstate 70 and constructed a $38.3 million highway. When it opened, the Central City Parkway promised to increase the town’s gambling revenue by giving people a direct route to Central City that did not involve passing through Black Hawk. But the new parkway did little to affect Black Hawk’s dominance. In recent years, Black Hawk’s roughly seventeen casinos have generated more than $90 million in taxes—about 85 percent of the statewide total—while Central City’s six casinos have generated more than $6 million, or almost 6 percent of the statewide total.
Twenty-five years later, gambling proved to be a mixed blessing. Advocates pointed out that casinos had saved Central City and Black Hawk by attracting visitors and generating money for local improvements and statewide historic preservation. By the early 2000s the towns had made more money from gambling than they ever did from mining. But opponents noted that gambling, like mining before it, had crowded out other businesses and fundamentally changed the towns it was meant to preserve. In 1998 development threats led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to name Central City and Black Hawk among the most endangered historic places in the country.
Today Central City, Black Hawk, and Nevadaville represent three possible fates for a Colorado mining town in the twenty-first century. Nevadaville is now a ghost town with only a few buildings left standing. Black Hawk has displayed an unrestrained pursuit of profit at the expense of preservation and is dominated by huge new casinos and a thirty-three-story hotel that towers over the landscape. Central City has not been immune to new gambling-oriented development, but it has managed to preserve much of its historic core, and Central City Opera continues to attract some visitors interested in the town’s history and culture rather than its casinos.