Clear Creek County lies thirty miles west of Denver on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. One of Colorado’s seventeen original counties, it covers 396 square miles and spans Clear Creek Canyon, from which it takes its name. Clear Creek County has a population of 9,303 and is bordered by Gilpin County to the northeast, Jefferson County to the east, Park County to the south, Summit County to the southwest, and Grand County to the northwest.
The county lies along the Interstate 70 corridor, which runs west from Denver through Idaho Springs, the largest city; Georgetown, the county seat; and Silver Plume, another historic mining town. One of the first major strikes of the Colorado Gold Rush occurred in the mountains near Idaho Springs. Today, the county is home to the scenic Georgetown Loop Railroad and the popular Loveland Ski Area, drawing tourists for a variety of outdoor activities.
Ute people occupied the Colorado Rocky Mountains as early as the fifteenth century, reaching the Central Rockies by about the seventeenth century. The Utes lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer life, following game such as deer, elk, and buffalo into the high country during the summer and camping at the base of the foothills during the winter. They gathered berries, nuts, and various mountain roots. After making contact with early Spanish explorers to the south, the Utes incorporated horses into their culture, which made hunting and traveling easier. Utes lived in temporary or mobile dwellings such as wickiups and tipis.
During the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth, Arapaho and Cheyenne people migrated from the upper Midwest to Colorado’s Front Range. They were also nomads, living chiefly off the great buffalo herds on the plains but also ranging into the mountains to hunt and forage. This resulted in conflicts with the Ute, who resisted any encroachment on their traditional hunting grounds.
Both Spain and France claimed the Clear Creek County area before the United States acquired it as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The area remained under the dominion of the Ute and Arapaho until it attracted the federal government’s attention during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. In 1857 an economic depression in the east and Colonel Edwin V. Sumner’s victory over a group of Cheyenne in present-day Kansas motivated gold seekers to go to the Rocky Mountains. A bona fide rush began after William Green Russell found gold near present-day Denver in 1858.
In January 1859, George Jackson discovered placer gold in the gravel along the north fork of Clear Creek, south of modern Idaho Springs. Jackson chose not to publicize his find until he could return with help. In April he brought twenty-two men from the Chicago Mining Company to the area, and they quickly found a fortune in gold. In June of 1859, with miners flooding the area, a town was established. It was first called Jackson’s Diggings, then Sacramento City, then Idahoe, and finally Idaho Springs. The remainder of 1859 saw the arrival of many others looking for gold.
Miners and entrepreneurs moved west along Clear Creek, creating mining districts in areas that would become the cities of Dumont, Empire, and Georgetown. Colonel John Dumont founded Mill City, later named Dumont, and ran three prominent mills in that area. Mill City also functioned as an important stage coach stop before the arrival of the railroad, offering travelers a hotel and the first saloon in Colorado west of Denver. Empire sprang up after Henry DeWitt Clinton Cowles and Edgar F. Freeman found gold in the area in 1860. Georgetown began when the Griffith brothers discovered gold at the base of a nearby mountain, creating the Griffith Mining District.
In 1861 Congress created the Colorado Territory. Later that year, the territorial legislature created Clear Creek County, one of its original seventeen counties. Idaho Springs was named the first county seat. That year the US government brokered the Treaty of Fort Wise, which set up a reservation for the Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado in exchange for annuities. In 1864 Congress approved the Conejos Treaty with the Utes, which gave the United States title to all Ute land east of the Continental Divide.
Miners in Clear Creek County extracted some $2 million worth of gold between 1859 and 1865. In 1867 the Colorado legislature moved the county seat to Georgetown, as it quickly grew larger than Idaho Springs. By 1866 gold deposits began to decline, but the Clear Creek area continued growing because of increased silver mining. A rich silver ore deposit was discovered near Georgetown, and a smelter was built in the town to economically extract the silver from the ore. Other silver strikes in the early 1870s led to the creation of the Burleigh, Marshall and Lebanon mines, as well as the town of Silver Plume. Between 1866 and 1875, the county’s silver mines yielded more than $8 million worth of ore, and by the 1880s the county population peaked at 7,800.
Prosperity brought by silver mining only lasted until the Silver Panic of 1893. Although Clear Creek County mines continued to produce silver, the steady drop in the metal’s value from nearly $1 per ounce in 1891 to about $0.58 by 1898 caused a major economic decline in Colorado’s mining communities. The decreased demand for silver created a resurgence in gold mining, which expanded production from the mid-1890s until the early twentieth century. The county averaged about $600,000 in gold production each year between 1895 and 1901, and in 1902 it had one of its richest gold-mining years ever, extracting a total of $930,000.
With the creation and expansion of mining districts came the development of two satellite industries: logging and ranching. Logging provided timber for mine shafts and early buildings, while ranchers profited by raising stock to feed hungry miners.
Rails and Roads
From its founding, Clear Creek County depended on roads and railroads to get ore to market and bring supplies to the mining towns through Clear Creek Canyon. In the 1860s, miners used dirt roads to cart their supplies and products to and from town, but these quickly proved insufficient. Some companies built toll roads to the mining districts, which eased the transportation of supplies and ore.
The arrival of the railroad greatly reduced the cost of transportation and made it easier for Clear Creek County residents to get the supplies they needed. In 1877 the Colorado Central Railroad built a line from Golden into Clear Creek, through Idaho Springs, and on to Georgetown. In 1879 financial problems caused the Colorado Central Railroad to be leased to the Union Pacific.
The Union Pacific built a new line through Clear Creek Canyon in 1884 called the Georgetown, Breckenridge & Leadville. Jay Gould, head of the Union Pacific, wanted to build the first tracks into Leadville through Clear Creek Canyon, but the Denver & Rio Grande completed its line to Leadville first. Having lost the race to Leadville and faced with the difficult and expensive task of building tracks into the central Rocky Mountains, the Union Pacific chose to end its line just past Silver Plume. There, the line was in an excellent position to take advantage of the growing market for railroad tourism. It became the famous Georgetown Loop, a popular tourist line that allowed visitors in Denver to experience the Rocky Mountains on a convenient day trip.
Gold and silver mining in Clear Creek County began to decline at the turn of the century. Following the drop in silver prices during the Panic of 1893, gold mining had a small boom, but it dwindled by the early 1920s. Zinc mining became important in the Georgetown–Silver Plume area during both world wars, and in 1976 the Henderson Mine began extracting molybdenum, a steel hardener. Although some other mines remain, most are currently inactive.
The increase in automobile use during the twentieth century and the decrease in freight led to a decline in rail service across Colorado. The last passenger train to Clear Creek ran in 1938, and even the once-popular Georgetown Loop was abandoned in 1939. Most tracks were dismantled after the end of service, and many individuals and families left during the difficult years of the Great Depression. The population hit a low during the depression, with only 2,100 people left in the county.
Tourism and Recreation
Although tourism had been a draw since the creation of Clear Creek County, it became more important to its communities with the decline of mining in the twentieth century. In the late 1930s, both Loveland Ski Area and Berthoud Pass Ski Area opened lifts. Berthoud Pass closed in the late 1980s due to lack of funding. Loveland Ski Area continues to be a favorite of Denver residents and visitors because it is fewer than forty miles from the city and offers ski slopes for all skill levels.
The 1956 Interstate Act authorized the western extension of Interstate 70 from Denver to eastern Utah. This route ran through Clear Creek County, again providing convenient access to these mountain communities from Denver. The extension was built in the late 1950s and brought tourists as well as residents to the area. People could now commute to Denver for work.
In 1959, as the centennial of Jackson’s first gold strike approached, many Clear Creek communities began looking to the past to boost the county into the future. With the help of the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado), plans to rebuild the Georgetown Loop emerged. A ten-year process of land acquisition began, with the society buying, leasing, and receiving donated land to rebuild the line. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Historical Society continued work with communities, historians, and archaeologists to develop the line for visitors. The first train on the rebuilt line ran in 1975. The loop grew to include a reconstructed Lebanon Mine, the Silver Plume Depot, and the Devil’s Gate High Bridge, among other structures. The project continues to grow, adding more visitor amenities such as meal service for passengers and interpretative signage.
Several historical societies formed in the later twentieth century with the common goal of preserving the history of Clear Creek County for residents and visitors. The Historical Society of Idaho Springs formed in 1964 and has worked to preserve buildings in the city’s historic downtown district. The Mill Creek Historical Society formed in 1981 with the goal of saving the 1909 schoolhouse, which the society succeeded in refurbishing. It then went on to preserve the Mill Creek House and continues preservation work in Dumont. Historic Georgetown and several other local history societies also work to preserve the county’s history.
Today, the Clear Creek County economy is heavily reliant on tourism, but officials aim to develop several other industries to promote population and economic growth. The largest employer in the county is the retail sector, followed by government and mining. Henderson Mine is the county’s largest single employer, though its impending closure poses a major threat to the county economy. The county is currently working on long-term plans to deal with the projected job loss when the mine close.
While mining brought the county to prominence, the environmental effects are still being addressed today. In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the Central City and Clear Creek area on its Superfund list for environmental cleanup. Since the they were opened in the nineteenth century, the county’s mines have caused heavy metal pollution, requiring cleanup to the present.
As the EPA cleans up the county’s mines, local residents work to preserve some of its most important natural areas. The Clear Creek Land Conservancy began in 1994 as a community-based plan to conserve the environment of Clear Creek Canyon. Both the Superfund site and land conservancy work to protect the environment of the county for the enjoyment of future generations.
Tourists come to Clear Creek County to view historic towns, take mine tours, ride the Georgetown Loop, and enjoy a range of outdoor activities. In winter visitors come primarily for skiing and snowboarding at the county’s ski areas. Summer brings hikers, mountain bikers, anglers, rafters, and other outdoor enthusiasts to the area. The county is also home to Mt. Evans, a Fourteener that has a paved highway to its summit. Due to its proximity to Denver and its scenic mountain setting, Clear Creek County remains a popular draw for Front Range residents and visitors.