Located in the upper Clear Creek Valley about forty-five miles west of Denver, the Georgetown–Silver Plume Historic District is one of the best preserved historic mining districts in Colorado. In the late nineteenth century, Georgetown thrived as the area’s commercial and professional center, while Silver Plume developed as a diverse town of working-class miners. The area declined after the Panic of 1893 but revived somewhat after World War II thanks to the rise of ski traffic, automobile tourism, and historic preservation. Today the area remains a popular destination for Front Range residents who want to see Georgetown’s well-preserved Victorian buildings and ride the restored Georgetown Loop Railroad to Silver Plume.
Georgetown was named after George F. Griffith, who discovered gold in the area on June 17, 1859. Originally from Kentucky, George and his brother David T. Griffith had come to Colorado in October 1858, during the initial excitement about gold discoveries near what is now Denver. At first they stayed in Auraria, but they headed into the mountains after John Gregory’s major gold strike in May 1859 at what became Central City–Black Hawk. Arriving too late to stake a good claim, they moved in June to the South Fork of Clear Creek. On June 15, they set up camp in a three-sided valley along the creek, and on June 17, George Griffith found gold. The Griffiths soon built a cabin at their campsite, which eventually became the corner of Seventeenth and Main Streets in Georgetown.
As news of Griffith’s discovery spread, prospectors streamed into the valley and formed an unofficial mining district, which was formally organized as the Griffith Mining District in June 1860. The Griffiths spent $1,500 building a twenty-mile toll road from their district to Central City. By that September, a town had taken shape in the valley and was named Georgetown after George Griffith. In spring 1861, David Griffith surveyed and platted the town, which had about forty residents and at least two mills.
The initial optimism in Georgetown soon waned as the Civil War stalled migration and new mining areas such as South Park took off. One problem, it turned out, was that miners were trying to extract gold out of rocks that, unbeknownst to them, were actually rich in silver. Silver was discovered on nearby Mt. McClellan on September 14, 1864, and news of the find spread over the fall and winter. In spring 1865, Georgetown was flooded with a new wave of prospectors. By that fall, Georgetown and its immediate neighbor to the south, Elizabethtown (named after a Griffith sister or wife), were full of tents and other temporary shelters.
The Silver Queen
It took several years of development, but by the late 1860s the Georgetown area was booming. As Georgetown matured into the commercial hub of the most important mining district in the state, it was able to combine with nearby Elizabethtown and wrest the Clear Creek County seat away from Idaho Springs. By 1870, the population surged to 3,000. A school was built in 1874; early churches included Grace Episcopal (1869), First United Presbyterian (1874), and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic (1877). In 1875 William Cushman completed a two-story building to house his Bank of Georgetown, and he later added a third story and put an opera house on the top floor. The same year, an enigmatic Frenchman named Louis Dupuy opened a stylish hotel and restaurant called the Hotel de Paris, which featured luxuries such as indoor plumbing and French cooking.
Georgetown became home to a growing number of merchants, lawyers, doctors, and other professionals who attempted to replicate the society and culture of the East. As the area’s wealth increased, the town gave rise to increasingly elaborate houses. In 1876–77, for example, the noted Denver architect Robert Roeschlaub designed a Gothic Revival residence on Rose Street for John Adams Church. Meanwhile, William Hamill acquired his brother-in-law’s older Country Gothic house and hired Roeschlaub to turn it into an elegant Gothic Revival mansion with several new wings, a glass solarium, and oriel and bay windows.
While Georgetown achieved prominence and prosperity as the area’s commercial and professional center, the town of Silver Plume grew up about two miles to the southwest as the home of many of the area’s working-class miners. In the 1860s, mines had been developed in Brown Gulch, just west of present-day Silver Plume, and the town of Brownville formed at the base of the gulch. By the 1870s, activity had moved east to what is now Silver Plume. Incorporated in 1880, the town housed a melting pot of more than 1,000 miners from Cornish, Irish, English, German, Italian, and Scandinavian backgrounds. They were served by a bustling commercial district with groceries, dry goods stores, saloons, and boarding houses.
In 1877 Georgetown hit its peak of prosperity. That year, 5,000 people lived in and around the city, which had two newspapers, a telegraph office, a bank, five churches, and several hotels. In August the Colorado Central Railroad arrived, providing a cheaper and faster way to ship ores and promising growth in the years to come.
But Georgetown soon lost its boomtown glow when silver was discovered at Leadville. Once Leadville’s silver boom started in 1878–79, its production easily dwarfed that of Georgetown, attracting prospectors and investors from across the country in a frenzy of mining and speculation. Meanwhile, Georgetown maintained steady production over the next fifteen years. Because it existed in the shadow of Leadville, it was able to develop a measure of stability outside the rapid booms and busts that usually defined mining-town economies. In the 1880s and early 1890s, stately houses and prominent commercial buildings went up throughout the town. Electric streetlights were installed in 1891, and City Park was completed in 1892.
When the Leadville boom began, the Colorado Central planned to extend its line west from Georgetown over the Continental Divide and ultimately to Leadville. The project soon ran into problems. The climb straight from Georgetown to Silver Plume was too steep for a railroad, so engineer Robert Blickensderfer had to design a series of sweeping curves and one large loop to extend the track’s distance and thereby lower the average grade. All this took years to plan and build, and it was not until March 1884 that the first trains rolled into Silver Plume. The line was extended up the valley to Graymont (near Bakerville) but never went any farther. Built to haul silver ore, the scenic line soon became popular among sightseers. Georgetown became a tourist destination and boasted more than a dozen hotels.
Georgetown’s relatively long run of stability and prosperity came to an end in 1893 with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which caused a swift decline in silver mining across the country. Mines failed, businesses closed, and people moved away. Without much freight to haul, the Georgetown Loop connecting Georgetown and Silver Plume limped along on tourist traffic for several decades before being abandoned in 1939. By that time Georgetown’s population had dwindled to the 300s. Some limited mining took place in the early twentieth century, but during World War II most of the area’s old mining machinery was removed for scrap metal drives.
Revival and Preservation
After World War II, automobile tourism revived and transformed Georgetown’s economy, leading to a new focus on historic preservation. This change began even before the war, when US 6 went through Clear Creek Valley, but took several decades to develop. Early skiers passing through on their way to and from the slopes often stopped at Georgetown’s hotels and bars. Meanwhile, Denverites started to buy old Victorian houses in town and spruce them up as summer homes. By the late 1940s, the town claimed several hundred second-home owners.
The people who came to Georgetown were attracted by its picturesque Victorian blocks, which had never been razed by fires, and started working to preserve them. In 1954 the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in Colorado bought the Hotel de Paris and turned it into a museum. One second-home owner from Denver, James Grafton Rogers, became mayor in the 1950s and pushed preservation initiatives designed to make the town a kind of museum to the state’s mining past. In 1966 Georgetown and Silver Plume were named a National Historic Landmark District.
By the 1960s, however, Georgetown was starting to face what some locals perceived as threats to its well-preserved Victorian charm. As Interstate 70 marched up the Clear Creek Valley, initial plans called for it to cut Georgetown in two and destroy what was left of the old Georgetown Loop route. The Colorado Department of Highways saved Georgetown and the Georgetown Loop route by shifting the interstate onto a bench blasted high into the side of Republican Mountain. At Silver Plume there were no good options for a different route, and the interstate ended up dividing the town’s business district from its residential area and railroad depot (which had to be moved).
Spurred by the interstate threat and the prospect of hosting events for the 1976 Winter Olympics, in 1970 local residents formed Historic Georgetown Inc. to promote historic preservation and restoration in town. Soon the organization helped the town pass the state’s first town-wide historic preservation ordinance. It also acquired and restored the Hamill House, which was opened for public tours.
Meanwhile, in 1959 the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado), spurred by board chair James Grafton Rogers, had started to acquire land with the goal of reconstructing the Georgetown Loop. After the rerouting of Interstate 70 saved the old railroad grade, reconstruction of the line began in the early 1970s. By the middle of the decade, tourist trains could run part of the way from Georgetown to Silver Plume. Completion was delayed for several years because of funding shortfalls, but in 1982 the Boettcher Foundation donated $1 million toward the project. The grand opening of the revived Georgetown Loop was held in August 1984. Two years later the Silver Plume Depot was restored to its original appearance.
Today Georgetown continues to be a popular destination for tourists driving up Interstate 70 from Denver. Visitors can see parts of the town’s history at the Hotel de Paris Museum, the Hamill House Museum, the Georgetown Heritage Center at the 1874 School, and a wide variety of other historic churches, commercial buildings, and residences that were preserved and restored in the late twentieth century. In addition, Georgetown serves as a base for people looking to ride the Georgetown Loop, drive the Guanella Pass Scenic Byway, or hike nearby Fourteeners such as Mt. Bierstadt or Grays and Torreys Peaks.
Originally home to working-class miners rather than wealthy merchants and professionals, Silver Plume has seen significantly less restoration and tourist development than Georgetown and receives far fewer visitors. One of the town’s most prominent historic buildings, the Silver Plume Schoolhouse, is now home to a community center and the George Rowe Museum, which focuses on the town’s history.