Gilpin County, located in the high country east of the Continental Divide some thirty-seven miles west of Denver, was established in 1861 as one of the original seventeen counties of the Colorado Territory. The county encompasses about 150 square miles of mountainous terrain that ranges in elevation from 6,960 feet to 13,294 feet. It is bordered to the north by Boulder County, to the east and south by Jefferson County, to the south by Clear Creek County, and to the west by Grand County. The county was named for the first territorial governor, William Gilpin.
Gilpin County has a population of 5,828. Its two main cities are Central City (population 663), the county seat, and Black Hawk (population 118). Together, these cities form the Central City and Black Hawk National Historic District, renowned for its mining history. The county also includes the small community of Rollinsville, as well as the ghost towns of Nevadaville and Russell Gulch. State Highway 119 is the major north-south thoroughfare, winding through the mountains from Rollinsville to Black Hawk and continuing south to its junction with US Highway 6 in Clear Creek Canyon. State Highway 46, also known as Golden Gate Canyon Road, proceeds east from Highway 119 just north of Black Hawk and runs west from the Jefferson County border.
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 bison into the high country during the summer and camping at the base of the foothills during the winter. They gathered berries, nuts, roots, and other dietary plants. After 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 and early nineteenth centuries, Arapaho and Cheyenne people migrated from the upper Midwest onto Colorado’s Great Plains and Front Range. The Arapaho and Cheyenne were also nomads, following buffalo herds on the plains but also ranging into the mountains to hunt and forage. This drew them into conflict with the Ute, who resisted any encroachment on their traditional hunting grounds.
The United States acquired the Gilpin County area as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and by the 1820s fur trappers were plying the headwaters and streams of the high country for beaver and other pelts.
Permanent white settlement of the Gilpin County area began during the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859. John H. Gregory, a miner travelling from Georgia to California, stopped in Colorado in the fall of 1858 and made the first gold discovery in Gilpin County west of present-day Central City. Gregory waited until the following spring to stake his claim in what became known as Gregory Gulch. By the summer of 1859, the area became known as Gregory’s Diggings, and thousands of miners traveled there in an attempt to make their fortunes. The mining settlement near the diggings became known as Mountain City. Early miners practiced placer mining—panning for loose gold—in streams and creeks, pulling out $241,918 worth of gold by 1867. They also engaged in hydraulic mining, which uses high-pressure water hoses to blast away hillsides of gold-containing gravel and wash it down into a sluice. However, the real money lay not in surface gold but in deep, gold-bearing quartz veins, many of which were also discovered in the spring of 1859. These included the Bates Lode, the Gunnell, Kansas and Burroughs, the Bobtail Lode, and Russell Gulch. Using dynamite and coal-powered drilling engines to reach these deeper deposits, Gilpin County miners extracted more than $9 million worth of lode gold by 1867.
While it paved the way for Colorado’s development, mining took a major toll on the surrounding landscape. Miners cut down trees to build mines and associated structures, and to cook and keep warm; they soon began importing lumber because there were not enough trees left to build houses. Mining also changed the stream system, as placer miners dug out stream beds to allow increased access to gold, and hydraulic mining washed away hillsides and clogged streams with gravel and dirt. Miners also used hazardous substances such as mercury and cyanide to help extract gold. Mercury attracted gold in placer mining, while cyanide helped break the chemical bonds that fixed gold to quartz and other rocks. These toxic substances often leeched into the surrounding environment, killing wildlife and sickening miners.
Miners’ use of the area’s natural resources also had terrible effects on the local populations of Ute and Arapaho, who often found themselves starving for lack of game and suffered from outbreaks of diseases brought by Europeans. Nevertheless, Native Americans continued to oppose the development of mines and towns on their land. With the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861, territorial officials could now lobby for and enforce their removal.
In 1861 the Treaty of Fort Wise led to the removal of the Arapaho and Cheyenne to a reservation in eastern Colorado. In 1864 the US government approved a treaty with several bands of Utes that granted the United States rights to the entire Front Range, thus securing the right to many mining districts that had developed during the gold rush. Utes, however, would continue to range into the Gilpin County area until the early 1880s, when Colorado’s Northern Ute bands were moved to a reservation in Utah.
The towns of Central City, which formed below the Gregory District, and Black Hawk, located less than a mile farther down the gulch, supplied miners with equipment, food, and entertainment. Reflecting the enormous scale of the gold rush, Central City had 10,000 residents within two months of its founding in 1859. Black Hawk, with more flat land and an ample water supply to power ore-crushing stamp mills, became an early hub for Gilpin County gold shipments. The town is said to have gotten its name from an early stamp mill that was imported from Rock Island, Illinois, and named after the famous Sauk leader.
Several miles north of Black Hawk, John Rollins established the town of Rollinsville along a road he was building that would cross the Continental Divide and connect Denver with the new resort town of Hot Sulphur Springs in Middle Park. Rollins also helped maintain early toll roads that linked Golden with Central City and Black Hawk. Rollinsville was originally formed as a mining town, but after the deposits ran out, Rollins built the Rollins House Hotel in 1865 as a stopping place for travelers along the road.
By the end of 1861, Gilpin County was one of the last productive gold-mining areas remaining in Colorado, accounting for around 40 percent of the territory’s total production. During the next decade, the shift from placer mining to lode mining and the arrival of railroads signaled the full industrialization of Gilpin County’s mining.
For a time, stamp mills proved effective in using a series of hammers and mercury to separate the gold from surrounding ores. But as miners delved deeper into deposits, the composition of the gold-bearing rock changed to include sulfides, which needed to be burned off. This required smelters, facilities that received crushed ore from stamp mills and used intense heat and a chemical agent to extract the precious metals. Black Hawk’s first smelter, built in 1865 by James E. Lyon and George Pullman, proved unsuccessful, but former Brown University chemistry professor Nathaniel P. Hill built the town’s first functional smelter in 1868. Industrialized mining put an end to the era of the individual prospector and put the future of mining in the hands of large mining and ore-processing companies. These companies provided steady, if low-wage jobs that attracted people from many different backgrounds. Many miners and mill workers, for instance, were immigrants of Irish, English, German, and Chinese origin.
Rollins’s road and the rest of Gilpin County’s earliest wagon roads often proved difficult to travel, especially in the notoriously unpredictable weather of the Rockies. In addition to making travel easier, the railroads that arrived in the 1870s helped further industrialize mining by reducing the cost of shipping metals to market and bringing coal freight that ensured the efficient operation of mills and smelters. In 1872 W.A.H. Loveland built his Colorado Central Railroad from Golden to Black Hawk. This was a narrow gauge line better suited to the steep grades and sharp turns of the mountainous terrain. The line later extended to Central City.
Central City and Black Hawk prospered in the 1860s and 1870s and became known as the “richest square mile on earth.” Around 1877, for instance, a rich silver vein was found north of Black Hawk at Silver Hill. As in Denver, wealth from mining led to cultural developments. Residents raised funds to build the Central City Opera House, which opened in 1878, and four other theaters.
The railroads brought an influx of newcomers and visitors to Gilpin County, leading to the construction of hotels and other amenities. One early hotel was the Teller House in Central City, built in 1872. It was a popular stopping place for many travelers, and its history included a visit from President Ulysses S. Grant in 1873.
Industrialized mining allowed both of these cities to prosper, but it also added to the severe environmental effects already apparent from placer mining. The mills, for instance, produced great noise pollution with the echo of stamp mills along canyon walls. The smelters produced coal dust, which covered the town and polluted the air. They also produced piles of toxic slag, waste from the smelting process. Like earlier mining processes, both mills and smelters discharged harmful chemicals such as mercury and arsenic.
In 1886 the Gilpin Tramway was built on a narrow gauge line only two feet wide. The tramway made it cheaper and easier for mines to transport their ore to the mills along Clear Creek. For several decades, this tramway brought ore to Black Hawk for processing. By World War I, mining had severely declined and the tramway ceased service.
In 1903 David Moffat organized the Denver, Northwestern & Pacific Railway (DN&P), also known as the Moffat Road. He planned to create a direct route from Denver to Salt Lake City over the Colorado Rockies, beginning with a standard gauge line over Rollins Pass. This first phase of the line stretched through Gilpin County, running north of Black Hawk and Central City to the Continental Divide at the county’s western edge. Though Moffat did not finish the line before his death, his partners continued the line to Craig and eventually reached Utah in the 1930s through a series of constructions and mergers.
The Moffat Road not only opened Denver to train travel directly to the west but also led to the development of communities along the line and drew many tourists from Denver and other places east. The settlement of Tolland, west of Rollinsville, was begun by Katherine Wolcott Toll after her husband’s death and the arrival of the railroad. She sold plots for mountain cabins, and the area became a popular summer resort for Denver families.
The most prominent settlement along the Moffat Road, however, was Lincoln Hills, an all-black resort community built in 1922 by two African American brothers from Denver: Regneir and Roger Ewalt. While some residents drove to Lincoln Hills, the Moffat Road allowed easy access via a convenient train ride from Denver. One of the most prominent lots in the town was the Winks Lodge, owned by O. Wendell “Winks” and his wife Naomi Hamlet. The lodge rented cabins and operated from 1925 to 1965. The lodge and the area attracted visitors from all over the country, including Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neal Hurston, among others. Another major site in Lincoln Hills was Camp Nizhoni, a YWCA girls’ camp established in 1927 for African American girls who were barred from attending other camps.
During the early twentieth century, mining declined in Gilpin County. In 1920 Black Hawk’s population hit a low of 250 residents, and only one mill remained in operation. A spike in the price of gold during the 1930s brought a brief resurgence in placer mining, but overall the area languished during the Great Depression. The Central City Opera House was restored in 1932, providing a much-needed tourism boost during lean times. In 1966 the Central City–Black Hawk National Historic District was established in an attempt to preserve the cities’ crumbling nineteenth-century buildings.
After the 1950s mining mostly ended, leading to a population decline. While mining brought the county to prominence, the environmental effects are still being felt today. In 1983 the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the Central City and Clear Creek area on its list of Superfund sites, high-priority areas for environmental cleanup. Open mine shafts exposed metal-containing rock to oxygen, which breaks down sulfides in the rock into sulfuric acid. The acid dissolves the metals, which then leak out into local waterways. Cleanup of these sites involves removing waste rock, sealing mine openings, and controlling drainage by regrading slopes, planting vegetation, and building retaining walls. These efforts are ongoing.
As the EPA works to help the Gilpin County environment recover from the mining era, local officials have set their sights on reviving the county economy. With lobbying from Gilpin County officials, a statewide ballot initiative passed in 1990 that legalized limited-stakes gambling in Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek. The initiative required that much of the proceeds from gambling would be provided to the Colorado State Historical Fund for Historic Preservation. The three towns hoped that this would restart their crumbling economies and towns. Both Black Hawk and Central City saw a major resurgence in their economies.
Over the years, Gilpin County has proved to be nothing if not resilient, surviving mining booms and busts and crumbling infrastructure, dealing with an EPA cleanup site, and finding a means of resurgence through legalized gambling. Today, many of Gilpin County’s 5,000 or so residents commute out of the county for work, and many others commute into the county to work at the casinos. The largest employment sector in Gilpin County is arts, entertainment, and recreation, followed by food and accommodations. Legal gambling at some twenty-six casinos (eight in Central City, eighteen in Black Hawk) has helped both the population and economy of Gilpin County, and the growth of the Denver Metro area is expected to extend into the area.
The county also attracts visitors to public lands, including Golden Gate State Park and the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests. While gambling is an important part of the economy, the county government states that its goal is to maintain a rural and natural setting and to minimize any environmental impact associated with gambling and new developments.