Historians often describe Summit County history in terms of gold. Given its role in the Pikes Peak gold rush, that makes sense. However, people often overlook all of the other different types of “gold” that helped form the county’s diverse history.
Before the Pikes Peak gold rush of 1859, the Mountain Utes and their predecessors sought “brown gold” — American mountain bison, elk, deer and other game that roamed the valleys and meadows, migrating with the seasons. The Utes followed the herds but left little evidence of their presence or lifestyle on the landscape. However, many of today’s roads and trails follow their routes along waterways and over passes.
The years from roughly 1820 until the 1840s saw the next quest for “brown gold” — this time beaver, otter and muskrat pelts sought by trappers for sale to wealthy, fashion-conscious patrons in Paris, London and New York. The trade came to a halt in the 1840s when tastes turned to silk.
Except for a place name in Summit County — La Bonte’s Hole — these trappers also left few footprints on the landscape; today, a café at the Keystone Resort ski area bears the name La Bonte’s. Trappers called valleys “holes.” At pre-designated holes, they met each fall to trade and carouse. La Bonte’s Hole, located at the confluence of the Blue and Snake rivers with the Tenmile Creek, was the site of such a local gathering for an unknown number of years. Lake Dillon now covers the site.
The spring of 1859 witnessed the first seekers of “yellow gold” — the 59ers of the Pikes Peak gold rush. They streamed into Summit County desperately seeking placer gold — nuggets and flakes found in stream sediments and mined largely by hand with shovels, gold pans and sluices.
After the initial rush, in about 1862, life quieted down until the very early 1880s when a second rush began — this time for silver, lead, zinc and gold mined underground. The sounds of drilling and blasting echoed through the valleys into the early 1900s. Towns like Breckenridge, Frisco, old Dillon, Keystone and Montezuma turned from wild mining camps into “civilized” villages that supported families, schools, churches and stores.
During this 50-year period (roughly 1859 through about 1910), settlers established ranches mainly in the flatter, northern part of the county. They sold their produce to those living and mining in the southern part of the county. The railroad arrived in 1882, connecting all of the major towns to the outside world, while bringing in fresh fruit and vegetables, supplies and people. The so-called “High Line,” because the rails crossed the Continental Divide twice, carried mineral products and lumber to Denver and points beyond.
After about 1910, the mining boom collapsed except for gold dredging in several local rivers beginning in 1898 and continuing until 1942. Life in Summit County languished, with few people and little activity, until the 1950s when the quest for “white gold” — mountain snow — began.
The Denver Water Board started work in 1956 on Dillon dam. The reservoir supplies water for Denver and the Front Range through a 23.3-mile-long tunnel under the Continental Divide east of the reservoir. The town of Silverthorne grew from its beginnings as a home for those building the dam and tunnel. Land developers, eager to cash in on the second home and recreational potential of the new lake and its surrounding mountains, rushed in. The Peak 8 Ski Area (the forerunner of Breckenridge Ski Resort) opened in 1961, to be followed shortly by Keystone and Copper Mountain resorts. The boom in second homes, restaurants, shops and recreational amenities continues today.
The quest for “green gold” began in the 1970s. The enjoyment of Summit County’s forests, streams, lakes and mountains for hiking, biking, fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities brought with it an appreciation of our environment and the need to “go green” in our daily lives.
Who can say what color the next “gold” will be for Summit County?
Rick Hague is a local mining historian and member of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and Summit Historical Society boards. This article is part of a book currently being written for the Summit Historical Society’s 50th anniversary. “Windows to the Past” by Hague and Sandie Mather, president of the Society, is expected to be published in July or August 2016.