In 1859, prospectors, miners and fortune seekers poured into Summit County as part of the Pikes Peak gold rush, following their dreams of riches and a new life. The story of Iowa Gulch, located on the northern edge of Breckenridge, parallels that of many of the “golden gulches” of the day and the use of a variety of mining techniques throughout their history. Mines evolved from small-scale, manual, one-man operations to larger-scale, equipment-intense operations with the introduction of the corporate funding of the large-scale operations. The story probably began before the town of Breckenridge appeared on the landscape.
As shouts of joy echoed through Iowa Gulch, jubilant prospectors dreamed of riches beyond compare. Not long after prospectors found gold in the Blue River in 1859, men began exploring the gulches west of the waterway. One of them, Iowa Gulch, quickly showed “good promise.” In succeeding decades, virtually all of the techniques used in placer mining, — pan, rocker, long tom, sluice box, giant, booming, shafting, and bank blasting — occurred on Iowa Hill.
To handle claims and settle disputes, miners organized mining districts. Iowa Gulch, part of the Quartz Mountain mining district, held many claims, each extending 100 to 200 feet up and down the gulch and running from bank to bank. Numerous men might try to work each claim, creating disputes over claim boundaries and water supplies. Some of those with claims on Iowa Hill were prominent citizens of Breckenridge — Marshel Silverthorn, Peter Engle and John Roby, to name a few.
An early mining technique called booming created the sheer cliffs of Iowa Gulch. At intervals, head gates released water held in reservoirs and ponds at the top of Iowa Hill. The water rushed down the hillside, cascading over bluffs of loose sediments and soils. This technique moved tons of rock, soil and vegetation into sluice boxes lined with wooden riffles that captured the gold.
Booming operations, generally more efficient than pure manual techniques, moved large amounts of material, thus providing increased profits to the miners and investors during the 1870s. Whereas rockers and long toms produced yields of $3 per day per man, booming recovered an average of $25 per day per man.
By the mid- to late 1870s, when miners realized that booming could not break apart gold-bearing gravels bound tightly with clay as on Iowa Hill, they began using high-pressure nozzles called monitors or giants, a technique developed in California in the 1850s. The monitors, which could move side to side, up and down, and swivel 360 degrees, operated like huge, high-pressure fire hoses, bringing tremendous water pressure to bear on the hillsides, washing down the gold-bearing material. Men bolted the nozzle to a large wooden foundation for safety and stability. A box of rocks counterbalanced the weight of the nozzle. A run-away, uncontrolled giant could easily kill a man instantly.
In 1905, the Banner Placer Mining Company, which then owned 500 acres on Iowa Hill, made vast changes to Iowa Gulch. Workers completed a 15-acre reservoir system to store water for the giants. Automatic gates spilled water from the reservoir every few minutes, 24 hours a day. Over 2,000 feet of 22-inch steel-riveted pipe arrived from the Gold Pan Shops to carry the water to 4-foot-wide sluices.
As late as 1915, the Summit County Journal reported that several men worked the Banner placer with satisfactory results. The last of the entries that tell the history of Iowa Hill spoke of great optimism about platinum, another mineral that promised enticing profits. In 1918, workers found grains of platinum in the sluice boxes. A new, but unsuccessful, search for wealth began.
This article is part of a book that was written for the Summit Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, “Windows to the Past” by Rick Hague and Sandie Mather. The book is available at the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, the Frisco Historic Park, and the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District in Silverthorne. The books are available from Summit Historical Society in Dillon at the Dillon Schoolhouse, in Frisco at the Frisco Historic Park and Museum, and in Breckenridge through the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at the Welcome Center, Edwin Carter Museum, Barney Ford House Museum and the Gaymon Cabin. It’s also available at the Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco. Or purchase directly from Hague at (970) 409-7937.