By Sue Deans
Forty miles west of Golden, off Interstate 70 and into the mountains, are two of Colorado’s gaming towns, Black Hawk and Central City. The casinos clinging to the steep hillsides should not distract from the rich history that has qualified the two towns as a National Historic District.
Black Hawk and Central City were mining towns settled in 1859 in the wake of the Colorado gold rush responsible for so much Front Range development. By the end of that year, an estimated $2 million in gold bullion had been collected from the rich region, and by the following summer the population of the area had jumped to 60,000.
Both towns were blessed with rushing water to power ore smelters and soon had train service to carry the ore to Denver, at the cost of environmental devastation from clear-cutting the hillsides, pollution pouring into mountain streams and constant reverberating noise.
Flooding and fires (Central City suffered major fires in 1873 and 1874) were persistent threats. Money overcame whatever objections residents might have had and the towns expanded and prospered. Central City, which was actually larger than Denver, lost its bid to become the new state’s capital by one vote. Residents included Baby Doe Tabor, Doc Holliday and the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown.
Placer or surface mining gave way to underground mining, but by 1920 the gold veins were played out. Subsequent attempts to revive the industry failed, and the towns shrank to a few hundred residents, relying on tourism for survival.
In 1990, Colorado voters approved limited-stakes gambling in the former mining towns of Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek west of Colorado Springs. A portion of the taxes goes to historic preservation.
Shops selling T-shirts and saltwater taffy gave way to casinos with slot machines and blackjack and poker tables. Many historic buildings, preserved from the exterior, were gutted and reinforced to bear the weight of gambling machines. Casinos, particularly in Black Hawk, now tower in the narrow canyon.
The limitations on bets (a maximum of $5) spawned inventive work-arounds to get more money on the tables. In 2008, the rules were loosened to allow $100 maximum bets and 24-hour play and add roulette and craps.
Black Hawk, one mile closer to eager gamblers traveling from Denver and other communities to the east on Colorado 119, has been the prime beneficiary of the gambling infusion.
In an effort to pick up more traffic, Central City built the 8.4-mile Central City Parkway off I-70, bypassing Black Hawk. Although it has not caught up with its neighbor in casinos, Central City has maintained more of its historic character.
More about Black Hawk and Central City
Black Hawk and Central City facts
Population: 663 for Central City and 118 for Black Hawk (2010 Census).
Altitude: 8,510 feet above sea level for Central City and 8,537 feet above sea level for Black Hawk.
County: Gilpin County (Central City is county seat).
Land area: 2.43 square miles for Central City and 1.95 square miles for Black Hawk.
Climate: Cool summers, very cold winters and low humidity, with abundant sunshine year-round. Annual precipitation of 19 inches, including average snowfall of 74 inches. Snow depth of 6 to 9 inches December to February. January averages: high 34, low 9. July averages: high 77, low 51. More weather >>