By John Leach
The Breckenridge area served as summer hunting grounds for the nomadic Ute Tribe and drew white trappers, mountain men and traders as early as 1840. But it hit its prime with the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859.
Early prospectors pushing west from Denver in 1859 saw promise in a mountain valley where the Blue River sliced between the Front Range and the Mosquito-Tenmile Range. They panned for gold and built a primitive shelter for the winter and named it Fort Mary B, or Fort Meribeth, after the only woman in their group.
Southerner George E. Spencer founded Breckenridge near the fort later that year as the Colorado Gold Rush hit the territory with full force, bringing prospectors and fortune hunters into the valley. The Gold Pan Saloon opened for business.
Spencer originally named the town Breckinridge after Vice President John C. Breckinridge, a fellow Southerner, and the ploy is credited with the town being awarded the first post office between the Continental Divide and Salt Lake City. Breckinridge, however, sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, prompting pro-Union townspeople to make a one-letter change in the town’s name – to Breckenridge.
Breckenridge was established decades ahead of Aspen, Telluride and other mining communities to the west that later turned into major skiing centers.
Placer mining operations along the Blue River adjacent to the town produced a purported $5.5 million in gold in Breckenridge’s first decade.
One of the early settlers was Edwin Carter, who came to Breckenridge in 1868 as a prospector but saw the mining operations destroying wildlife habitat and endangering wildlife. Carter became a taxidermist and naturalist and devoted his life to collecting and documenting the state’s birds and mammals.
Carter helped found the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in 1900 and donated his 3,000 specimens to start the museum’s collection, which today tops 1 million objects.
By the late 1860s, however, miners had depleted the placer gold in the Breckenridge area. The mining industry went into a tailspin, and the town’s population fell to 51 by 1870.
Breckenridge got an economic boost, however, by the discovery of silver and lead ores in the nearby mountains, and hard rock mining flourished in the late1870s. The town’s population rebounded to 1,657 by 1880, and Breckenridge was incorporated. The boom led to the construction of more than 100 buildings, including 18 saloons, 10 hotels, three dance halls and three churches. The arrival of the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad in 1882 made the transportation of goods and ore cheaper and faster.
One of the newcomers in this period was John L. Dyer, a middle-aged lay preacher for the Methodist Church who was nicknamed the “Snowshoe Itinerant” for using precursors of today’s skis to cross 13,000-foot Mosquito Pass and bring mail and the gospel to remote mining camps in what today are Summit, Park and Lake counties.
“Father” Dyer, as he became known, bought land in Breckenridge and built a 50- by 25-foot chapel with a 16-foot ceiling. There, on Aug. 22, 1880, and at the age of 68, Dyer conducted the first religious service on the Western Slope. The chapel still stands today, as the Father Dyer United Methodist Church.
Dyer was recognized with a stained glass portrait at the State Capitol, and 13,615-foot Father Dyer Peak and 13,855-foot Dyer Mountain were named after him.
Another settler in this period was Barney Ford, a runaway slave who had helped run the Underground Railroad in Chicago. He had moved west to Denver in 1860 and developed a hotel and restaurant empire, and he headed to Breckenridge in 1879 and opened Ford’s Restaurant and Chop House.
Ford was the first black nominated for the Colorado territorial legislature and became a noted civil rights leader. Today, his stained glass portrait looks down on the House chambers in the State Capitol.
Breckenridge also drew national fame for the 1887 discovery of “Tom’s Baby,” a 136-ounce piece of gold that is believed to be the largest ever found in Colorado.
The mass of crystallized gold was discovered in 1887 by miners Tom Graves and Harry Lytton as they worked a vein in French Gulch. It drew its nickname from the way Graves carried it in his arms wrapped in a blanket as he brought it into town.
“Tom’s Baby” is on display today at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science as part of mining magnate John Champion’s collection. Champion helped found the museum.
Breckenridge also experienced the worst winter on record as snow arrived on Nov. 27, 1898, and continued to fall every day until Feb. 20, 1899. Winds created 40-foot snow drifts that blocked trains from getting to town for 79 days, and the snow in town topped rooftop levels, forcing residents to dig tunnels across Main Street.
The 1893 silver bust dealt a severe blow to mining in the Breckenridge area, as it did throughout Colorado, and the town again entered a period of sharp decline.
The town, however, bounced back again in 1905 as a group of engineers and entrepreneurs began using the technique of dredge mining to recover gold from the Blue River. The shallow draft barges had lines of buckets in the bow that scooped up streambed and fed it through a mercury plant in the middle of the barge that processed the ore for gold. A conveyor belt carried tailings to the stern to be dumped overboard.
The barges had been developed by Campion and Ben Stanley Revett, and four barges worked the Blue River from 1910 to 1923, recovering 149,000 ounces of gold and 36,000 ounces of silver from 23 million cubic yards of streambed. Dredging continued at a slower pace until 1942, when it ceased by order of the War Production Board.
A new industry, skiing, came to Breckenridge in 1961 as Bill Rounds of the Porter and Rounds Lumber Co. organized the Summit Development Corp. to open the Peak 8 Ski Area with a double chair and a midway unloading station, plus a short T-bar.
The company changed its name to the Breckenridge Ski Corp. and expanded onto Peak 9 of the Tenmile Range before becoming part of the Aspen Ski Corp. in 1970.
The 1973 opening of the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 cut the drive time from Denver to 90 minutes and allowed skiers to avoid the journey over Loveland Pass. The ski area was sold to the Ralston Purina Corp. in 1993 and to Vail Resorts in 1996.
A surge of skiers turned Breckenridge into one of the most popular ski resorts in the United States and led to the revitalization of the downtown area, including the renovation of Victorian-era homes and commercial buildings. The downtown area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.