Gilpin County – The Seen & The Unseen
By Linda Jones
Some historic ruins of mines and mills continue to punctuate the landscape in Black Hawk and Central City, but many more have disappeared becoming victims of vandals and weather. During the years that an alternative high school was housed in a storefront in Central City, all the students knew well the labyrinth of underground mining tunnels running in every direction. It wasn’t unusual in the 20th century for a previously unknown tunnel under a street or parking area to suddenly collapse and swallow a vehicle.
Bobtail Tunnel & Mine
On the opposite side of Gregory Street, the Bobtail Tunnel and blacksmith shop continue to attract tourists’ interest. Norman Blake, owner of the Bobtail Tunnel prior to his death, once told the author that the tunnel connected with so many other tunnels and mines that it was possible to walk 46 miles underground from the Bobtail entrance. The 2,200-foot-long tunnel was built for access to several mines that wound their way under Bobtail Hill, but the greatest mine was the Bobtail itself.
Author William McNeill in Gathering Gold said, “The riches pouring from this enterprise were of paramount importance to the early economy of the Territory of Colorado. The Bobtail Tunnel was the first tunnel of any magnitude ever driven in Colorado for the purpose of intersecting and operating ore bodies at great depth in the earth.”
The mine was located in 1859 and the tunnel was built in 1873. Anyone who lived in our state prior to gaming probably toured the Bobtail Tunnel, riding on a long wagon bed pulled by burros. The biggest mining tragedy in Gilpin County’s history centers on the tunnel.
Polar Star Mill
Built in 1860 of stone, the Polar Star was one of the earliest mills. Ore from the many mines in Chase Gulch was brought here for processing, first by wagon and later by the unique 2-foot-wide railroad, the Gilpin Tram.
One of the popular tourist attractions in Black Hawk in the 20th century was the Little Colonel mine along Gregory Street. When Lily Belle’s Casino was created, the mine entrance was sealed and the former gift shop became part of the casino.
The Bates-Hunter mine is quite visible along Gregory Street in Central City. It was discovered in 1859 by John Gregory himself, working for $200 a day to locate veins for others. In the late 20th century the mine was reopened, a new headframe was added and the mine was worked until a few years ago. Water from Gregory Creek now flows into the mine and the pumping costs caused the closure.
Coeur d’Alene Mine
The “Sentinel on the Hill” above Central City was discovered in 1884 and the patent number was issued to a woman, Catharine Cameron. The mine was worked periodically from its beginning into the 1940s when the federal government ordered all gold mines closed. Tunnels from the main shaft were dug at depths of 200, 400, 450, 550, 600 and 700 feet. The shaft housed two compartments, one used for a ladder-way and one for a bucket-way says a USGS report in 1915. Through all its years of production, the Coeur d’Alene had never been the scene of a fatal accident until 1940, when an explosion in the shaft house killed the mayor of the town below; Charles Richards was serving his second term as mayor and was the superintendent of the mine. Even for a mine, the accident was unusual. Richards was trimming blasting caps while sitting on the workbench, with a box of blasting caps yet to trim on the floor in front of him. Another miner began sharpening a shovel on a grindstone nearby when a spark fell into the box of caps. The resulting blast blew countless holes in Richard’s face and throat and he lived only a few days.
Bela Buell had the Midas touch in the early halcyon Gold Rush and built this mill to handle ore from his Leavitt mine. When Buell and his partner John Kip built this mill in 1864 for $15,000, it housed 60 stamps as well as the mine hoist. The Leavitt mine employed 40 men underground and 12 on the surface in the early 1870s. Some of the Leavitt’s best ore was shipped to Swansea, Wales, where the ore which cost Buell between $6 – $12 per ton to produce and transport earned him $300 per ton for the gold, silver and other metals it yielded.
Many of our readers will remember the Lost Gold Mine on Eureka Street in Central City. In the 1990s the tourist attraction was still thriving until a section of the tunnel’s ceiling caved in and blocked the tunnel. State mine inspectors deemed the mine unsafe unless a large sum of money was spent on shoring it up, and the popular destination closed. The attractive gift shop/entrance to the mine has been transformed into a home.
Within the current business district of Black Hawk, two prominent mines were located nearly opposite each other. The original discovery of lode gold by John Gregory, on May 6, 1859, started the Pikes Peak Gold Rush. His Gregory Mine left a collapsed fissure in the rock on the west side of Gregory Street, not far below the clinic. Not coincidentally, the small creek in that gulch, Gregory Gulch, is called Gregory Creek. This rich discovery impressed Ovando Hollister enough to declare Gregory’s discovery on a par with that of Magellan. Gregory’s discovery changed him overnight from a common man into a wealthy man. When he left this area on Sept. 8 of that year, he carried $30,000 worth of dust with him, an amount that would bring millions today. Prior to gaming, the tailings of the Gregory mine spilled down the hill behind what is now Bullwhackers casino. In the 19th century the Gregory Mill processed 350 tons of ore daily. Today the Gregory and the Bobtail mine are part of the 50 Gold Mines Company and two of the three owners of that company live in Gilpin County.