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Colorado gold; it's easy to visit historic gold country just west of Denver.

It's easy to visit historic gold country just west of Denver

Chugging along in a narrow-gauge steam train, inching down cool mine shafts, swishing a gold pan in a clear stream, or riding horseback past ramshackle mine camps . . . in Colorado's historic gold country, it's easy to touch the past.

A thoroughly modern transportation artery, Interstate 70, gives easy access to five mining towns. All contain buildings of such significance that their downtowns are National Register historic landmarks or historic districts. This accessible gold (and later silver) country is less than an hour west of Denver, off a 50-mile stretch of 1-70.

Make Colorado's gold country the focus of a week's vacation, or add some of the towns as side trips if you're traveling to Rocky Mountain National Park. If you start from Denver, visits to the Museum of Natural History in City Park (for its gold display) and the Denver Mint (for its display of coins and bullion) will broaden your experience.

Colorado's rush of '59 and its legacy

The state's biggest gold rush began with the first major discovery of lode gold at Idaho Springs in 1859 and later a huge strike at Central City Thousands of "fiftyniners" poured in, but the rush faded quickly; by 1861, surface gold was played out. As in the 1898 Yukon rush, much of the ore was in deep, hard rock and could be extracted only with large-scale equipment.

Though in some areas miners could use huge steam engines to dredge whole riverbeds, most of the gold was in solid quartz that had to be blasted with dynamite. To extract ore, the heaps of rubble were crushed with huge machinery, often abandoned with the mine. (By contrast, California's 1849 rush lasted roughly a decade. It had more placer gold, which could be panned, sluiced, or hydraulically washed out of hillsides.)

Some of these ugly and even dangerous remnants of mining days are still visible, and some left contamination bad enough to be targeted as national priority sites by the EPA's Superfund. Most of the Colorado towns born with the gold rush-including Central City, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Breckenridge, and Leadville-went bust when gold faltered but found new prosperity and even permanence with later strikes of silver, lead, and molybdenum.

Today, mining is the state's sixth-biggest industry, and high prices for gold are giving it something of a comeback. New technology-cyanide leaching-extracts more metal from ore, making it profitable to mine the less-rich lodes (but this method can release cadmium, lead, cyanide, and other chemicals, which can seep into ground water).

The mining towns today

Each town has its own appeal, from Georgetown's gingerbread prettiness to Central City's dignified red brick. If you tour east to west, you start where the first strikes occurred. Central City or Georgetown makes a good base for day trips at the east end, Leadville at the west. Since lodging in all the towns is limited, it's wise to make reservations for some areas Central City during opera season, for example. Prices generally are reasonable. For more, see page 24.

Some cautions: all of these towns are high, ranging in elevation from about 7,000 to over 10,000 feet. Take it easy, and drink plenty of liquids. And while midsummer days average a mild 75', wearing a hat or sunblock will protect you from the high altitude's more intense sun. If you go exploring in the mining back country, watch for open pits and don't enter shafts or abandoned mines it's dangerous and illegal. If you've driven from sea level, have your car's carburetor adjusted so your engine will operate more efficiently.

Central City: handsome buildings, mining relics

Springing up around the huge ]ode gold strike at Gregory Gulch (it produced $9 million in gold from 1859 to '67), this town was rough when New York newsman Horace Greeley first saw it. In An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859, he wrote "I doubt there is as yet a table or chair in these diggings . . . the entire population sleep in tents or under pine boughs."

The handsome brick and stone buildings you still see today were erected after devastating fires. Downtown has its share of taffy and T-shirt shops, but also some gems: the 1874 ThomasBillings house at 209 Eureka Street, and the restored 1874 Golden Rose Hotel at 102 Main, once more taking guests in 26 antiques-furnished rooms ($48 to $96). Get the narrow-gauge Blackhawk & Central City Railroad at 220 Spring Street; the 30-minute trip runs 11 to 5 daily except Tuesdays June through August, weekends only through October. Fare is $4.75 for adults, $3.25 for ages 5 through 15.

The landmark opera house on Eureka Street has been home to Central City Opera since 1932. Going to a production here is a treat. The intimate 756-seat space puts you close enough to see performers' expressions. If the performances (all in English) don't keep you alert, the straight-backed chairs will.

June through August, 1-hour tours ($3) visit both the opera house and 1872 Teller House. They run between 10 and 5 daily. The Teller House also presents weekend recitals.

For a schedule of Central City performances, see page 24.

From Central City, an old stagecoach route (now a good graded road) called the Oh My God Road heads to Idaho Springs. It takes 46 turns down a scenic mountainside.

Idaho Springs: hardworking, without a touristy face

More geared to mining than tourism, the Idaho Springs area has more than 200 mines that disgorge minerals from lead to uranium. The chamber of commerce, at Miner Street and Colorado Boulevard, has free walking-tour brochures.

One working gold and silver mine, open for 45-minute tours, is also used by the Colorado School of Mines to train engineers. From the Edgar Mine's entrance at the top of Eighth Street, visitors walk '/4 mile into a lighted tunnel; along the way, they see an ore train carrying large chunks of ore, gold veins, underground workshops. Tours are offered between 8 and 4:30 Tuesdays through Saturdays from June through August ($3, $1.50 for ages 6 through 12); hard hats are provided.

Unrestored and a bit rickety, the 1913 Argo Gold Mill (2350 Riverside Drive) is your chance to get inside a huge oreprocessing mill. On a self-guided tour, you see old ore cars, huge drills, and mineral displays, with a short walk into an 1860s gold mine (9 to 8 daily; $4, $3 for ages 12 through 18).

From Idaho Springs, take I-70 west 14 miles to Georgetown and follow signs to the historic district.

Georgetown: built on silver, popular for its steam train ride The gold rush was over by 1861, but for Georgetown, silver meant a more lasting boom. Today, it's better known for its steam railroad and lovingly restored Victorian houses.

In a unique configuration, the Georgetown Loop railroad inscribed three circles with loops and trestles so ore trains could overcome a 700-foot elevation gain in the 3-1/2-mile run to the mines of nearby Silver Plume. The final link re-creating the spectacular 1880s system was completed five years ago, and you can now ride the popular train daily in summer.

On the 1 -hour round trip, get off midway and tour the Lebanon Mine (miner's lights provided) or stop in Silver Plume (its unpaved streets and small miners' cottages are a nice contrast to Georgetown). Departures are about every 1 '/4 hours from 10:40 to 4 at Georgetown, 10 to 4:40 at Silver Plume. Tickets cost $8.50, $4.50 for ages 4 through 15. Go early (before it gets crowded) and bring your own beverages (none are sold at the depots).

Allow a couple of hours to walk the historic district, shop along Sixth Street (parking lots fill up by noon weekends), dine (the town has more than a dozen restaurants), and view more than 200 Victorian houses on quiet side streets. A good place to start with a docent-led tour is the Hamill House Museum, Third and Argentine streets (open 9 to 5 daily; $2.50, $1.50 for ages 8 through 12).

Back on I-70, head 16 miles west, over Loveland Pass, then go 14 miles south on State 9 to Breckenridge.

Breckenridge: skiing's its fortune, but mining past still shows

By 1861, this was a camp of 8,000 gold seekers (a 13-pound-7ounce nugget found here is still the state's largest). Soon the Blue River was so worked over that miles of its banks were piled with tailings still there today. The town ultimately found its fortune in skiing; Main Street is lined with busy restaurants and shops, and the west slope bristles with condominiums.

But the surrounding hills still bear testimony to a mining past. Back-country jeep tours give fascinating glimpses of old mine sites, abandoned camps, and rickety cabins. Tiger Run Tours has 2-hour trips ($35) at 9, noon, and 2:30; call (303) 453-9185. The Summit Historical Society offers a range of experiences. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1 1/2-hour walking tours include more than 40 buildings. Or tour Lomax Placer Gulch and pan for gold. Hour-long tours visit the Washington Mine, outside of town. Sign up for events ($2 each) at the town's visitor center, 309 N. Main Street.

Don't miss Fairplay, just 20 miles away over scenic 11,539-foot Hoosier Pass. The South Park City Museum is a collection of 40 historic buildings saved and relocated to replicate an 1860s-to'80s boardwalk town. In the one-room schoolhouse, slates at each tiny desk are ready for sums or penmanship. The doctor's office displays its ghastly tools, and a complete drugstore lines up amazing elixirs, salves, and liniments. The museum ($2,50) is open 9 to 7 daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

To reach Leadville from Fairplay, head 21 miles south on State 9 -to Antero Junction, 14 miles southwest on US 24 to Buena Vista, and 37 miles north on 24. The Buena Vista-toLeadville se(-tion passes Collegiate Peaks, all higher than 14,000 feet.

Leadville: old-fashioned summer events, mine and rail tours Gold drew settlers here in 1860, but the area's real fame came from silver. In the 1870s, Leadville boasted 115 gambling houses and 120 saloons for a population of 15,000; in a peak year during that period, it produced $11.5 million in silver.

This town is lively, although still recovering from the closure of its molybdenum mine, a major employer. Each summer it hosts old-fashioned Fourth of July events and, on August 4, 5, and 6, Boom Days. Weekends from June 24 to July 16, Oro City opens its canvas flaps and an 1860s miners' tent camp comes to life. All summer, you can tour the famous Matchless Mine (owned by Baby Doe Tabor, heroine of the opera Ballad of Baby Doe), see melodrama at the Tabor Opera House, and enjoy nearby fishing and hiking. For details on Leadville events, see page 24. The chamber of commerce (Box 861, Leadville 80461) publishes a free guide to recreation, lodging, and dining.

The restored Leadville, Colorado & Southern railroad, which once hauled gold and silver miners, reopened last year and now takes tourists on a scenic 24-mile round trip. It's the country's highest non-cog railway, reaching 11,100 feet. You pull out from the 1883 depot, at 326 E. Seventh Street, on a standardgauge train of the 1930s to 1950s; on the nearly 3-hour trip, you see old mine workings, and some sweeping views of the Continental Divide. Trips leave at 9:30 and 2 daily from May 27 through August 31, weekends only in September. Tickets cost $15, $9 for ages 12 and under; to reserve, call (719) 486-3936. Just outside town, the Pa and Ma Guest Ranch offers scenic horseback trips past old gold camps, through aspen forests, and into wildflower-strewn meadows. You can ride by the hour ($8) or join breakfast ($12) or chuckwagon rides (various rates). For more, call the chamber of commerce at (719) 486-3900.
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Date:Jun 1, 1989
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