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History of Black Hawk


Black Hawk, "City of Mills," is one of the towns that grew up in Gregory Gulch, the narrow ravine where Georgia prospector John H. Gregory first discovered lode gold in the western part of Kansas territory in 1859. Within months, thousands of would-be miners poured into the gulch, hoping for more big strikes like Gregory’s. A few found bonanzas, many found paying claims, but the great majority either moved elsewhere to try their luck or, proclaiming the whole "Pike’s Peak Gold Rush" a hoax, went back to their settled lives in the States.

The gulch's population first centered around Mountain City, which was between Central City and Black Hawk, but as the boom subsided and the hard work of extracting the gold began, the remaining population began to coalesce into more organized townsites.  At the bottom of the gulch was Black Hawk, first named Black Hawk Point.  The town took its name from the Rock Island, Illinois foundry that produced one of the earliest stamp mills brought into the district.  

With its relatively flat land and abundant supply of water (which was in short supply elsewhere in the gulch) to drive water wheels and flow through sluices, Black Hawk quickly became the milling center for the gold ore mined throughout what became known as Gilpin County.  First by ore wagon, and later by train, tons of precious rock were sent to Black Hawk for various processes designed to extract the maximum amount of gold from the quartz ores.

At first, primitive crushers called arastras were used, much as peasant women used stone to grind grain.  But soon these gave way to the stamp mills that were to dominate Black Hawk’s industry for a generation.  These buildings ran the gold ore through a number of different levels, on each of which cam-driven hammers pounded the ore into finer and finer particles, before at last it was chemically separated by the use of mercury amalgam.

Black Hawk was incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature on March 11, 1864.  The future seemed assured, but trouble lay on the horizon.  As the rich surface veins began to play out, deeper hard-rock mines began to yield complex sulfide ores called sulphurets – rocks that prevented the simple stamp mills from recovering but a fraction of the gold locked inside.

Smelting at high temperatures seemed to provide a solution to the recalcitrant sulphurets, but Black Hawk’s first smelter, built in 1865 by James E. Lyon and George Pullman (of sleeping car fame) proved unsuccessful.  Three years later the Boston & Colorado smelter, operated by former Brown University chemistry professor Nathaniel P. Hill, opened and the industry was revitalized.  Years later, after Hill had relocated his plant to Denver, a grateful state elected him to the U. S. Senate (following earlier Gilpin County Senators Henry M. Teller and Jerome Chaffee).

In 1872, the Colorado Central Railroad line had reached Black Hawk (it would reach Central City in 1878), making it possible for coal to be shipped to the smelters and mills and supplies to be delivered up to the growing mining towns.  By then, the town’s skyline also boasted a new school and Presbyterian Church and new brick business blocks spread along the gulch.

But the economic boom was an environmental disaster.  Noise levels were intolerable, with the roar from crashing stamp mills and screaming steam locomotives echoing from the canyon walls.  The creek’s waters were polluted by human, animal and industrial wastes.  The trees had long since been cut down for miles around for timbering mills and powering mine engines, leaving the narrow gulch subject to frequent flooding that eventually raised the level of Gregory Street by a full story in some places.  And the coal dust and the toxic fumes produced by the sulfur refining were both dangerous and unsightly.  Periodically, a new "strike" would empty the towns of the more restless miners – Leadville in the 1870s and Cripple Creek in 1896, for example.  

Through it all, the towns along the gulch continued to grow and prosper.  From the outset, many of the miners and millworkers were immigrants, primarily from England and Ireland.  Cornish miners experienced in hard-rock mining arrived in the 1870s, battling with their British brethren until all were united by the threat of Tyrolean miners willing to work for lower wages near the turn of the century.

Beneath them all, socially, was a small band of Chinese miners organized by Chin Lin Sou.  These "Celestials" specialized in placer mining the dumps and tailings piles left behind from previous hard-rock operations and pulled the last few dollars of gold from the previously worthless slag.

After peaking with a population of over 1,500 in 1880, Black Hawk began to decline in numbers in the early 20th century. A tramway – a tiny two-foot gauge railway even smaller than the narrow-gauge Colorado Central - was constructed in 1887 to make it easier and cheaper for the mines in the surrounding hills to get their ore to the mills along Clear Creek. But by World War I, business had declined to the point where it too, proved unprofitable and the tracks were dismantled. By that time, the town had just one mill left in operation, and by 1920 the population had fallen to only 250.

A revival of placer mining greeted the rise in the price of gold to $35 an ounce in the 1930s, and the re-opening of the Central City Opera House in 1932 sparked a similar increase in tourism.  The business district gradually reflected this change, with gift shops and restaurants replacing hardware stores and milliners.

Though Black Hawk was spared the devastating fires that destroyed many early mining camps (Central City in 1873 and 1874), the very longevity of its structures also contributed to their continuing decay.  Floods continued to be a problem, as the town lacked funds to attempt any sort of water or sewer improvements.  With automobiles replacing trains as the primary means of tourist travel, rail transportation was discontinued in 1941.  But the new mobility proved a mixed blessing, and more and more local residents began commuting to jobs outside the county, while tourists began to bypass the quaint old mining towns for more distant destinations.

Even the formation of the Central City – Black Hawk National Historic Landmark District could do nothing to stem the tide of decay.  Faced with declining population, deteriorating infrastructure and disintegrating architecture, city leaders banded together with their peers in Central City and Cripple Creek to offer an initiative on the 1990 Colorado ballot that would allow limited stakes gambling in the commercial districts of the towns, with much of the proceeds earmarked for historic preservation efforts statewide.

The measure passed overwhelmingly, and speculators began renovating historic structures for use as casinos.  Beginning with opening day on October 1, 1991, gaming proved spectacularly successful in attracting new investment to the gulch in amounts unheard of since the gold boom more than a century before.  Moreover, the same easy access and level land that made Black Hawk suitable for the mills and smelters of the gold rush days now made it attractive for larger casino, hotel and parking projects.  The unexpected pace and scale of the development led inevitably to some disillusionment, with existing institutions trying hard to cope with the flood of changes.

Entering yet another century, Black Hawk faces the prospect of trying to sustain – and live through – yet another boom period.  The opportunities and challenges are there for those who will respect its rich heritage while at the same time welcome its future with the spirit of adventure that brought forth those ambitious miners and merchants of the 1800s.

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