The Story of Washington Hall
William Gilpin, first governor of Colorado Territory, approved the creation of Gilpin County and Central City as its county seat on Nov. 1, 1861. Until the Territory of Colorado was established and its county lines delineated, each mining district drew up its own laws. The newly created Gilpin County included dozens of mining districts, and their laws were the basis of the new county’s laws.
The first priority of the new board of county commissioners was building a county courthouse and they quickly accepted a plan submitted by William (Billy) Cozens, a carpenter and deputy sheriff of Gilpin County, for a jail on Jan. 7, 1862. Cozens immediately began construction of the hand-hewn square log structure and the county started leasing the completed building on March 1, 1862, for $35 per month. The building housed the county clerk in the east section and the jail on the west side.
Cozens was appointed jailor on March 1 and given a salary of $600 per year. This salary included all provisions for the prisoners – total cost 80 cents per prisoner per day. A second floor was constructed by Cozens and clapboard siding was then added over the logs. The entire building was finished in March 1864 and in 1868 the commissioners purchased the building from Cozens for $10,000.
The vault in the rear of the county clerk’s office was of vital importance, as the multitude of mining district claim records was under the protection of that official. The commissioners decided to put strong shelving and flooring behind a fireproof door to protect these transactions and ordered nearly a ton of iron from a local blacksmith for the vault door. At that time, 1,800 pounds of iron cost $84 and the labor for the door, $27. This beautifully crafted vault door is a treat to see; there are impressive vaults in the rear of nearly every Victorian business building in Central City.
The second floor courtroom was the largest space in town for meetings at that time, and many groups used this space on weekends and evenings: Baptists, Methodists, a singing school and political parties. The Methodists met in the courtroom for services on Wednesday evenings and Sundays; the prisoners in the jail below them noted how loudly they sang and hatched a plan. A friend brought a saw during the week and the next Sunday, while the Methodists fervently sang, the four prisoners sawed through the bars and escaped. Unfortunately for them, they were all soon recaptured.
And the floor came tumblin’ down
One oft-told tale concerning the building happened on March 18, 1871, when the Republicans were meeting on the second floor. Because this was the dominant party in the county, the meeting was very well attended and the floor collapsed. One side gave way first, sliding all the Republicans in one tumbling mass. Incredibly, no one was seriously injured and the two small fires started by the falling oil lamps were immediately extinguished. When the repairs were authorized, the floor was strengthened so much it can now hold twice as many people as can physically stand on it.
When a larger courthouse was needed, the present courthouse was constructed (1900). The city of Central then purchased Washington Hall and used the east side of the first floor for their city offices and the west side as the firehouse. The large door on the west side was cut for the fire engine and the attractive bell tower was added to summon the volunteer firefighters. In 1961, the fire station was moved to its current location on Lawrence Street, and after gambling became about, the city’s staff was increased and City Hall was relocated to Nevada Street. Washington Hall continued to be used by the city’s police department until this spring when it moved into City Hall and the new museum was created.
Since 1948, the Gilpin County Arts Association has leased the second floor for their art show. The gallery is a gem in Central City’s crown. The art show is juried, meaning art submissions are judged by professionals, and only the best are allowed into the show. It is the oldest juried show in Colorado. The textiles, pottery, oils, watercolors, jewelry and photographs provide one of the city’s delights in the summer season, and the tranquil garden behind the gallery is a must-see.