“The Little Kingdom” of Gilpin is a vestigial mining realm still wearing its goldenera garb. The Central City–Black Hawk–Nevadaville National Historic Landmark District has 418 contributing structures out of a total of 472. This small county named for Colorado's first territorial governor, William Gilpin, was once the richest and most populous in Colorado.
Gilpin County proved to be Colorado's mother lode after John H. Gregory's May 6, 1859, find on a tributary of North Clear Creek. Horace Greeley, who was among 10,000 people pouring into Central City that summer, wrote back to his newspaper, the New York Tribune, that “the entire population of the valley sleeps in tents or under booths of pine boughs, cooking and eating in the open air. I doubt there is as yet a table or a chair in these diggings, eating being done around a cloth spread on the ground, while each one sits or reclines on mother earth.”
By 1867 Bayard Taylor described the county's principal towns as having “a curious, rickety, temporary air, with their buildings standing as if on one leg, their big signs and little accommodations, the irregular streets, and the bald, scarred and pitted mountains.” Mountain City, the original settlement in Gregory Gulch, was soon overrun and annexed by Central City. Mines, homes, and businesses sprawled into nearby American City, Apex, Black Hawk, Eureka, Gold Dirt, Missouri City, Mountain City, Nevadaville, Nugget, Russell Gulch, Tip Top, and Wide-awake. To build these towns, timber the mines, and stoke the smelters, hillsides of fir, pine, and spruce were sacrificed. In one of the first environmental abuse suits, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz charged in 1877 that Nathaniel P. Hill had fueled his Black Hawk smelter with wood stripped from public lands. Not only was the natural setting ravished, but much of the built environment was ripped down later, during the 1930s and 1940s. Towns such as Nevadaville were virtually demolished to avoid taxes, maintenance, and liability and to make a few dollars on used lumber, brick, and hardware.
Stone foundations, structures, and walls have persisted in Black Hawk and Central City because of the widespread use of yellowish local metamorphic rock. This dry rock work is generally attributed to Cornish immigrants, although Austrian, German, and Irish stonemasons are also listed in the 1880 and 1900 censuses for Central City. The Cornish “Cousin Jacks” constructed tight retaining walls that still keep buildings from sliding down the county's precipitous canyons. The Cornish boasted that “at the bottom of every mine—all over the world—lies a Cornishman.” In Colorado, they introduced what became the standard miner's lunch pail. This tin bucket held tea or coffee in the bottom, then a dish of soup and a Cornish pasty on top, a three-course meal heated over a miner's candlestick.
Black Hawk and Central City differ from most Colorado towns, where free-standing buildings with lawns are typical. Here, contiguous buildings share common walls along picturesque streets that curve with the hillside contours.
Gilpin County produced more than $200 million in gold, but only a few small, sporadically productive mines and mills survive amid the ruins of mineshafts, headframes, cabins, and metal-sheathed mills. By the 1890s Cripple Creek outshone Gilpin County, and of twenty-three communities that sprang up during flush times, only Black Hawk, Central City, and Rollinsville survive as post office towns.
Gilpin County perked up when gambling became legal on October 1, 1991. In 1990 voters statewide approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing limited-stakes gambling ($5 per bet) in Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek, with the provision that gambling profits could be taxed to support preservation and other community improvements.
The marriage of gambling and historic preservation has been rocky. Gambling is nothing new to Central City: gaming halls existed from the beginning and as late as the 1940s financed a free school lunch program. Gambling's impact in the 1990s appears to be less beneficial, as the built environment is transformed by monstrous new three- and four-story casinos overwhelming old Victorian facades. Older structures recycled as casinos have generally been gutted of their historic interiors, even though Central City's 1991 preservation ordinance differs from many such ordinances across the nation in allowing interiors as well as exteriors to be designated for preservation. Examples of well-preserved interiors are the Teller House Bar and the Gold Coin Saloon.
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