Black Hawk (1860, 8,042 feet), “The City of Mills,” was named for a pioneer quartz mill built by the Black Hawk Company of Rock Island, Illinois. Strategically located at the confluence of Gregory Gulch and North Clear Creek, this mill town became the county's ore processing hub. Colorado's first great successful smelter, Nathaniel P. Hill's Boston and Colorado Smelter, opened in 1868 and salvaged the sputtering gold rush by applying a process imported from Swansea, Wales, to cook recalcitrant Colorado gold ores. By the 1870s, fifteen stamp mills were crushing ores for twenty-five smelters that darkened Black Hawk skies with sulfurous smoke. To feed the smelters, much of Gilpin County was deforested for charcoal. Twenty-four hours a day Black Hawk throbbed to the beat of the stamp mills, where huge steel- or iron-tipped lead weights pulverized ore.
Black Hawk became a grimy mill town, and also the county's railhead following the arrival of the Colorado Central in 1872. This narrow-gauge line ran until 1941, by which time all the major mills were closed. In 1900 it housed 1,200; by 1990 the population had fallen to 225. Never having suffered a serious fire, Black Hawk boasts a large number of 1860s and 1870s wooden structures. Gambling began to change the scene in 1991, replacing old retail shops and mill sites with gambling joints that a modern-day William Blake might also characterize as “dark Satanic mills.”
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