Gold miners settled in this county on the eastern flank of the Continental Divide as early as 1859 after a major gold strike by George Jackson led to the birth of Idaho Springs, the first county seat. Fifteen miles farther up Clear Creek, Georgetown sparkled as Colorado's first silver city and captured the county offices in a hotly contested 1868 election. Despite the subsequent decline in Georgetown's wealth and population, the larger community of Idaho Springs never regained political hegemony. After peaking at more than 8,000 in the 1880s, the county's population sank to 2,000 during the 1930s before slowly recovering to reach 8,000 in the 1990s.
The county is named for its major creek, the first great golden stream of the Colorado gold rush. Two dozen mining camps sprouted along the creek and its tributaries during the 1860s, leaving Clear Creek rarely clear until mining played out in the early 1900s. Only Berthoud Falls, Dumont, Empire, Georgetown, Idaho Springs, Lawson, and Silver Plume survive in a county that once hosted two dozen mining towns.
A narrow-gauge railroad crawled up Clear Creek to service the mines and bring in tourists. Double- and triple-header steam trains climbed a steep terrain via engineering wonders such as the famous Georgetown Loop, which was abandoned in the 1930s when the WPA helped replace some of the railbed with the roadbed of U.S. 40. The handsome stone retaining walls and bridge abutments of the rail grade may have inspired the fine stonework on the rims and parapets of U.S. 40's many tunnels.
Skiing at Berthoud Pass, Loveland Valley, and Loveland Basin areas has become the county's economic mainstay. Auto roads climb through mining-era ruins to the summits of Berthoud, Loveland, and Guanella passes; to St. Mary's Glacier; and to the summit of 14,264-foot Mt. Evans. Little new construction has taken place in a county where three-fourths of the land is in public ownership, including the Arapaho National Forest and the Mount Evans Wilderness Area. In 1984 the Colorado Historical Society restored the Georgetown Loop narrow-gauge train excursion between Georgetown and Silver Plume. Most of the I-70 traffic bypasses still slumbering towns such as Georgetown, Idaho Springs, and Silver Plume, which contain some of Colorado's oldest and best-preserved mining-era architecture. Georgetown, the Georgetown Loop Railroad and Lebanon Mine, and nearby Silver Plume make up a National Historic Landmark District.
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