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Summit County

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“What a wonderful transformation has been wrought by man in this wonderful minerals section!” exulted the Summit County Journalin 1916. The Journalmarveled further that once only Utes had lived in a landscape where there were “no great white and brown dumps, no fuming smoke stacks, no rumbling mills, no clanking dredges.”

Not everyone exulted in the transformation mining had brought to the Alpine tundra and forests of Summit County. Industrial-strength gold grubbing left Summit County with what Breckenridge novelist Helen Rich, in The Willow Bender (1950), called “upside-down streams and inside-out mountains.” Brutal earth movers—nine monster dredge boats—operated between 1898 and 1942 on the Swan and Blue rivers and in French Creek. Even today's riverfront landscaping and a fine new hike-bike system cannot hide all the scars left by ravenous gold boats that even invaded the city limits to chew up part of Breckenridge.

Before these gold dredges turned riverbeds into rock piles, high-pressure hydraulic hoses washed away hillsides, burying the first county seat, Parkville, in its own mineral waste. During the 1960s Kokomo, Recen, and Robinson were smothered under mine tailings of the Climax Molybdenum Mine. Although environmentalists have been quick to condemn past mining practices, few commit the modern-day sacrilege of calling Summit County's ski runs scars on the land.

Skiing began in the 1860s with Scandinavian miners and the “snowshoe itinerant,” Father John L. Dyer, whose church in Breckenridge has a stained glass portrait of him on skis. During the 1930s a rope tow was installed on Breckenridge's Barney Ford Hill and another during the 1940s on Dillon's Cemetery Hill. The modern Breckenridge Ski Area opened in 1961 and in 1978 installed Colorado's first Alpine slide, a summer toboggan run on a 2,600-foot-long dual track made by Demay of West Germany. Steady expansions made Breckenridge one of Colorado's largest ski areas by the 1980s.

As Summit became the fastest-growing county in Colorado during the 1970s, some environmental protection was provided by the federal government, which owns 81 percent of the land, including Arapaho National Forest and the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area. Relics of the pioneer period have been preserved by the Summit Historical Society, which maintains a dozen structures, including the cabin museum of naturalist Edwin Carter.

Summit County's economic ups and downs match its spectacular peaks and valleys. As one of the original counties created in 1861, Summit once comprised Colorado's entire northwest quadrant. During its flush mining days the original county had fifty-five post office towns, most of which are gone. A few sunburned, wind-blasted miners' cabins now shelter only weathered steel-toed boots, rusted tin cans, broken dishes, and assayers' crucibles. Agriculture was not a viable alternative for one of Colorado's highest counties; surviving communities have capitalized on “white gold”—fine powder snow—to draw skiers. They have succeeded beyond even gold rush expectations: Summit is now Colorado's most popular ski county and a major American playground.

Writing Credits

Thomas J. Noel

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