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Town of Breckenridge > Home > Town History

Town History

Gold Dust to White Gold

Long before white settlers from the east crossed the Continental Divide, Breckenridge was part of the summer hunting grounds of the nomadic White River and Middle Park Ute Native Americans. The Town of Breckenridge was born out of America's mid-nineteenth century rush to settle the West during Pike's Peak Gold Rush.  General George E. Spencer was one of hundreds of "town builders" who trekked across the West, fathering boom and bust communities.  Intent upon locating in the Blue River Valley near Fort Mary B, General Spencer reportedly seized Felix Poznansky's town site of Independent. He accomplished this by offering all the members of Independent, except Poznansky, twelve choice lots for the rights to the town site.

The General proved to be a shrewd town boomer.  He formally created the Town of “Breckinridge” in November 1859 and named it after President James Buchanan's Vice President, John Cabell Breckinridge (1857-1861). By flattering the United States Government, Spencer hoped to gain a post office. He succeeded and the post office in Breckenridge became the first post office between the Continental Divide and Salt Lake City, Utah.  At the outbreak of the Civil War Spencer may have regretted that he had not named the new settlement for himself.  Breckinridge's sympathies were clearly with the South. He received a commission as a Confederate Brigadier General and the U.S. Senate expelled Breckinridge for treason. The embarrassed little town of Breckinridge quickly and quietly changed the spelling of its name to "Breckenridge," changing an "i" to an "e".

An ambitious grid was eventually platted for the 320-acre Breckenridge town site.  Main Street was laid out parallel to the Blue River.  Residences developed along Main Street, to the north, south, and east of the commercial core.  On the west side of the Blue River, in "West Breckenridge," industry, inexpensive housing, and a red light district were established.  By June 1860, a row of log cabins, tents, and shanties lined Main Street.

By mid-1861, Breckenridge boasted several stores, hotels, saloons, and a post office.  On October 11, 1861, the Town secured the Denver, Bradford, and Blue River Road Wagon Company connection, which gave lifeblood to the little gold mining community.  Breckenridge's Main Street allowed for ease in turning around freight wagons and became the center of social and athletic activities.  During the mining heyday, Breckenridge provided the miners with a variety of attractions.  Without diversions, life in the mining camp would have been an endless cycle of routine work.

Breckenridge was established as the permanent county seat of Summit County, Colorado, but by the mid-1860s, the Civil War and increasing difficulty in locating free, accessible gold led to a drop in the Breckenridge population.  Many businessmen and merchants moved on to other boomtowns.  Although specific population figures for this period are not available, the community's population is believed to have been less than 500 in 1866. 

The late-1860s saw the introduction of large-scale hydraulic placer mining to the area and Breckenridge was once again engrossed in another mining phase. Hydraulic mining occurred in Lomax, Iowa, Georgia, and other gulches.  Hydraulic mining also brought about another change in the character of the local mining industry.  Individual miners and mining companies consolidated their holdings.  The days of the lone prospector were gone. In 1879 Breckenridge found itself an important hard-rock mining location and prominent supply center. The discovery of rich silver and lead carbonates in the hillsides nearby put the Breckenridge mining district on the map and the second wave of fortune hunters invaded. Breckenridge had plenty of "elbow room" to grow and the community was formally incorporated in 1880. Soon more substantial architecture appeared.  Comfortable houses, churches, and a school were built on the hillside east of Main Street.  Saloons and other false-fronted commercial ventures were confined to the main streets.  Main Street became the business thoroughfare and in 1880 eighteen saloons and three dance halls lined the street.  Ridge Street, parallel to Main, had a grocery store, hotel, post office, dry goods store, bank, assay office, and a drug store.

By 1882, Breckenridge secured a depot site for the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad and thereby brought rail service to Town.  Breckenridge doomed a half dozen other rival company towns in the process, including Swan City, Preston, and Lincoln City.  The population of Breckenridge peaked at approximately 2000.  By 1882, Breckenridge added three newspapers and a cemetery.  The Town also managed to organize three fire companies to protect the vulnerable wooden structures.  A major fire in 1884 destroyed a number of buildings along Main Street and Ridge Street. Despite the fire danger, local carpenters continued to build with wood because of the availability of materials and the reduced time, effort, and cost of construction.  As a result, few masonry buildings ever appeared in Breckenridge.

Breckenridge was home to one of the most famous evangelists in Colorado history -Reverend John Lewis Dyer.  The Methodist minister, known as the “Snowshoe Itinerant,” walked and skied his way through the mountains, taking the gospel to those who might not otherwise hear it.  Carrying heavy canvas sacks of mail over the snow-packed mountain passes; Father Dyer earned enough money to continue his missionary work in Breckenridge.  In 1880, he built Breckenridge's first church, now located on Wellington Road.  While Father Dyer was trying to save souls, famed desperado Pug Ryan was doing his best to deliver souls to their Maker.  In 1898, Pug robbed a midnight poker game at the posh Denver Hotel on Main Street. An accidental discharge from a sawed-off shotgun announced Pug's arrival. None the less, he got away with $50 in cash from the bar till, as well as fine watches and jewelry from the gamesters.  Pug died for his digressions at the state penitentiary in Canon City in 1931.

World War II Ends the Mining Era

The population of Breckenridge dropped to fewer than 1,000 people by the turn of the century.  Despite a successful gold-dredging boom from 1898 to 1942, the population continued to drop throughout the first half of the twentieth century.  More and more buildings were abandoned.  Thinking the Tiger Placers Company would provide jobs in an era of national depression, Breckenridge town officials allowed the Tiger #1 Gold Dredge to chew its way from the northern town limits through the south end of Main Street.  The two-story, pontoon boat supported an armature that carried a line of moving buckets that dug up placer mining ground to depths of 48 feet in the riverbed.  The dredge removed all vegetation and buildings in its path. The riverbed was literally turned upside-down.  Fine soils of the river bottom were either sent to the depths below or sent downstream as sediment. The riverbed and bedrock below were dredged up to the surface. As a result, few historic buildings survived on the west side of the river.  World War II finally silenced the dredge and the population declined to approximately 254 individuals.

Many of Breckenridge's historic buildings were lost during the "post-war" period for a variety of reasons.  Some property owners demolished their structures to reduce their tax burden. Other buildings were lost to accidental fires, while others were purposely burned in practice exercises of volunteer fire crews.  Some buildings were even torn down for firewood.  Breckenridge, however, never achieved ghost town status.  Instead, it maintained itself as a small town until the advent of the ski industry.  The closest it came to a ghost town was in 1930, when it was decided that Breckenridge had been excluded from maps of the United States.  The Breckenridge Women's Club was in session one day in 1936 when they found a strip of land 90-miles long and 30-miles wide had been left out of the United States. Breckenridge was included in this area with points north to Grand County.  So, on August 8, 1936, the Governor and an impressive entourage gathered on the courthouse lawn, where a flag of the United States was raised. Today, for one weekend in August, Breckenridge declares itself free and sovereign with the heritage festival, once known as “No Man's Land.”

White Gold and the Eisenhower Tunnel

In December 1961, Rounds and Porter, a Wichita, Kansas, lumber company, opened the Breckenridge Ski Area and a new-boom era began.  Transportation improvements fueled the Breckenridge recreation "rush."  The Eisenhower Tunnel, on Interstate 70, was completed in 1973 reducing the drive time from Denver to Breckenridge to an hour and a half. As a result of the relatively easy access from the Front Range and Denver, the recreational activities in the high country including bicycling, hiking, golfing, fishing, snowshoeing, and skiing, has increased in popularity. Record numbers of skiers and visitors now visit the Town of Breckenridge and record numbers of vehicles now pass through the Eisenhower tunnel. During the 2001-2002 ski season a record 4,400 vehicles passed through the tunnel in a one-hour period and the 24-hour winter record was set on December 29, 2001 when 44,000 vehicles passed through the tunnel. High visitor numbers are not limited only to the ski season. The ten highest weekend vehicle counts at the Eisenhower tunnel have all occurred in July and August. The current weekend record was set in August of 2001 when 140,367 vehicles passed through the tunnel. The single busiest day on record is August 5, 2001 when 50,113 vehicles passed through the tunnel in a 24-hour period. Overall, the tunnel traffic increases about 3.5% per year. The Colorado Department of Transportation and the Federal Highways Administration are studying this Interstate 70 corridor as well as State Highway 9 that connects Breckenridge to the Interstate. Information about these studies can be found on the CDOT web site at www.dot.state.co.us.

End of the Millennium and Planning for the Future

The Breckenridge permanent resident population grew from 393 in 1960 to 3,126 at the end of 2002. The "peak" population, which includes residents, second-home owners, skiers, and day visitors also increased significantly from 11,600 in 1984 to approximately 33,291 during the 2002-03 ski season. The number of Breckenridge housing units has increased from only 325 units in 1970 to approximately 6,351 units by the end of 2002.  

Commercial construction has also been strong.  In the ten years between 1983 and 1993, the Town's commercial square footage more than doubled, from approximately 500,000 square feet to over 1,104,000 square feet.  It has continued to increase steadily, and currently there is over 1,409,971 square feet of commercial development that includes retail, office, government, recreation, light industry, and manufacturing, etc.

The 1983 Breckenridge Master Plan provides the general guidance for the growth of the Town to balance new development and community character.  In 1997 the Town coordinated with Summit County and the Town of Blue River to adopt an intergovernmental plan for the Upper Blue Basin. The Joint Upper Blue Basin Master Plan establishes goals and strategies for development in the Upper Blue Basin. The Town continues to implement the strategies outlined in that plan to insure the appropriate quantity and pattern of development. In August of 2002, the Town adopted the Breckenridge Vision Plan, which outlines specific action steps that reflect the community's values and vision. These documents are all available on the Town's web site at townofbreckenridge.com.

The Town utilizes design guidelines to preserve the character of the historic district and a unique flexible zoning system that is based on performance standards. The Town has also adopted a Transfer of Development Rights Program as a way to direct new development into the core and to preserve the back country which provides diverse wildlife habitat, unspoiled ridgeline and mountain vistas, forested hillsides, opportunities for solitude and outdoor recreation, and a scenic back drop.   

Breckenridge still serves as the county seat and is a center of activity for Summit County. The stunning landscape, cultural heritage, authentic mining vernacular, and Victorian atmosphere have created a thriving community and premier year-round family resort, which attracts both national and international visitors.  With world-class skiing, a continuous series of summer-time events, and over 600 restaurants, galleries, and services Breckenridge looks forward to continued economic viability while preserving its unique history and character.


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