Black Hawk, "The City of Mills," is one of Colorado's oldest cities.It is one of a number of towns that grew up in "Gregory's Gulch," the narrow ravine where Georgia prospector John H. Gregory first discovered lode gold in the western part of Kansas Territory in 1859.

Within months, thousands of would-be miners poured into the gulch, hoping for more big strikes like Gregory's. A few found bonanzas, many found paying claims, but the great majority either moved elsewhere to try their luck or, proclaiming the whole "Pike's Peak Gold Rush" a hoax, went back to their settled lives in the States.

Mountain City was the first name given to the ragged string of camp- like settlements, but as the boom subsided and the hard work of extracting the gold began, the remaining population began to coalesce into more organized town sites. Up the gulch to the west was Nevada, also known as Nevadaville or Bald Mountain. Below it lay Central City, and further down, where the gulch flowed into the North Branch of Clear Creek, was established Black Hawk Pointe. Most accounts insist the name came from an early "stamp" mill brought in from Illinois and named for the famous Indian chief.

Driving water wheels and flowing through sluices with its abundant supply of water, something in short supply elsewhere in the gulch, Black Hawk quickly became the milling center for the gold ore mined throughout what became known as Gilpin County. First by ore wagon, and later by train, tons of precious rock were sent to Black Hawk for various processes designed to extract the maximum amount of gold from the quartz ores.

At first, primitive crushers of Mexican heritage called arrastras were used, much as peasants used stones to grind grain. But soon these gave way to the stamp mills that were to dominate Black Hawk's industry for a generation. These buildings ran the gold ore through a number of different levels, on which cam-driven hammers pounded the ore into finer and finer particles before it was chemically separated by the use of mercury amalgam.

Black Hawk was incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature on March 11, 1864. The future seemed assured, but trouble lay on the horizon. As the rich surface ores began to play out, deeper hard-rock mines began to yield complex sulfide ores called sulphurets--rocks that prevented the simple stamp mills from recovering but a fraction of the gold locked inside.

Smelting at high temperatures seemed to provide a solution to the recalcitrant sulphurets, but Black Hawk's first smelter, built in 1865 by James E. Lyon and Henry Pullman (of sleeping car fame), proved unsuccessful. Three years later, the Boston & Colorado smelter, operated by a former Brown University chemistry professor named Nathaniel P. Hill, opened and the industry was revitalized. Years later, after Hill had relocated his plant to Denver, a grateful state elected him to the U.S. Senate (following earlier Gilpin County Senators Henry M. Teller and Jerome Chaffee).

Within a few years, the Colorado Central railroad line had reached Black Hawk, making it possible for coal to be shipped to the smelters and mills and supplies to be shipped up to the growing mining towns. The town's skyline also boasted a new school and Presbyterian Church. Fine brick business blocks spread along the gulch from the intersection of Main and Gregory Streets but the economic boom was an environmental disaster.

Noise levels were intolerable, with the roar from crashing stamps mills and screaming steam locomotives echoing from the canyon walls. Human, animal and industrial wastes polluted the creek's waters. The trees had long since been cut down for miles around for timbering mills and powering mine engines, leaving the narrow gulch subject to periodic flooding that eventually raised the level of Gregory Street by a full story in some places. And the toxic fumes produced by the coal dust and the sulfur refining were both dangerous and unsightly. Periodically, a new "strike" would empty the towns of the more restless miners--Leadville and silver in 1880, Cripple Creek gold a dozen years later.

Through it all, the towns continued to grow and prosper. From the outset, many of the miners and mill workers were immigrants, originally from Sweden, England and Ireland. Cornish miners experienced in hard-rock mining arrived in the 1870's, battling with their British brethren until all were united by the threat of Tyrolean miners willing to work for lower wages near the turn of the century.

Beneath them all socially was a small band of Chinese miners organized by Chin Lin Sou. These "Celestials" specialized in placer mining the dumps and tailings piles left behind from previous hard-rock operations and pulling the last few dollars of gold from the previously worthless slag.

After peaking with a population of more than 2,000 in the late 1800's, Black Hawk began to decline in numbers in the early 20th century. A tramway--a tiny railway even smaller than the narrow-gauge Colorado Central (later Colorado & Southern) line that went from Denver to Black Hawk (and, in 1878, was extended to Central City)-- was established in the last years of the century to make it easier and cheaper for the mines in the surrounding hills to get their ore to the mills along Clear Creek. But by World War I, business had declined to the point where it too proved unprofitable and the tracks were dismantled. By that time, the town had just one mill left in operation, and by 1925 the population had fallen to only 200. A revival of placer miners greeting the rise in the price of gold to $35 an ounce in the 1930's and the re-opening of the Central City Opera House in 1932 sparked a similar increase in tourism. The business district gradually reflected this change with gift shops and restaurants replacing hardware stores and milliners.

Though Black Hawk was spared the devastating fires that destroyed many early mining camps, the very longevity of its structures also contributed to their continuing decay. Floods continued to be a problem, as the town lacked funds to attempt any sort of water or sewer improvements. With cars replacing trains as the primary means of tourist travel, rail transportation was discontinued in 1941. But the new mobility proved a mixed blessing, and more and more local residents began commuting to jobs outside the county, while tourists began to bypass the quaint old mining towns for more distant destinations.

Even the formation of the Central City-Black Hawk National Historic Landmark District could do nothing to stem the tide of decay. Faced with declining population, deteriorating infrastructure and disintegrating architecture, city leaders banded together with their peers in Central City and Cripple Creek to offer an initiative on the 1990 Colorado ballot that would allow limited stakes gambling in the commercial districts of the towns, with much of the proceeds earmarked for historic preservation efforts statewide.

The measure passed overwhelmingly, and speculators began renovating historic structures for use as casinos. Beginning with opening day on October 1, 1991, gaming proved spectacularly successful in attracting new investment to the gulch in amounts unheard of since the gold boom more than a century before.

Moreover, the same easy access and level land that had made Black Hawk suitable for the mills and smelters of the gold rush days now made it attractive for larger casino, hotel, and parking projects. By the fifth year of gambling, Black Hawk was accounting for more than 50% of the total wagering in the three towns, with still larger projects in the works. The unexpected pace and scale of the the development led inevitably to some disillusionment with existing institutions trying hard to cope with the flood of changes.

No one could argue, however, with the influx of fees, tax monies and preservation funds that enabled businesses and homeowners alike to renovate structures suffering from a century of neglect. City government led the way, remodeling the historic church and school on the skyline for office space, building a new fire station just north of the central business district, and finally completely restoring the 1877 City Hall.

Entering yet another century, Black Hawk faces the prospect of trying to sustain and survive yet another boom period. The opportunities and challenges are there for those who will respect its rich heritage while at the same time welcoming its unlimited future with the spirit of adventure that brought forth those ambitious miners and merchants of the 1800's. And if the past is but prologue, Black Hawk's full story, yet to be told, will be a fascinating one indeed.


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