Willoughby: Colorado’s silver and gold rushes just kept on rushing | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Colorado’s silver and gold rushes just kept on rushing

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Miners sluice for Colorado gold. Photo by William Henry Jackson from the 1874 U.S. Geological Survey.
USGS photo library/courtesy photo | USGS photo library/courtesy phot

Gold and silver rushes populated Colorado during the state’s first half century of history. “Pikes Peak or bust” defined the first rush in 1858. As prospectors and settlers traversed the last miles of plains that separated them from gold, they used the spire as a landmark. Prospectors worked their way from the plains to the mountains to Leadville.

An estimated 100,000 new people arrived between 1858 and 1861. They quickly mined the most accessible gold. Then the Civil War slowed the rush, and diverted attention from the West. Although adventuresome men headed for battlefields, both North and South needed gold. During 1862, the battle of Glorieta Pass prevented the South from taking control of Colorado’s gold. Nevertheless, production of the precious metal did not increase.

The first rush of gold seekers had overlooked something that glitters but is not gold: silver. During the 1870s a silver boom started in Leadville.

Colorado became a state, and nearly two decades later a gold rush developed at Cripple Creek. The first prospectors who navigated Pikes Peak had missed gold nearby.

Many of Aspen’s settlers took part in other rushes, and not only in Colorado. Several early settlers had participated in rushes before they arrived in Aspen. A few had prospected in the Dakota Badlands. And around the time Aspen got started, developments in Idaho, Montana and Nevada attracted new blood.

Residents who set down roots in Aspen also sought their fortunes in the Cripple Creek rush, the Yukon gold rush and a silver rush that hit Mexico around the turn of the century.

Some miners indulged their wanderlust. Others stayed until something new and possibly better attracted them. Some moved on when a boom quickly turned to a bust. Single prospectors and itinerant miners moved more freely and often than did their married counterparts.

Toward the end of the larger silver rush, when Colorado’s mining shifted deeper underground, milling technology and equipment required more capital. Aspen’s silver discovery took place during this era. Profitable mines grew larger, or consolidated into larger companies. The greater employment base and stable jobs attracted family men, and Aspen developed a diverse business base. The city grew as a family town, compared to male-dominated, boom-and-bust mining towns.

Some who departed Aspen for more golden pastures did not return, but most of them did. On the basis of potential mineral profits, a move would fit an easy formula —new discovery, new town, move. And then move again whenever a better prospect would pop up. But a married miner or businessman who worked for a company valued the nature and amenities of a particular town.

The gold towns of Georgetown, Central City and Blackhawk grew in constricted valleys where mountain shadows cut the daylight. Homes on tiny lots lined narrow streets with haphazard layout. The high, cold elevations of Leadville and Silverton discouraged long-term settlers.

Aspen offered broad, straight, long streets. Its climate, warmer than competitors’ in winter and perfect in summer, increased the quality of life. In addition, Aspen offered abundant cultural and physical amenities.

Why would a person from a previous century rush to anyplace else? If you live in Aspen, or have lived in Aspen, you understand.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.