The Breckenridge Heritage Alliance is the leading authority on the rich and colorful history of Breckenridge, CO. We are a small non-profit with a dedicated and passionate team of staff, volunteers, and historians. Part of our mission is to share our town’s heritage with the public and we offer museums, tours, hikes, and gold panning here in charming Breckenridge. For those who prefer a good read or can’t make it to Breckenridge to visit us, we’ve written essays on various topics. Please read on for the brief history of Breckenridge, CO and then click on the links below for more detailed information.
Who were the women who came to Breckenridge in the 1880s? Where did they come from? Did they willingly make the trek to Breckenridge? What did they find when they arrived? Census data and diaries tell the story. Push and pull factors influenced the decision to come west: poverty, the promise of prosperity, climate, marriage, free land, and the severe depression of 1857, all pushed people from “home” and pulled them to Colorado. In a family, the husband usually made the first overture to head west.
How did Breckenridge get its name? Historians have debated this for decades. Researchers have studied documents looking for the truth. Two stories emerge–both have elements of truth. Some think that John Cabell Breckinridge, who served as vice-president under James Buchanan before retiring to the U.S. Senate representing Kentucky after his term as vice-president ended, is the namesake. Others say the name came from Thomas E. Breckenridge, a member of the 1845 and 1848 Fremont expeditions. Bill Fountain studied the documents and put the pieces of the puzzle together.
For thousands of years, the nomadic Northern Utes and their ancestors traveled through what is today’s Breckenridge in search of food. They followed bison between summer grazing land on the Blue River and winter quarters at lower elevation (Lower Blue). The passes used by Utes became early wagon roads and present day highway routes. The Utes burned the valley floor each year to encourage the growth of grasses that bison preferred. This tradition changed the vegetative landscape, encouraging the growth of species like the lodgepole pine, whose cones open up after being exposed to heat.
How did the individual prospector roaming the hillsides with his burro, pan, and pick know if he had found economically valuable ore? How did a mining company know if the ore produced could earn a profit for the company? They both depended on chemical assays. Every prospector knew how to do a “field assay” to determine the worth of his ore. Mining companies employed an assayer working in a well-equipped assay office to complete the task.
Prior to the creation of Colorado Territory, the land that became Colorado was divided among the territories of Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and Utah. Land west of the Continental Divide, including what became Summit County, belonged to Utah Territory. Colorado’s First Legislative Assembly approved legislation entitled ”An act to define county boundaries and to locate county seats in Colorado Territory,” on November 1, 1861. The act established the boundaries of Summit County as the Continental Divide on the east, Lake County on the south and, on the north and west, the territorial boundaries.
Not long after prospectors found gold in what is now Summit County, mining camps blossomed along the waterways and gulches. Similar in appearance, they showed little planning or organization. Selecting a spot near wood and water, they placed their tents and crude log cabins haphazardly on or near claims. Only later, when claims had to be surveyed, did any semblance of order or organization develop. A main street, nothing more than a pathway through stumps and boulders lined with tents and rectangular buildings sporting false fronts advertising food, clothing, drink or supplies, appeared.
Probably no business establishment on the mining frontier played a more important role than the saloon. Whiskey, the primary refreshment sold in the saloons, arrived in what became Summit County during the reign of the mountain men (1820-1850). …
Men, women, and children in Breckenridge faced lives of hard work and danger. Long hours laboring in mines or hauling freight over muddy, rutty roads–cooking, cleaning, sewing, or managing boarding houses–helping fathers on a farm or in a store or mothers with housework–all left little time for recreation but “recreate” they did–summer and winter, indoors and out, individually or with others. Skiing, ice skating, hunting, cycling, fishing, card games, dancing, singing in choral groups, participating in club activities, hosting dinner parties and other social events–all provided respite from daily life.
The population of Summit County and its towns rose and fell with the fortunes of mining.
From an initial estimate of “hundreds” in the county in 1860 during the first gold rush, the number dropped to 258 by 1870. With the second boom in 1880, the number of residents grew to 5459, only to drop to 1906 by 1890 because of the looming national silver crisis. Dredging operations and a revival of placer mining at the turn of the century brought the number to 2744 in the 1900 census.