Think skiing in Breckenridge is hard now? Try it 100 years ago when folks like Father Dyer the itinerant Methodist Preacher would strap on wooden planks 6 feet long and oversized poles to make the long and dangerous trek over Boreas Pass to bring mail and needed supplies to the miners in the high country. Imaging what it must have been like to pilot the old rotary snowplow (currently located on Boreas Pass Road near Highway 9 on the South end of Breckenridge) through 15 foot high snow drifts in order to reach Breckenridge from the south in the winter. These difficulties make what can still be a difficult trip up I-70 in the winter seem like child’s play in comparison. Long before there was such a thing as the Breckenridge Ski Area, lodging in Breckenridge or the idea of a Breckenridge ski vacation there was just the thought of surviving the long , cold, harsh Colorado winters
The truth is the early residents of Breckenridge faced hardships and toil as well as good times and rewards like so many others chasing their dreams on the American Frontier at the time. Only the residents of Breckenridge had to do it under 350 inches of snow annually. Breckenridge was first settled in 1859 by 29 men and one woman following the discovery of gold in the Blue River, which still runs through the middle of town. 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.
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.
Even with the coming of the railroad the miners and residents of Breckenridge had many hardships to face. The winter of 1898-99 proved particularly challenging when a record heavy snow fell. The railroad was blocked and the residents were trapped for 78 days! Using the rotary snowplow and multiple engines, the track was finally cleared on April 24, and service resumed in town. Residents tunneled through the snow to get from one business to another during that heavy snow year.
Six months of snow each year made it difficult for miners to work and they had to find something to entertain them in the long cold winters of Colorado’s High Country. Saloons and other false-fronted commercial businesses sprang up in the downtown area, and Main Street became a business hub. By July of 1880, Breckenridge’s population peaked to 1657 people, and the town was home to two dancehalls, ten hotels, and eighteen saloons not to mention a rather large red light district.
The Population of Breckenridge peaked at 2,000 residents in the late 1800’s but started to wane as new methods were introduced to gold mining that made it less expensive to mine it in other locations. With the drying up of the mining industry and the run of the last dredge boat in the 1942 people felt no need to stay and endure the harsh winters any longer. The population dwindled to fewer than 300 people by 1950. The future for Breckenridge seemed bleak. But then in 1961, Rounds and Porter, a Wichita, Kansas lumber company, opened the Breckenridge Ski Area, and a new boom era began. Transportation improvements fueled a new Breckenridge recreation “rush.” The Eisenhower Tunnel, on Interstate 70, was completed in 1973 and reduced the drive time from Denver to Breckenridge to an hour and a half. As a result of the relatively easy access from the Denver metro area, the high country’s recreational activities became increasingly popular.
Today Breckenridge is consistently the most popular ski destination in the country beating out rivals such as Vail and Aspen in number of skier visits per year. With over 300 permanent residents who look forward to and embrace the harsh, cold winter each year and new terrain opening every year Breckenridge is looking forward to a bright future.
For more information on the history of Breckenridge visit the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at www.Breckheritage.com.