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Fiddlers Return : Skiers Give Ghost Towns Second Life

January 10, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Like most mining camps tucked away in the Rockies, Breckenridge was born in the robust spirit of the Old West. With veins of ore and dreams as bountiful as the winter snows, it sprang up out of the wilderness to take its place among Colorado's grandest boom towns.

As many as 200 prospectors a day poured into this two-mile-high valley in the 1860s, traveling in winter on snowshoes and skis made from the slats of barrels. They dug and panned and prospered, and as their tents and cabins reached out from the banks of the Blue River, they set out to organize a townsite, the first permanent settlement on Colorado's Western Slope. To speed the establishment of a post office, they named their town in honor of the U.S. vice president, John C. Breckinridge, but later altered its spelling when Breckinridge angered them by joining the Confederacy.

"People of all classes came across the range," said Methodist minister John Dyer as Breckenridge grew into a thriving town with 2,000 residents, 18 saloons, five boarding houses and four blacksmith shops, "and, of course, the inevitable dance houses, with degraded women, fiddles, bugles, and many sorts of music came too. There was a general hubbub from dark to daylight. The weary could hardly rest."

Residents Drift Off

But rest would come soon enough. The gold and silver ran low, and the residents drifted off. By 1939 the Colorado & Southern Railroad had ended the last of its daily 11 a.m. departures to Denver. Barney's Chop House--founded by a runaway slave from South Carolina--had become a ramshackle bar. Main Street was all but deserted.

By 1959, Breckenridge was officially listed in historical registers as a ghost town with a dwindling population of 200 aging souls.

Breckenridge, though, never did quite disappear. Today it is back from the near-dead, the fiddles are playing again in packed dance halls. A new boom has spread through the Rocky Mountain states with all the gusto of gold rush fever. This one yields "white gold" instead of nuggets, and it brings not prospectors but skiers. They are fueling an economic resurgence worth billions of dollars to once- dying little towns stretched out on the slopes of the Continental Divide.

The ski industry is now worth in excess of $6 billion annually to the eight financially troubled mountain states, and in many areas it has replaced mining and ranching as a traditional pillar of the economy.

In Colorado alone, the industry generates revenues of $1.3 billion a year, produces $132 million in state and local taxes and accounts for 44,500 jobs, making it the single largest employer on the Western Slope.

Breckenridge, which was visited by hardly more than a stray coyote three decades ago, now has a permanent population of 1,350 and upwards of 25,000 guests on peak-season winter weekends.

Boom-Town Days Return

"Breckenridge definitely would have been gone today if it hadn't been for skiing," said Rebecca Waugh of the Summit County Historical Society. "But with the skiing, the whole boom-time psychology of the Old West has returned, and that makes this a very exciting time to be living here.

"We have all the amenities of the gold rush days--entertainment, good restaurants, merchants of all sort setting up businesses. There's a huge turnover of people coming and going, of people wanting to make a quick dollar and get out. I called the Summit County Journal the other day and suggested to a reporter that he cover a meeting at the Breckenridge Town Hall, and he asked me directions to get there. It was two blocks from his office."

Breckenridge--which advertises itself as the secondmost popular skier destination in Colorado and the fourth in the nation--has gone to great lengths to protect its architectural integrity as a 128-year-old mining town, preserving Victorian-style wood and brick buildings, installing turn-of-the-century street lamps downtown, banning neon signs and garish trappings of modernity. Still, an old-time miner seeing the town today would be apt to think he had mysteriously been deposited in San Francisco instead of Breckenridge.

70 Bars, Restaurants

Mrs. Peabody's boarding house is now a restaurant known as Fatty's; the bordello on Ridge Street has become Whitney's Steak House; the home of assayer Lewis Hillard is the Angels Rest restaurant. They are among 70 bars and eating places in Breckenridge, a town that also boasts 30 ski shops, a 208-room Hilton Hotel, a television station, enough boutiques for a good-sized French town and dense clusters of luxury condominiums that seem to have been washed by melting snows down the mountain to the base of the ski lifts.

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