History

Breckenridge is a town that loves its history. Boasting the largest historic district in Colorado, Breckenridge offers more than 250 historic structures. Found throughout Breckenridge, historic sites include old homes, mines, dredge boats, museums and more. Breckenridge is proud to showcase a variety of museums and historic sites carefully preserved and open for all to enjoy. History contributes to the character and fabric of Breckenridge, and history is warmly embraced by all who call Breckenridge home.

Breckenridge is located just over the Continental Divide about 80 miles from Denver, and back in the mid-1800s, that might as well have been the other side of the world. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but back then, anything west of the Divide was wilderness. 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. Within two years, Breckenridge became the center of social and political activities in the area. During the mining era, 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.

Breckenridge was originally named after John C. Breckinridge, the vice president at the time. The townspeople of Breckenridge wanted to establish a post office for the region and become the county seat. The townspeople thought by naming the town Breckinridge after the vice president, they would stand a better chance of getting that coveted post office. It worked, and Breckinridge became the county seat. But when civil war broke out in 1860, Vice President Breckinridge sided with the South, and the pro-Union citizens of Breckinridge wanted the town’s name changed. The solution was easy: change Breckinridge to Breckenridge. The name of the town has been spelled Breckenridge ever since.

Breckenridge made a name for itself in Colorado once there was a post office, but the outbreak of the Civil War and increasing difficulty in locating gold led to a drop in the population. By the mid-1860s, many people had moved on to other boom towns seeking to strike it rich either mining or selling goods to miners. Breckenridge’s population is said to have dipped to less than 500 in 1866.

In the late 1860s, a new type of mining came to Breckenridge, and the town was revitalized. Individual miners and mining companies consolidated their holdings and concentrated on large-scale hydraulic placer mining. The days of the lone prospector were gone. The discovery of rich silver and lead in the hills around Breckenridge brought a second wave of fortune hunters. With this revitalization came more people, and Breckenridge was formally incorporated in 1880. Main Street became the center of Summit County. More and more buildings started popping up on Main Street and Ridge Street, including as many as 18 saloons and three dance halls. The Gold Pan Saloon was one of the first businesses of its kind in town and is still in operation today, making it the oldest continuously operating saloon west of the Mississippi River.

The train came to Breckenridge in 1882. This was a huge deal back in the 1880s, as it opened up Breckenridge to the world’s first form of mass transportation. By 1882, Breckenridge was home to three newspapers and a cemetery. The town also managed to organize three fire companies to protect the vulnerable wooden structures. Nevertheless, in 1884, a major fire destroyed a number of buildings along Main Street and Ridge Street.

In the 1890s, the face of mining changed again and would change the face of Breckenridge. The destructive process known as dredge mining resulted in the Blue and French Gulch riverbeds being dug up, leaving large rock piles you can still see today. Dredge mining involves building a dredge boat in a pond or river. The dredge boat is then anchored to the shore by cables and to the pond floor by hollow, heavy poles driven into the gravel. Every eight hours, the poles are lifted and men using winches on shore pull the dredge forward. The dredges operated by pulling out all of the rocks and material from the pond edge and in the process would make 200-foot arcs in the sides of the ponds three times a day as they moved along.

Dredging was the main economic activity in Breckenridge until the outbreak of World War ll, and its effects are still being felt today. Nine dredges were operating in Breckenridge during the 44-year period dredging was active. After the dredging stopped, the population of the town fell to just around 250 people. It looked like Breckenridge was on its way to joining other ghost towns in the area.

In the early 1960s, soldiers who had returned from the war had a new idea that would launch Breckenridge and other towns in Colorado on a new course. Coming out of the boom times of the 1950s, these pioneers saw the potential of skiing and other forms of recreation in the Rocky Mountains. In December 1961, a lumber company called Rounds and Porter out of Wichita, Kansas, opened the Breckenridge Ski Resort, and a new boom era began.

Perhaps the most important change that helped propel Breckenridge Ski Resort to become the six-mountain juggernaut in the ski industry that it is today was the completion of the Eisenhower Tunnel in 1973. That reduced the drive time from Denver to just under one and a half hours, an easy day trip. As a result of the easy access to Breckenridge from the Front Range, activities in the high country, including bicycling, hiking, golfing, fishing, snowshoeing and skiing, increased in popularity. Breckenridge’s ideal location makes vacation and recreation dreams a reality.

Breckenridge Historic Sites

Breckenridge has many historic sites that are open to the public and help continue to share our history with locals and visitors alike. Below are a few of the more important sites to consider visiting on your Breckenridge vacation. For a complete list of Breckenridge’s historic sites, please visit the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

Breckenridge Welcome Center

The Breckenridge Welcome Center is located at 203 South Main Street, near the Blue River Plaza. This information center is unique, as it is also a free history museum. The Breckenridge Welcome Center offers information on everything from dining and shopping to winter and summer activities in and around Breckenridge. The Breckenridge Welcome Center’s free museum includes a series of interactive exhibits about the town’s history and environmental accomplishments. For those interested in seeing some historic sites, the Breckenridge Welcome Center is also the starting point for the historic walking tours of town that are hosted and presented by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

  • For more information on the Breckenridge Welcome Center, call 877-864-0868.
  • For more information on historic walking tours, call the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767.

Barney Ford Museum

The Barney Ford House Museum honors Barney L. Ford, an escaped slave who prospered and became a prominent entrepreneur in Breckenridge and an African-American civil rights leader in Colorado. Today, the Barney Ford House Museum has been restored to its original Victorian style, and each room in the home is dedicated to a different part of Barney’s life. Museum hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on the Barney Ford Museum, call the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767.

Edwin Carter Museum

Edwin Carter came to Breckenridge in 1868 seeking gold and fortune, but his goals changed when he saw the devastating effect mining had on the environment and local wildlife. Carter became a taxidermist and collected thousands of Rocky Mountain animal specimens in his museum, which doubled as his home. Carter worked and lived in his museum for 25 years. When he passed away, Carter’s collection of almost 3,300 Colorado wildlife specimens formed the nucleus of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Today, the Edwin Carter Museum honors the life and legacy of Edwin Carter. Museum hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on the Edwin Carter Museum, call the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767.

Summit Ski Museum

Celebrating the first ski town in Colorado and the first 100 years of skiing in Summit County, the Summit Ski Museum is a colorful look into the history of skiing in Summit County.  Museum hours are Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on the Summit Ski Museum, call the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767.