Edwin Carter’s museum attracted international visitors to Breckenridge throughout the late 1800s, well before modern tourism. Carter’s collection brought zoologists, professors, hunters and others fascinated with Victorian collecting to the isolated outpost of Breckenridge. In 1875, Carter’s museum was a popular tourist destination, and it remains one of Breckenridge’s top cultural draws today.
In his time, Carter’s museum was considered one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of mammals and birds from a particular region. Learn about the man, his collection, his cabin, and his contributions to modern conservation efforts at the Edwin Carter Discovery Center on North Ridge Street in Breckenridge.
Edwin Carter came to Colorado with the first wave of the Gold Rush in 1859-60 and found success as a prospector. But it was his love of animals, and concern for their welfare during the destructive mining years, that became his life’s passion. In his lifetime, he collected and mounted thousands of specimens to create a collection so complete that it would become the nucleus of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
In one of the more improbable stories from the mining era, Carter claimed to find gold imbedded in the teeth of a deer he shot. Tracing the steps of the deer, he found rich placer ground in the area we know today as the Wildernest neighborhood, 15 miles north of Breckenridge. If the tale came from any other citizen, it would likely be laughed off. But not Carter. His was a reputation of such high regard that no one could doubt him.
Edwin Carter started his new life in Colorado as a miner, and quickly gained renown for his ability to identify the most promising placer ground. Placer mining is the extraction of free gold that eroded from its source and was distributed throughout alluvial soils, most commonly along creeks and rivers, but not always. Carter excelled at the art of placer prospecting. He mined at Parkville and other locations in Summit County, and Leadville and Black Hawk before giving up the mining life for taxidermy. He settled in Breckenridge in 1868 and began his life’s work: to collect every specimen of animal and bird found in the Rocky Mountains in order to preserve their record. With habitat destruction and the poisonous chemicals employed in the mining process, Carter noticed two-headed bison, deer and elk with misshaped antlers, and other forms of deformation in area wildlife. He believed that the only way to save the animals was to preserve them, as lifelike mounts.
He learned taxidermy as a young man in Upstate New York and again from a furrier in Black Hawk. He quickly became a master at his craft; his skill was so great that some of his mounts still look pristine today. Because he was a dedicated student of wildlife, their habits and habitats, his taxidermy nearly brought the animals back to life. And he also had a sense of humor and fun. In his home, he displayed a mounted bear “bearing” a glass of wine.
His detailed records would prove invaluable in the modern era. When conservationists were looking for places to reintroduce the extirpated Colorado River Otter, biologists examined the notes of “Professor” Carter for the locations where he originally trapped them. When efforts were initiated to bring back the Mountain Goat, many claimed it was not a species native to Colorado. Carter’s collection proved them wrong.
Carter’s inventory includes bison, wolves and grizzly bears, long extinct in Colorado. And curiously, his collection does not include any moose, which is now commonly seen around Breckenridge, but did not exist in the state in Carter’s time.
His life goal of creating a museum for the people of the Rocky Mountains was not realized in his life time. The promised offer of $10,000 from leading citizens of Denver to buy Carter’s collection and build a museum in the Queen City was not fulfilled until after his death in 1900.
Carter was considered such an important citizen that his body lay in state at the Capitol, the first time a private person was given such an honor. Even today, his collections are still used at DMNS for research.
The Edwin Carter Discovery Center today includes several of Carter’s mounts, taxidermy how-to’s, a roaring bear, scores of old photographs, and stories of modern conservation successes. Children love the interactive displays (interactive displays are currently unavailable). Knowledgeable docents share their background in wildlife conservation and museum sciences with visitors. Carter’s dream is fulfilled.
written by: Leigh Girvin