The Reiling Dredge in French Gulch tells the tale of Breckenridge’s former mining greatness. Breckenridge’s claim to mining fame is thanks to the massive deposits of free gold liberated by erosive forces. But that free gold - long unbound from its source in veins and fissures around the mountains - was hard to reach, buried under layers of river sediment. Breckenridge’s mining history shows that miners tried every possible method to pull the gold flakes, flour and nuggets from the alluvial soils where they had settled over eons.
In 1898 a new method was introduced to Breckenridge, the gold dredge boats. These massive floating mines and mills proved to be the most effective way to save the gold from the earth. Today you can see the remains of the Reiling Dredge in French Gulch, the final survivor of the fleet of 9 mining boats in the Breckenridge area that turned the rivers upside down in search of precious gold.
The Reiling Dredge today is a curious beast, a rotting hull floating in a pond far from any obvious water source. Abandoned, scoured of equipment, collapsing from time and decay, listing to one side and partially submerged. Huge support gantries tumbled into the water give scale to the size of the operation. What remains of the structure has been recently propped up; modern timbers support weathered walls and failing beams. In 2017, the Reiling Dredge was stabilized to stave off further decay.
Accessing the Reiling Dredge from the nearby trailhead, the visitor crosses French Creek over a high bridge and traverses through extensive piles of stone. This is the waste left by the dredge boats. Where there had been wetlands, beaver ponds, meadows and forest, the forsaken rock piles are the legacy of the dredge boats. Today we are appalled at the environmental destruction. In the mining heyday of the gold dredging boats, plunder meant wealth.
Let the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance take you back to the time when dredge boat mining helped make Breckenridge great.
The search for free gold in rivers and streams is called placer mining (rhymes with “faster” without the ‘t’). Gold panning was the first and simplest form of placer mining employed with success in the Breckenridge area. But a miner could dig only so far with a shovel. Yet bedrock, where the gold settled, was 40 to 90 feet deep in the Breckenridge area. Only heavy equipment and innovative technology could dig that deep and process the huge amount of material resulting from the excavation. Enter the dredge boat.
Herman J. Reiling, an engineer from Chicago, first became involved in dredge boat mining in Bannack, Montana in 1894. Reiling had worked previously with the Bucyrus Company of Wisconsin which built equipment to deepen channels for shipping. For gold dredge mining, Reiling introduced innovations in continuous bucket line dredging, gold separation technology, and improved sluice design, powered by the new marvel – electricity - resulting in a profitable venture.
But Reiling was not the first on the dredging scene in Breckenridge. That claim belongs to Ben Stanley Revett. Revett introduced the first dredge boats in 1898 in the Swan River valley. These early dredges were small, weak and unprofitable. Revett finally hit on the right formula with the Reliance Dredge which started plying the waters of French Gulch east of Breckenridge in 1905. Built large from sturdy Oregon timbers and powered by hugely heavy equipment, the Reliance Dredge was an immediate success, netting $50,000 in its first full season of operation in 1906. Today, that amount translates to almost $1.5 million.
It is not possible to tell the story of Reiling’s dredge without the history of Revett and the Reliance. The Reliance Dredge was immensely profitable, likely drawing Reiling’s attention to the Breckenridge area. In 1908, Reiling came to Breckenridge, formed the French Gulch Dredging Company, and began construction on his dredge. Operations began in April 1909 in the western reaches of French Creek. In the month of June 1909 alone, the Reiling recovered $45,000 in gold. The haul for the first season was $220,000. In 1910, the two dredge boats operated side by side in French Gulch, one headed upstream, the other down.
In 1910, Revett was embroiled in a lawsuit for financial mismanagement. He apparently had a habit of using money from one company to pay the costs of another. For years, investors expressed concern about Revett’s lavish expenses and neglect for proper financial management and record keeping.
While the local newspapers of the time don’t mention the obvious tension between the two men, the Revett-Reiling rivalry ran deep. In 1913, the Reiling Dredge exhausted the ground it was working at the west end of French Gulch and the company sought to pass over Reliance territory to new placer grounds it leased upstream. The company offered a generous split of 50% of the gross yield recovered from the ground, yet Revett refused passage.
So Reiling’s company was forced, at great expense and loss of operations, to move the Reiling Dredge over Revett’s claim. This massive effort required removal of all heavy equipment from the deck, building up rock piles to create a ramp, constructing an extra wide rail track to haul the hull, crossing up and over a water flume, and digging a new pond to rebuild the dredge. The contract for moving the dredge 4,000 feet upstream estimated a three-week project; in the end it took four months and the loss of the season.
Yet by 1914, the Reiling Dredge was profitable again. H.J. Reiling came from Denver in a private rail car to oversee the first clean-up of the season, which netted $15,000.
The animosity between Revett and Reiling made the newspapers in 1915. In an article on the history of dredge boat mining, extolling dredging as a “dividend-payer,” Revett boasted filing the first patent for a dredge bucket boat in Bannack, Montana, in 1894. The following week, Reiling rebutted Revett’s claim as “absolutely false.” Reiling was the innovator. “Mr. Revett never saw a dredge until I was in operation two years at Bannack,” Reiling wrote. Revett never offered a counter argument.
In 1916, Reiling resigned his role in Breckenridge and turned his attention to mining in Wyoming. His namesake dredge gradually became less profitable as it ran out of ground to work and encountered much larger boulders. In 1921, the Reiling Dredge sat idle. In 1922, a new company bought the assets and attempted to revitalize operations, but the Reiling Dredge sank in its pond in November 1922, where it still sits today.
Dredge boat mining was extremely dangerous for the men doing the actual work. Serious injury and death occurred on the dredge boats. Loss of life from drowning, mangling and electrocution were all too common. As a result, wages for dredge boat workers were higher than for hard rock miners. The company also recognized the need for better accommodations for their workers.
Near the Reiling Dredge are the archeological artifacts of a sizeable boarding house. The shell of the two-oven wood cookstove can be seen on-shore near the dredge. Remaining artifacts indicate that the boardinghouse had running water, electric lighting, heat provided by coal stoves, curtains for privacy, and screens to keep out mosquitoes. Leisure time was spent on the front porch where a fire hearth provided warmth in the evening. Remains of animal bones and canned foods indicate a varied diet. Artifacts Tell a Story of historic sites; please them where you found them.
The Reiling Dredge today is a reminder of Breckenridge’s fame as a mining district. During its time, Summit County was recognized as a center of gold dredge engineering and innovation, cementing its reputation in the placer mining industry. And as with all of the successful dredges that operated in the Breckenridge area, it was a significant contributor to Breckenridge’s economy. Dredge boat mining’s economic benefit was especially important during the Great American Depression of the 1930s when dredge boats provided jobs.
The Reiling and Reliance Dredges were the two most profitable of the nine that operated in the Breckenridge area. It is estimated that the French Gulch dredges operating from 1905 to 1922 pulled $4.2 million in gold from the ground, worth over $126 million today based on inflationary adjustments. If measured by the value of gold, that $4.2 million would equal about $445 million today. To learn more about how dredge boats operated, see this video. For a complete history of the Reliance and Reiling Dredges and mining in French Gulch, see Chasing the Dream: The Search for Gold in French Gulch, by Bill Fountain and Dr. Sandra Mather.
Visit the Reiling Dredge today on your own with a short hike from the nearby trailhead, or with an experienced guide from the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. Learn more about Breckenridge history by visiting a museum, taking a tour, or reading blog articles at the BHA website.
Written by: Leigh Girvin