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In the Footsteps of History, Breckenridge CO

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Countless mining camps and ghost towns dot the mountains near Breckenridge. Parkville once rivalled Breckenridge as the leading city of the County. Swandyke came and went in a matter of years. Wapiti, now in ruins, was the camp of one of the greatest mining engineers of Breckenridge. These sites and more can be discovered on explorations throughout the Swan River Valley. Come walk in the Footsteps of History with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

American Gulch and Wapiti site

The great mines, camps, and ghost towns of the Breckenridge area come alive when you walk among the ruins. Poking around a remote mining site high in the mountains, it is not hard to imagine the difficulties of performing body-breaking work in the stope, or the challenges of receiving supplies so far from any road or railway. Carry two heavy gallons of water in a metal bucket with a wire handle that cuts into your palm and you’ll be forever grateful for the running water that comes out of the tap in your home. This is what life was like in the mining era that made Breckenridge what it is today.

Swandyke Cabin then and now

A wealth of historic sites can be visited just a few miles from downtown Breckenridge. Historians Bill Fountain and Sandra Mather offer keys to unravel the mystery of the mines in their books from the Chasing the Dream series: The Search for Gold in the Upper Swan River Valley, and Swandyke: Boom to Bust to Dust (may be purchased through BHA administrative offices).

Note to explorers: All of these sites require sturdy hiking legs, a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle, mountain bike, or similar conveyance, as well as map reading skills. A guide familiar with the area is recommended. Please leave any artifacts where you found them so they can continue to tell the stories of these historic sites for others.

Parkville Masonic Monument

Parkville, or what is left of it, is the most accessible of the old towns, just a few miles up a dusty road. Located along the South Fork of the Swan River, Parkville, founded in 1860, was the first major settlement in the area, populated by the earliest prospectors and those who provided them service. Edwin Carter, who later became Breckenridge’s Log Cabin Naturalist, was an early miner in Parkville. The town boasted hotels, a theater, and the second lodge of the Masons in Colorado.

Parkville was such a prominent city that it was almost selected as the capitol of the new Colorado Territory. But mining was more important than the town. Because the gold rich ground was located above Parkville in the two nearby gulches, a torrent of rock, mud and slop from hydraulic mining washed clean of gold quickly buried the town only six years after it was founded. Thankfully, by then, the County records had been safely removed to Breckenridge. Today, little evidence remains that Parkville even existed.

Wapiti office then and now

Wapiti was the office settlement of the Wapiti Mining Company, managed by Ben Stanley Revett. Well before he became the Dredge Boat King of Breckenridge, he was hired in 1893 by John Campion to manage the sprawling hydraulic mining operation for Wapiti. You can visit the remains his office today at Wapiti along the American Gulch Road.

With Fountain and Mather’s book in hand, it is easy to visualize the tongue and groove paneling that covered the hewn log walls of his former office. Remnants of the paneling are still visible. In the vast can dump out back by the toppled outhouse, you’ll find scores of broken glass bottles.

Wapiti brown glass ABGM Co

A little research reveals that the ABGM Co, embossed on the bottom of many brown bottles found there, was the Adolphus Busch Glass Manufacturing Company.As you might suspect, the bottles contained beer from the Busch family. Someone drank a lot of beer at Wapiti!

Well visible from Revett’s office were the extensive hydraulic wash areas where the mountain was blasted away to release the free gold from the earth. Miners literally moved mountains to find the valuable mineral. Some of the richest gold mines in the Breckenridge area were located here. Today, we see raw yellow dirt that has still not recovered after a century. Bits of rusty metal stick out here and there, indicating an old pipe, or foundation for a mill. Even the remnants of a wooden reservoir built by Revett can still be found high on the hill.

The most complete ghost town is Swandyke, located in the Middle Fork of the Swan River. Though only one standing cabin, many foundations and can dumps remain, enough artifacts litter the ground to paint a picture of the town. Fountain and Mather dedicate an entire book to the history of Swandyke, using historic photos to fill in missing information.

Swandyke Main Street then and now with Fultons

Swandyke was founded much later than other mines in the area, not until the mid-1890s. The town offers a classic lesson in “boosterism.” Frequent mentions in the Summit County Journal, the newspaper of record of the time, extol the great mineral wealth of the “newly” discovered Swandyke diggings. One article exclaimed: “…there is nothing that will prevent the establishment of a permanent town there, for they have the mineral.” All that lacked was the capital investment to make the mines produce profitably. However, that never came. The town was just too remote and the gold was of such low grade it wasn’t profitable to mine. The Swandyke post office closed in 1910 and Swandyke began its decline to dust.

Horseshoe at Swandyke hotel site

Riches in gold didn’t materialize for Swandyke, but history hunters today will find a wealth of historic remnants, especially with Fountain and Mather’s book as a guide. Stand on Main Street Swandyke and compare the old photos in the book with what you see today. They make the town come alive again.

Swandyke saloon site broken bottles

It is easy to spot the saloon site with the massive pile of broken glass outside. And the nearby blacksmith shop gives itself away with piles of dull black forge clinkers.

The only remaining structure, a one-and-a-half story log cabin with gable ends made from first cuts of the sawmill and a roof resurrected in the hippy era of the 1970s, collapsed in 2019. The four walls remain standing and the cabin is filled with debris from the former loft and roof. It can be seen along the Middle Fork Road.

To purchase Fountain and Mather’s books, contact the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance at 970-453-9767. To learn more about Breckenridge history, visit the website, a museum, or book a tour.

Written by: Leigh Girvin

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