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Resilient Breckenridge, CO Part 1: The Decline of Fortunes in 1930s

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Looking west towards Main Street; 1939 (BHA.2016.1.45)

October 1929 marks the beginning of America’s Great Depression of the 20th Century, yet Breckenridge was already feeling the pinch of declining mining returns throughout the 1920s. As America sunk deeper into the Depression of the 1930s, Breckenridge struggled to survive the most severe economic downturn yet experienced by the industrialized Western world. Breckenridge hung on, thanks to dredge boat mining and a few hard rock operations. Holding the County Seat also helped the town sustain itself.

Breckenridge was a prosperous mining community in 1920, riding high on the decades-long expansion of mineral wealth due to successes in hard rock extraction and the new technology of dredge boat mining. The Wellington Mine pulled $11 million in gold and minerals from the ground before 1922. In 1920 the nearby upstart town of Tiger promoted the installation of a new “moving-picture machine” for the entertainment of the 200 residents of its family-friendly community.

By 1921, mineral prices were dropping. The company town of Tiger laid off all of its workers in 1922. In 1924, the Wellington Mine, Breckenridge’s largest employer, furloughed all of its crew except for a few watchmen. A symbol of Breckenridge’s earlier mining strength, the tower of the Jones Smelter, was destroyed in 1923 by the incoming dredge boats.

By the time the stock market crash of 1929 defined the beginning of the Great Depression for the rest of America, Breckenridge’s fortunes were already in steep decline.

The town was down, but not out. By some measurements, Breckenridge weathered the 1930s better than many places. Colorado’s eastern plains were decimated by the Dust Bowl. U.S. unemployment approached 20%. Worldwide GDP fell 15%. In Breckenridge, the Wellington Mine continued to operate sporadically, along with many other local extractors. The Extension Mill processed ore for area mines. But it was the dredge boats that provided the life line to keep the community afloat.

Carl and Esther Kaiser at the Continental Dredge; 1933-1938 (BHA.2019.11.8)

Throughout the 1920s, the dredge boats of the Tonopah Companies inched their way along the Blue River toward downtown Breckenridge from the north. Though some residents opposed the impending destruction of half their town, the population of Breckenridge had shrunk during the 1920s so that insufficient opposition was mustered. Most of the citizens were employed by the dredge mining companies. The Tonopah Company’s command to the community: “Industry is always to be preferred to scenic beauty.”

The dredge boats of French Gulch pulled massive amounts of gold from the valley bottom, but they too encountered troubles in the 1920s. The Reliance Dredge quit operations in 1920, ran aground and burned. Its remains can be seen today near the offices of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. In 1922, the Reiling Dredge was abandoned. Its remains can be seen along the B&B Trail and visited with the guides of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.

The Tiger Dredge #1 continued to operate throughout the 1930s until it was shut down for the war effort in 1942. Many impoverished Americans came to the Breckenridge area throughout the Depression years in search of gold, reworking old tailings and claims in hopes of finding a little color in their pan. Making a buck or two a day prospecting for gold was better than starving. Relics of depression era mine workings are still visible in French Gulch east of downtown Breckenridge.

Tiger No.1 Dredge in the Blue River; 1937 (SHS-P.2014.374-3)

“The 30s were awful rough,” according to former Breckenridge Mayor Frank Brown. “People were in survival mode,” lamented long-time resident Martha Enyeart in her oral history recording for the Mather Archives of the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. Mines were played out, the dredge boats destroyed the valley floor, winters were harsher than usual, the town was isolated due to lack of snowplowing the highways, and in one of the worst blows, the railroad shut down in 1937 (see Part 2 -- coming soon! -- for more information on this community loss).

Yet hope sprang eternal. Mining was always poised for a comeback, according to the miners themselves. Ed Auge, in his richly detailed history of Breckenridge written in 1937, said “… all indications are that when recovery over the country readjusts matters… the mine and mill will be going stronger than ever.” And while it was a hopeful sentiment, it never came to pass. Learn more about the quiet years in Part 3 (coming soon!).

There were upsides to the downturn, as there always are. Prohibition ended in 1933, ushering in opportunities for revelry. Entertainment included the Eclipse Theatre, which hosted a play on the scandalous Tabor Family in 1933. The Town went from No Man’s Land to union with the United States of America in 1936, starting a celebratory tradition. Literati Belle Turnbull and Helen Rich made Breckenridge their home in 1938. And a new sport, skiing, began at the Hoosier Pass Ski Course in 1937.

Author Belle Turnbull; 1950s-1960s (SHS-P.2014.558-3)

Most importantly, the people of Breckenridge looked out for each other in the dark days of the Depression. Ed Auge praised the “love and charity expressed” toward those who faced adversity. “No one need to be hungry or in need… Collections were taken many times for some person or family in distress. … Loads of groceries were often sent where needed.” From free coal deliveries, to forgiven hotel tabs, to forgotten gambling debts, Breckenridge’s citizens took care of their own.

That tradition continues. The community of Breckenridge, facing the worst economic fall-out since the Great Depression during the COVID crisis of 2020, continues to rally for its people and sense of place.And despite the admonition of the dredge mining companies, scenic beauty IS our attraction today.

written by Leigh Girvin

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