Breckenridge sunk perilously close to ghost-town status in the middle of the 20th Century. The last dredge boat shut down in 1942 and the mines were nearly played out. Without a livelihood, people left. By 1950, population dwindled to just 296 individuals, the lowest level since 1870. The period from 1942 when gold mining ceased to 1960 when the first rumblings of the Breckenridge Ski Area were heard are referred to as the Quiet Years. How did Breckenridge survive this lonely time?
When the War Production Board Limitations Order 208 shut down non-essential minerals mining in October 1942, quiet descended on Breckenridge, both literally and figuratively. Previously, the dredge boats were allowed to chew their way through downtown during the Great Depression, because town fathers hoped the dredges would provide jobs. When the U.S. Government order ended gold mining, the noisy dredge boats ended their fifty-year reign of racket in Breckenridge. The ensuing silence was a portent of a quiet future for the community.
The government shut-down was resented. Breckenridge survived the Depression better than many places because of gold. Throughout the 1930s, many area mines continued to operate and the dredge boats offered jobs. Without gold mining, there was little else to sustain Breckenridge. The population fell precipitously.
Breckenridge was listed in one of the earliest ghost town guide books, Muriel Sibell Wolle’s definitive Stampede to Timberline, first published in 1949. And while its listing was qualified as “partly ghost,” Breckenridge felt the sting of its declining fortunes recounted by an art teacher from Boulder who painted the abandoned buildings as such wobbly affairs they might fall down at any minute. Just a decade later, Perry Eberhart included Breckenridge in his popular Guide to the Colorado Ghost Towns.
From both of these guidebooks, we gain a peek into life in Breckenridge in the mid-century. A local gave Wolle a tour of the Silverthorn Hotel, one of the first and finest establishments in Breckenridge. The contents were thickly coated with dust and the drapes musty. The remaining dredge boat was floating in a sluggish pool. She wrote that the “entire country around Breckenridge was piled with gravel dumps,” the rock tailings left by the dredge boats. Eberhart noted that the Silverthorn Hotel was still standing but vacant. It was torn down in 1957 after surviving nearly a hundred years.
But Breckenridge persisted. It wasn’t a ghost town. It had a school, the County Courthouse, a grocery, and three gas stations. These enterprises kept Breckenridge going. There were a few jobs at the County. In a time before term limits, the job of County Assessor or Clerk were held, in some cases, for decades. Married couples commonly enjoyed precious employment together in the Courthouse. Frank Brown served as both Mayor of Breckenridge and County Assessor, with wife Theta his deputy. Helen and Ted Fletcher, Sr., also worked together in the Courthouse building.
Literary ladies Belle Turnbull and Helen Rich chose to make their home in Breckenridge in 1938, and attracted fellow literati to visit. Colorado Poet Laureate Thomas Ferril was a frequent guest. His poem “Old Men on the Blue” tells of aged men sitting in the shade all day long watching the gas pump go up and down, their skin faded yellow. Ferril paints a forlorn picture of a fading town.
Breckenridge High School images [L] students in a classroom; 1956 (BHA.2015.8.1)
[R] basketball team portrait; 1946-1947 (BHA.2015.5.1)
Yet school children had a place to call their own. The Breckenridge School welcomed students throughout the Quiet Years. Childhood friends George Culbreath and Alan Rice, both from multi-generational local families, shared their school year memories for the BHA's oral history project. Their old school is now the beautifully restored Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center and Library on Harris Street. They shared stories of boyhood mischief, like clogging the drain pipe in the chemistry lab so it flooded the classroom below. Today that classroom is the offices for the library. In their day, the school was a center of community life, hosting student and adult basketball games in the gymnasium, swimming in the basement pool, theater in the largest classroom upstairs. Breckenridge in the Quiet Years was very much like any small town in the U.S.
Communications technologies that were sweeping the country made their way to Breckenridge. Telephones were nothing new; people had been chatting on the phone since the early part of the century. But an era ended in 1951 when Metta McAbee retired after 23 years as the switchboard operator, because dial up phones were introduced. Television and radio also came to Breckenridge in the 1950s. Not wanting to miss Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show, the people of Breckenridge installed the first television translator tower on Bald Mountain in 1957. Residents would gather at the County Courthouse to watch the only TV in town.
Then as now Breckenridge residents found ways to have fun. Once the privations of WWII ended, No Man’s Land was celebrated in style in 1948 with horse races, stunt riding, square dancing, and the guest of honor at the Fireman’s Ball, “Shimmy Queen” Gilda Gray. Miss Gray, an actress and dancer of acclaim, must have appreciated small town life as well. When she visited with the Fletchers, she came in through the kitchen door and spent the evening by the cast iron stove; and this was after Mrs. Fletcher spent the entire day cleaning the parlor in anticipation of the star’s visit. Long-time resident Martha Enyeart spoke of community gatherings, box lunches and all-night dances. Breckenridge pulled through because there was a great sense of community spirit.
But the town still struggled. Water lines froze in winter, roads weren’t plowed. Most everyone was so poor that the rationing of WWII meant little to them, they had so little to begin with. Fires were a constant problem. Arson took many of Breckenridge’s historic buildings. One of the most beautiful buildings in Breckenridge was lost to fire, the Arlington Hotel which Muriel Sibell Wolle had painted for her ghost town guide book. Mining continued sporadically. The Wellington Mine, the best producer in the County, continued to pull lead and zinc from the ground. In 1954, a cave-in trapped five miners for three hours, including two Enyeart brothers, Wes and Loren. The community gathered in silence until they were freed.
It was the hearty residents of Breckenridge, who cared deeply about their community, who kept the town animated and saved its soul for the next resurgence. Families like the Enyearts, Browns, Culbreaths, and Fletchers guided Breckenridge through the transition from the golden mining era to the quiet years and into the swift changes of the 1960s. They didn’t know what it was going to be, but they always held out hope for better days.
Learn more about Breckenridge’s rich history on a tour with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
written by Leigh Girvin