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The Saloons of Breckenridge and Summit County, Colorado 1859-1900

Updated: May 17, 2022

front book cover
Behind Swinging Doors by Dr. Sandra F. Mather

Saloons were critical to the life of the miner in early Breckenridge. Author Sandra Mather, PhD. shares a detailed history of local area saloons in her book Behind Swinging Doors: The Saloons of Breckenridge and Summit County, Colorado 1859-1900. Through the saloons, Mather recounts the history of Breckenridge. From the rustic board over two barrels, to gentlemen’s clubs, through changes brought by the railroad, fraternal organizations and the temperance movement, we view the arc of Breckenridge’s mining-town history.

Whisky arrived in the West with the mountain men in the years 1820-1850. Prospectors followed with the discovery of gold in 1858 near today’s Denver, Colorado. Breckenridge, founded in 1859, boasted a robust population and the first recorded saloons by 1860, according to Mather.

“The number of saloons in a mining town or camp told of the area’s prosperity,” she writes. Breckenridge was a significant community from the start, as Mather’s account covers a long list of saloons and their importance to the community.

In the book, we learn that saloons served whiskey and beer, and also served multiple functions: refuge, social center, and gambling hall. Often among the larger buildings in a town, saloons frequently doubled as stage stop, post office, courtroom, election center, church, theater and funeral home.

With a safe to secure valuables and a trusted saloon keeper, miners stashed their gold at their favorite saloon instead of the unreliable banks. That kept their form of payment nearby as well. A pinch of gold dust, worth about 25 cents, bought a quaff.

As Breckenridge matured, the saloons became more refined. Railroads brought finery, millwork, and better booze. Mather shares vintage photographs rich in detail of historic Breckenridge bars featuring carved oak bar backs, brass foot rails, rugs, curtains, and mirrors to keep an eye on the room. Artwork adorned the walls, commonly featuring female nudes, patriotic themes, or sporting celebrities.

Saloon keepers were held in high esteem in the community, on par with bankers and doctors. Mather tells of the many saloon keepers elected to public office: sheriff, marshal coroner, mayor, and treasurer among them.

The requirement to purchase a liquor license extended to houses of prostitution. The 1880 census showed six prostitutes working in town.

Black and white photo of two men sitting on a bar. created by Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.
Summit Historical Society Collection; SHS-P.2014.115-2.

Behind Swinging Doors will appeal to any history lover, offering a generous collection of historic photos, census data, maps of an evolving Breckenridge, and entertaining stories of an era both long-gone and still familiar. Behind Swinging Doors is available from Breckenridge History. For more information on Breckenridge history, visit an historic site, take a tour, or read blog articles from Breckenridge History.

About the Author: Sandra Mather, PhD.

Sandra Mather first came to Summit County in 1980 to complete her doctoral dissertation on the area’s geology and became enchanted with the community’s natural and built landscapes, history and people. She has published over a dozen books on the history of Breckenridge and Summit County, including the Chasing the Dream series with Bill Fountain. Dr. Mather is professor emerita in the Department of Geology and Astronomy at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She spends her summers researching, leading tours and presenting programs on history in Summit County.

Behind Swinging Door Book Review

Written by Leigh Girvin

January 25, 2021

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