After George Jackson’s initial discovery of gold in Idaho Springs, mining fever swept the area. With the onset of warmer weather, droves of prospectors flooded up the valley in the spring of 1859. Finding all the good spots taken in the area Jackson pioneered, many continued west in search of sites where fortunes could be made. And they found some.
The Union District Valley City Co. was organized in August 1860 and dissolved in November of the same year, leaving the small mining community without a name. By mutual agreement of the residents, the name “Empire City” was adopted, echoing and aspiring to the magnificence of the state of New York.
By mid-1861, there was a blacksmith shop, a general store and post office, dozens of miners’ shacks and several impressive buildings, along with a small but thriving population. It was hoped that the Great Snowy Range to the west, now known as Berthoud Pass, would be part of the Continental Railroad route. By 1869, the hope was dashed; Empire City and Denver were both bypassed.
After the first, promising discoveries panned out, many miners moved west to Georgetown, where silver mining was going strong. However, when silver prices plummeted in the early 1890s, those miners returned to Empire City and their gold.
On April 12, 1882, Empire City incorporated as Empire and boasted a population of 500.
Commonly referred to as “DLD,” a compact area at about the center of the county includes three once-thriving communities: Dumont, Lawson and Downieville.
Dumont was settled in 1859 under the name Mill City, but changed its name in 1880 in honor of Col. John M. Dumont, a pioneer and prominent mining man in the county. An important stagecoach stop, Dumont was also known for its ore-stamping mills and smelters. In 1880, Dumont boasted a population of nearly 100 and had two hotels, a general store and public school. One hotel, the Mill City House, was built in 1860 and still stands. It housed the first saloon west of Denver, a billiard table from Oswego, N.Y., and an opera house and meeting hall on the upper floor.
Lawson was founded in 1877 under the name “Free America” at the foot of Red Elephant Mountain, where many lucrative discoveries were made. It was selected as the site for a depot to serve the Colorado & Southern Railroad and became known as Lawson. The town had a general store, a school, a band, three baseball teams, an opera house and a fine orchestra. It was home to organizations such as the Western Federation of Miners and the Lawson Miners Union No. 55. During the Panic of 1893, the population waned and the businesses closed.
Downieville was the first town site established in the county when, on Aug. 4, 1859, a tract of 80 acres was set aside. One year later it was one of the largest camps in the region, providing theatrical entertainment to miners from the surrounding area. No paying mines were found in the vicinity, however, and the town was subsequently abandoned. In 1871 the property was purchased, and the construction of a hotel and stagecoach stop began.
The silver boom in Georgetown encouraged prospecting farther to the west, and by the late 1860s rich silver ore veins had been discovered in a valley that came to be known as Silver Plume. By 1870 the amount of high-grade silver ore being produced convinced many miners that they could finally replace their tents with crude shacks and soon with wood-frame houses and shops.
Georgetown was known as the “Silver Queen,” but most of the silver would be extracted from the mines above Silver Plume. The mine owners and managers lived in Georgetown, while the hardworking miners lived in Silver Plume’s modest homes.
On Aug. 19, 1880, the new town incorporated with the name Silver Plume — inspired, some say, by a vein of ore so rich that silver flakes broke off in feathery patterns.
When the United States abandoned the silver standard in 1893 and silver prices plunged, the town suffered economic disaster. Though there were still large deposits to be mined, only the most wealthy mines could afford to continue operation. Jobs were lost, businesses closed and the town’s boom days seemed to be over.
Silver Plume would not see a return of prosperity until the Argentine Central Railroad opened in 1906, winding its way from Silver Plume to the top of 14,000-foot Mount McClellan. At the same time, a popular aerial tramway carried passengers up Sunrise Peak, southwest of the town.
Aside from silver, there were other minerals in the area to bring a profit. Granite from Silver Plume was used in the construction of the Denver City and County Building during the Great Depression.
These smaller communities represent the tough determination of the early settlers. Though only Empire and Silver Plume are incorporated municipalities, all five communities not only have an integral role in our history, they stand proudly as unique communities in the 21st century.