January-February 1861

Peek at the Week

February 20 – 26, 1861. The Rocky Mountain News printed correspondence from someone known only as “Ginger” announcing that, as of February 18th, the citizens of the Mount Vernon, Bergen, and Junction Districts in Jefferson County declared their independence from the Provisional Government of Jefferson Territory and Jefferson County and had formed themselves into the County of Ni Wot (Arapahoe for “Left Hand”). Furthermore, the citizens of a portion of the town of Mount Vernon, called Baden-Baden, determined to secede and build their own road up Amos Gulch, bypassing a portion of the Mt. Vernon Road. The description of the site indicates that Baden-Baden may have been in the vicinity of what became Apex, just north of Mount Vernon and near present-day Heritage Square.

W.A.H. Loveland reported on gold deposits found about four miles west of Golden along Clear Creek. These deposits were located 30 to 100 feet above the present creek bed, causing great excitement in town of possible riches so close to hand. Within a week prospect holes pockmarked the north side of the creek from the mouth of the canyon and westward. Further investigations, including one led by William Byers of the Rocky Mountain News on February 26, cautioned that this may only be a flash in the pan of limited placer diggings and not a local vein, characterized by well weathered minerals showing unmistakable signs of having long exposure to water, likely deposited along some ancient meander of the Clear Creek.

A military company, called the Jefferson Rifles, was formed in Golden City, with some 45 members already enrolled, under officers Capt. George West, 1st Lt. J.N. Odell, 2nd Lt. Charles Pickle, and 3rd Lt. Mark L. Blunt. The mission or purpose of this corps was not stated, but may have well been in response to the Southern Secession earlier in the month. Both Secessionists and Unionists occupied the territory, with the Mountaineer newspaper favoring disunion and the News adamantly for Lincoln and the Union.

February 13 – 19, 1861. Mt. Vernon officially obtains a Post Office. The establishment of a Post Office gave a young community a deeper sense of identity. Although in the very small communities the post office often moved with the postmaster, it still remained a center for distributing mail, newspapers, and local gossiping. For more information on Colorado’s post offices, visit the Colorado Postal History Society/

February 6 – 12, 1861. On February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America were formed and the following day Jefferson Davis learned that he had been named President. On February 11 President-elect Abraham Lincoln departed his home in Springfield, Illinois, to begin his trip to Washington. That news had not yet reached Denver, but the Rocky Mountain News did report that the bill for the organization of the Territory of Colorado passed the Senate and was on its way to the House.

During this week Denver and the local mountains experienced what we would later call “The February Thaw.” The snow had largely melted from all but the north face and ravines of the mountains, and many locals decided to take “flying trips” around the vicinity. One correspondent hopped on the Western Stage to Golden, a town renowned for “its beautiful women, virtuous men, good whiskey, [and] picturesque scenery.” Another headed to Mt. Vernon, only a year old and already equipped with “two good hotels, and quite a number of neat and tasty private residences.” Reports of these trips, provided consistently in papers like the News, give us some of the best word-pictures we have today of the mining districts, towns, roads, and scenery of 150 years ago.

January 30 – February 5, 1861. Life in Jefferson County appeared to be quiet during this week, although the murder of Deputy Sheriff A.B. Riley, by a man named Looney in the mining town of Mountain City (Gilpin County), comprised most of the local news coverage. Looney was brought to trial and acquitted within a week. Now that’s speedy justice.

January 23 – 29, 1861. By the end of this week Georgia and Louisiana seceded, while “Bloody Kansas” joined the fragmenting Union as a free state on January 29, 1861. Closer to home in Jefferson Territory, Dr. Casto reported in the January 30 edition of The Rocky Mountain News on the improvements made to the road past Mt. Vernon. Road names changed often, and portions of this route have also been known as the Genesee Wagon Road, Mt. Vernon Toll Road, and Casto’s Road, among others. The first stretch, from Mt. Vernon and up the canyon to Idaho Springs along what he called the Mt. Vernon, Bergen’s Ranche and Idaho Road (or old Jackson Road) showed vast improvements achieved by cutting curves and grading easier slopes. After touring the mining districts in Gregory Gulch and Central City Dr. Casto made his way back down along North Clear Creek on the new road owned by Gov. Steele. The bridges across the creek had been completed and the new road alignment followed easy grades, circumventing “the Big Hill” (between present-day I-70 and Hwy. 6) although he did find an unauthorized obstruction at Smith’s Gulch, where Mr. Smith had erected a primitive toll gate. Today, Interstate 70 and Highway 119 follow parts of the route Dr. Casto traveled. Smith’s toll gate was likely in the vicinity of the junction of Smith Hill Road and Hwy. 119. Big Hill Station was just east of the junction of Hwy. 6 and Hwy. 119.

For more information on early toll and wagon roads, go to the Historic Contexts Report.

January 16 – 22, 1861. The Rocky Mountain News optimistically reported that stamp mills would soon line the length of the Clear Creek through Jefferson County. These never materialized. The local ores proved to be difficult to refine and therefore less desirable for those looking to make easy money, and the unpredictable, and often frozen, waters of the Clear Creek may not have provided sufficient force to power the mills. More information on Colorado’s historic mining properties can be found at the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation of the Colorado Historical Society.

Stamp mills were a necessary component in hardrock mining of the early 1860s. Unlike placer mining, where the river separated the gold from the rock through erosion processes, hardrock mining brought up the gold still locked within the rock matrix. Stamping crushed the rock by the repeated dropping a weight. Often water power from a nearby river was harnessed to run the wheels that lifted the weight. In this case the Clear Creek, conveniently located along a major route between Denver and the gold-mining districts, was envisioned to provide the motive force. Once the rock was crushed various physical and chemical processes could then be employed to further refine the ore and separate out the gold and other precious minerals.

January 9 – 15, 1861. The United States continued to unravel in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. During this week Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama joined South Carolina and seceded from the Union. Closer to home, George Morrison announced the opening of his hotel, the Mount Vernon House. Morrison later moved a few miles to the south and founded the town bearing his name, where he built the Cliff House (1873) as his private home; it is now known as the Cliff House Lodge. The Mount Vernon House hotel no longer stands.

January 1 – 8, 1861. While hunting near his home on New Year’s Day 1861, Gov. Steele saw human fingers reaching up out of the snow and uncovered the remains of a large man. The flesh was nearly all eaten away, but his clothing and the contents of his pockets indicated that this was the body of Linus C. Coolidge of Ohio, a former steamboat captain, who went missing in early September 1860 with a load of freight for the mining towns. It appeared to be a case of murder.

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