Discover Our History

Beginning with Nothing

The indescribable longing that stirs within one’s soul to explore an unknown area, seeking out its hidden secrets and treasures, can probably explain George Andrew Jackson’s actions on a cold day in January 1859.

George Jackson and Clear Creek

While on a hunting trip into the mountains with a companion, Jackson came to the frozen course of Vasquez Creek, now known as Clear Creek.  Jackson wished to explore the creek further into the mountains, but Jackson’s companion did not and returned to Golden.  Jackson set out alone the next day, following the stream west until he reached the east end of the valley of Idaho Springs, later referred to as Grass Valley.  At this point he saw a bluish mist or cloud rising from a nearby canyon.

Believing it to be an Indian encampment, Jackson cautiously crept up the slope through waist-deep snow to peer over the ridge into the canyon.

Instead of Indians, he saw hundreds of mountain sheep grazing on the green grass that resulted from the warm vapors of the hot springs in that area.  That night he camped in the area of present-day Soda Creek and Miner Street.  His prospecting in that area gave little promise, so he pushed further west to the junction of Chicago Creek and Clear Creek.  Camping on a sand bar to the south of this junction, Jackson built a large bonfire.  The resulting heat melted the frozen sand, allowing him to dig with his hunting knife and pan the sand using his drinking cup.  In a short time he had panned nine dollars worth of gold.  Determining the find to be worthy of further pursuit, he marked the spot and returned to Golden.

Wagon wheel

On April 17, 1859 with supplies, wagon teams, and twenty-two men, mostly from Chicago, Jackson set out for his claim.  The road had to be cut as they proceeded.  In places it was necessary to dismantle the wagons and pack supplies and wagons over the obstacle and then reassemble, reload, and proceed.  Near the end of April, the party reached Jackson’s spot on Chicago Creek and work began in earnest.  The proceeds for the first seven days were $1,900.

In June 1859, a formal organization of the mining district was enacted, the first such recorded in Colorado history.  In June 1859 there were 400 people in the settlement.

Three surveys of the town were made, beginning in 1860 and finally the third proved satisfactory and in 1873 a town site of 105 plus acres were preempted according to territorial law and registered with the land office in Central City.  The price for the town site was $1.25 per acre.  R.B. (“Elder”) Griswold was elected mayor.  Notices were posted that all who had taken up claims in the town site had ninety days to pay for the land.  In 1874, President Grant gave a government deed to Griswold, and he in turn would deed the lots to the settlers.

From the very first, the refinements of culture made increasing appearance.  Jackson’s worker, James A. Payne, had brought a violin into the camp and would often play for the townspeople.  Payne’s was the first marriage in Idaho Springs and one of his sons was born in the camp in 1863.

first hot springs buisness
The hot springs on Soda Creek had always figured prominently in the town.  In 1859, according to early records, there was a geyser at the springs, but in 1860 it ceased possibly from mining activity.  The first business enterprise utilizing the mineral waters was by a Dr. E.M. Cummings in the early 1860s.

The influx of miners and their families, and resultant mining activity led to the early creation of a very fine and adequate water system for the town.  At least two electric companies provided power and even heat to the town. The success of the mines was evident in the fine homes and business buildings built between 1870 and 1900, the golden era of mining in Clear Creek.  The town throbbed to the noise of mills and sampling works.  A number of livery stables were established to help haul freight and ore.

Always the county’s primary center of business and residence, Idaho Springs moved forward despite the cyclic activity of mining.  Most of the area mines closed and the mills fell silent when all non-essential mining was banned in World War II to conserve powder and supplies.

Today mines in the area are primarily tourist mines.

The building of Interstate 70 in the late 1950s and early 1960s at the south edge of town drastically changed the appearance of that area of town, and caused the traveler to pass along side the town.  The interstate was also the cause of some increase in population because commuting to jobs in the Denver became feasible.

Numerous churches and fraternal organizations have always been present.  The Social Ethics Club founded in 1898 is the oldest organization in Idaho Springs.  Idaho Springs had hose cart and hook and ladder teams, bands, (as many as three at a time), baseball teams, and a school since 1860 (just a year after Jackson’s discovery).  The town is the gateway to the highest paved auto road in North America, taking drivers to the summit of Mt. Evans at 14,000+ feet.  The old waterwheel of Charlie Tayler that was originally up Ute Creek, is now a landmark at the south side of I-70 at the foot of Bridal Veil Falls in the center of town.  The Colorado School of Mines’ experimental mine, the Edgar, is on the north edge of town at 8th Avenue.

Today the population of the town within city limits hovers at 2,000.  Mining is virtually nonexistent, and the effort to attract tourists and to capitalize on its history is a major thrust.  The Idaho Springs City Hall is housed at 17th and Miner Streets in the former Grass Valley School.  The brick building was moved in 1984 from its original location at approximately 2400 Colorado Boulevard where the current Safeway grocery store operates.  With volunteer help, the City of Idaho Springs remodeled the school into police quarters and city offices.

The downtown district between 13th Avenue and the east end of the 1700 block has been declared a National Historic District.  The many lovely homes of the early mining days remain as private residences.  The history of Idaho Springs is a valuable asset to the town and is remembered as being created by the ‘59ers.  Some of the 1859’ers were George A. Jackson, Henry Allen, E.B. Griswold, William Byers, William N. Slaughter, James Payne, A.J. Storm, D.C. Collier, J.B.C. Boyd, William Hobbs, John Needham, P.P. Schafter, Peter Theobald, Robert Kelso, J.O. Wright, Henry Choate, and W.E. Sisty.

This text is taken from  Tailings Tracks and Tommyknockers: A History of Clear Creek County, produced and copyrighted by the Historical Society of Idaho Springs.