Road Trip: Black Hawk and Central City draw historians and high rollers
October 8, 2013
BLACK HAWK — More than 150 years after gold was discovered in Colorado's Black Hawk area, thousands still crowd into the canyon hoping to strike it big.
The "little mining town that went boom" is now Colorado's little Las Vegas.
"We're 20 minutes outside of Golden nestled in a little canyon in the Rocky Mountains," said JJ Garcia, general manager of The Lodge Casino in Blackhawk. "'Unlike so many gaming areas, this is a little mining town that kinda went boom."
Black Hawk, "The City of Mills," is one of Colorado's oldest settlements. Gold was discovered in the area in the mid-1800s, and thousands of would-be miners came to the area in their pursuit to strike it rich.
A century-and-a-half later, modern mining in the area looks more like slot machines and blackjack tables. Gambling was passed as legal in 1991, and the area has since become a mountain anomaly—pairing historic buildings next to high-rise hotels.
"There are a lot of unique buildings and we still give a lot of attribution to the mining town," Garcia explained.
Today, you can enjoy hearty crab cakes appetizer accompanied by a freshly opened bottle of Cotes du Rhone — a robust red ready to stand up to the rich and tender flavors served at the steakhouse in The Lodge Casino, luxuries that surely weren't common in the early mining days.
The Lodge Casino's sister establishment, The Gilpin Hotel Casino, holds substantial local history, and the original building now houses murals documenting stories of ghosts and gold.
"Entering yet another century, Black Hawk faces the prospect of trying to sustain and survive yet another boom period," states the City of Black Hawk website. "The opportunities are there for those who will respect its rich heritage, while at the same time welcoming its unlimited future with the spirit of adventure that brought forth those ambitious miners and merchants of the 1800s."
Those who travel up the mountain canyon looking to strike it rich will see how the stories of the city merge into one, and everyone from penny pinchers to high rollers will find a place to mine their own hopeful riches.
"We have a little bit of something for everyone here — from penny to $100 slots. Whatever your budget, we are able to cater to that budget," Garcia said.
Just as the gold was hidden throughout miles of Colorado mountains, visitors will find that they can settle into a place of comfort and ease.
"Once you get up here, you realize that every place has the same tables and the same games," Garcia said. "But what we pride ourselves in at The Lodge Casino and our hotel is our hospitality and customer service standards."
The establishment is nestled against the side of a canyon wall and just down the street from original brick buildings, and it's the perfect representation of how the small town is writing a new portion of its history.
"And if the past is but prologue," the city's website concludes. "Black Hawk's full story, yet to be told, will be a fascinating one indeed."
Less than three miles from booming Black Hawk is the neighboring town of Central City. The small mining town has been able to keep the classic "Old West" charm of its historic downtown, with only a couple larger casinos that have been built on the periphery.
Access the area from the windy Highway 119 strip from Golden through Black Hawk, or the eight and a half mile Central City Parkway located just east of Idaho Springs.
Virginia Canyon, known as "Oh-My-God Road", is another access point in and out of Gilpin County known by locals, and it was the original wagon road used by miners to access the area settlements beginning in 1859 during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush.
Central City was known during the mining days as "The Richest Square Mile on Earth," and the small town is now frequented by history buffs and low profile gamblers.
Darla Larson, born in Denver and a current resident of Centennial, has been a tour guide in Central City for 10 years. She became a member of the Gilpin Historical Society after visiting the area and acquiring her grandfather's memoirs.
"My grandfather came here from Brooklyn, N.Y., by wagon train in 1865," Larson explained. "He mined here for 45 years, and Daddy went to work in the mines when he was 12."
Larson said she drives Oh-My-God Road often and thinks of her grandfather's travels to Central City and her family's heritage from the 19th century.
"I go home on that road wishing I could bring back my grandfather and my parents," she explained. "Everybody worked so hard to give us a better life."
The area has seen its generous share of highs and lows, but a severe town fire in 1874 and the end of the gold rush in the late 1800s seem to be only setbacks. The classic main street is now shared by local business, including small casinos, gift shops, a bar and pizza shop, an Elks Lodge and a coffee and tea cafe.
"We have a nice balance because families can come and enjoy picnic tables and a playground up on the hill, and they can come enjoy our historical tours," Larson said. "Accompanied children are welcome to walk through to dining areas in all the casinos, except Johnny Z's."
Tours of the Central City Opera House and the Teller House hotel are offered daily, as well as a "Walk Through a House in Time" tour. Be sure to visit the local art gallery, just a few doors up from the visitor center on Eureka Street.
"I think the gambling helps with the historical element of the town because Central City has been really good to support the historical society and the art gallery," Larson explained. "The town does offer a little bit of something for all ages."
If you head out of town on the scenic Central City Parkway, take a short detour up to Nevadaville. Just a mile up the road, the remnants an abandoned mining community is both peaceful and mysterious.
"Nevadaville is a ghost town," Larson explained. "There are mines right by the road, and a really unique rock house on your left as you enter. All in all, there are maybe six or seven houses left out of what were about 200."