Party like it’s 1880 |

Party like it’s 1880

Krista Driscollkdriscoll@vaildaily.comVail, CO Colorado
Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western History Collection

BRECKENRIDGE, Colorado – In the late 1800s, Breckenridge was a booming mining town. From the 90-foot-deep open-pit mine that’s now the site of Maggie Pond to the dredges that crawled their way up the south end of Main Street, Breckenridge was consumed by the mining industry.Those who worked in the mines passed their leisure time in Breck’s dance halls, brothels and saloons. According to the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, Breckenridge was home to two dance halls, 10 hotels and 18 saloons in 1880. The silhouettes of these old saloons can still be seen in the modern trappings of their contemporary counterparts. With a bit of knowledge in hand, exploring the saloons of Breckenridge can be a bar-hopping, time-traveling adventure.

One of the oldest saloons in Breckenridge is The Gold Pan on Main Street.”The Gold Pan has the longest continuously running liquor license west of the Mississippi,” said Mike McManus, a tour guide with the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance.Miners would line up at the saloon for some suds, occasionally checking over their shoulders from their stools in the mirror above the bar to ensure that they weren’t being pickpocketed by any enterprising thief lusting for a few gold nuggets. Even during Prohibition, The Gold Pan website claims, a drink could be found in the back room while soda pop was served at the bar.Many of the saloon floors were covered in sawdust, which could be swept up at the end of the night and sifted through for a tiny speck of treasure here and there, McManus said.Miners who threw down a bit too much liquor would sway on their stools and take a drunken tumble into the sawdust at their feet.”That’s where the phrase ‘bit the dust’ came from,” McManus said.

In the 1880s, the Motherloaded Tavern on Main Street, which was then known as the St. Bernard, was a dance hall. What’s the difference between a dance hall and a brothel?”Pretty women worked at dance halls,” McManus said. “The ugly girls worked at the brothel.”In those days, a miner in a public mine made between $2.50 and $3 per day. After a long, hard day of work in the mine, the miners would head into town to the dance halls, McManus said. A dance with a pretty girl cost $1, of which the dancing girl kept half. A popular dancer would have dozens of dance partners in a single night.”A dance-hall girl could make $25 in a night” without resorting to prostitution, McManus said.A bath cost 25 cents, and the brothels were cheaper still. When weighing the options, it’s no surprise that many miners would forgo a soak and, instead, spend their wages on a night on the town.”There were a lot of happy, dirty miners in Breckenridge,” McManus said.

Eventually, those ore-coated miners had to scrub up. The first place they may have gone was a little building on North Ridge Street. Now known as The Brown Hotel, it was rumored to have had the first bathtub in town.”It had the first bathtub, so people used to come and utilize it,” said Michael Cavanaugh, owner of The Brown.Built in the 1800s as a private dwelling, the building was operated as a school by Capt. George L. Ryan and his wife during the 1880s and later as a hotel by Thomas and Maude Brown, Cavanaugh said. Cavanaugh has researched the history of the building.”I’ve gone all the way back to 1882,” he said. “How it passed down to the Browns around 1895. The person who initially had the property was Capt. George L. Ryan, who was partners with Barney Ford. They were partners in the Oro Mine, which later became the Wellington Mine. Barney couldn’t hold anything because he was an ex-slave, so Capt. Ryan held the property in his name.” While renovating the property, Cavanaugh found some remnants of the past.”I found a lot of newspapers between the floors when remodeling,” he said. “Most of them were from the war period – the Spanish-American War, World War I – those were all addressed to T.A. Brown.”Thomas Brown had used the papers to prevent mine dirt and dust from his patrons’ clothing to be sifted through the floorboards from one level to another, Cavanaugh said. Many of the old papers that he uncovered now adorn the walls of the bar, and other bits and pieces of the past still lurk in the halls and stairwells of the building. It’s even said that the bar is haunted, and it’s a popular stop on the Heritage Alliance’s haunted tour of Breckenridge.

By the turn of the century, the earlier mining booms were over, but dredging boats began operating in 1898, according to the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. The boats dissected the riverbeds in search of gold and silver.”They wouldn’t have existed in this town if it weren’t for the railroads; they can bring all these large parts in,” said Steven Rockne, owner of The Dredge Restaurant & Bar. “A dredge is a big pond, and then you put a dredge boat in; it digs in the front and dumps out the back. It can go up or downstream, sifting through the dirt that comes through in that process.”The Dredge Restaurant is a replica of the Tonopah Dredge No. 1, Rockne said. This dredge chewed its way through town, eventually ending its journey in the middle of town, where the restaurant now sits. The dredge ran continuously night and day until the end of 1935. Without profits to keep it alive, it then lay idle, according to the restaurant’s website. In 1939, The Dredge was again resurrected and munched its way up the road to its final resting place. “This is as far as it made it upstream because it ran into big boulders,” Rockne said. “It sat in this pond for about 30 years.”Rockne said the dredge became a safety hazard as it deteriorated, and finally, in the ’60s, the remaining bones were dismantled and the dredge was sent to the bottom of its watery grave. In the early 1990s, the dredge was brought back from the dead, as the replica was designed and built on the site of the original boat. The original owners went bankrupt building the restaurant, and Rockne’s family purchased the property.”It’s a unique piece of property,” Rockne said. “It’s a floating boat in the middle of town.”Patrons can read about the dredge’s demise and resurrection and view relics of the dredging days at the bar and restaurant, located on Jefferson Avenue in Breckenridge.

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