Boulder Ranger District History

Mining, Homesteading and Railroads

In the year 1859, gold was discovered near Denver. Thousands of pioneers flooded Colorado’s Front Range, panning every stream and blasting test pits all over the mountains in hopes of fulfilling their dreams of striking riches. Mining camps dotted the mountain landscape – some of these became permanent towns and cities, many disappeared almost without a trace. The boom and bust economy was the way of life in mining communities. Fires posed a serious threat to any town’s survival – without modern firefighting equipment, hoses and hydrants; fires easily spread from building to building and devastated towns.

Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, which attracted additional westward settlement. Homesteaders could claim 160-acre tracts of unoccupied public land and make improvements – build a cabin and fences, till fields, and raise livestock. After five years of residence and payment of a nominal fee the land was theirs. Homesteads cropped up near mining camps to serve those communities. Homesteading was not an easy way of life. To survive, families grew lettuce, turnips, potatoes and other root crops, traded for what they could not grow, slaughtered livestock and cut timber for sale in the mining communities. They worked the land all day to scrape out a living. These work-hardened pioneer miners and homesteaders were the foundation upon which modern-day Colorado was built.

The new growth in the west demanded a speedy and reliable transit system for transporting people and goods. The answer to this need was the railroad system. The rails stretched their steely fingers westward to Denver, but the question then was, “Now where?” David H. Moffat tried to push the Denver, Northwestern and Pacific rail line west through the mountains of Colorado to Salt Lake City, but that line never reached past Craig, Colorado. The narrow-gauge Switzerland Trail Railroad served the mining communities of Boulder County, transporting people, goods and ores for processing.


Boulder City, as it was first known, came to be in 1858 with the first cabins built near the mouth of Boulder Canyon. Boulder was established in 1859 and had building lots available for $1,000 each. Seventy cabins were built that first year and Boulder grew. Boulder soon had a doctor and a minister, but goods were traded from wagons, as there were no business buildings until 1860. Boulder built Colorado’s first schoolhouse in 1860.

In 1861 Colorado became a territory – previously the area was on the boundary between the Nebraska and Kansas Territories, which were separated by the 40th latitude, or present-day Baseline Road. That year, the territorial legislature enacted a bill establishing a state university and designating Boulder as the location. Construction of the university did not begin until 1875 and the university opened in 1877.

Gold Hill

Boulder County’s first gold claims were staked at Gold Run in 1859, near present-day Gold Hill, which was the first mining town settled in Boulder County. Within a year there were over 1,500 prospectors in the area. In fact, there were so many people working on the extensive placer claims (surface minerals) that the riches ran out in a few years and many left Gold Hill. After tapping the resources of the placer claims, many mines around Gold Hill were deserted until 1869, when new technologies became available for processing lower-grade ores.

The best high-grade lode (vein of mineral ore) in the area was the Horsfal lode, discovered by William Blore, M.L. McCaslin and David Horsfal on June 13, 1859. It yielded $100,000 in its first year – that is the equivalent of $3 million today. As Gold Hill’s mining activities waned through the 1860s and 1870s, Gold Hill’s population dwindled. In 1887, the population there was only 230. A bad fire in 1894 followed by a flood that spring wiped the whole town out and not much was rebuilt.

Today, Gold Hill is a small community of about 200 people. The dirt road through town is lined with old buildings and houses, some dating to the town’s beginnings. The Gold Hill Inn & Bluebird Lodge was built in 1872 (originally called the Wentworth Hotel) and has been operating as a restaurant and lodge ever since. The Gold Hill General Store is in a false-front building typical of the 1860s and retains its historic character both inside and out.


Sam Conger found silver on Caribou Mountain while hunting in 1860. It was not until he saw silver ore from Comstock, NV, that he realized what he had passed by in Boulder County. He hurried back to the mountain and rediscovered what turned out to be “the greatest silver vein of the region” in 1869. Caribou City, established in 1870, soon grew to a thriving community of 60 businesses and 400 people, supported by 20 producing mines. At its peak, Caribou was home to over 3,000 people.

Caribou was noted for its weather. At 10,000 feet elevation, the town was subject to thunderstorms, snow that buried buildings and violent winds. Old-timers said that Caribou was “the town where the winds were born,” and when the wind blew in Nederland, four miles to the east, it was said that, “someone in Caribou must have left the door open.” Caribou was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1879, but the silver crash of 1893, along with epidemics of scarlet fever and diphtheria and a second fire in 1900, meant the end of Caribou.

Today, little remains of the historic town. Most of the town’s streets and houses vanished without a trace, leaving only the skeletons of two stone buildings and crumbling mining structures scattered throughout the area. Only one active mine remains in Caribou, but the quest for the precious metals that put Caribou on the map is still very much alive today.


Nederland went through several names before settling on Nederland. It was called Brownville in 1870 and later called Dayton, East Caribou and Middle Boulder. In those early days, Nederland was a small, struggling village, but the owner of the nearby Caribou mine thought it would be an ideal place to build a mill for processing Caribou silver. The Breed & Cutter Mill was built and began processing the high-grade silver ore from the Caribou mine. In 1873, President Ulysses S. Grant visited the Teller House in Central City, and the gold mine owners there decided to lay 26 ingots of solid silver to make a path to the entrance of the Teller House so the President would not have to dirty his boots when he stepped from the carriage – these silver bricks were cast at the Breed & Cutter Mill in Nederland. Nederland earned its name in 1874 when a Dutch company bought Breed’s silver mine and mill.

Nederland survived the end of the 19th century as a stage stop on the Boulder-Caribou tollroad and a regional supply and trading center. Stages carried 100 passengers daily and beds in town were rented in eight-hour shifts. Extra doors were added to saloons and restaurants to facilitate rapid turnover – patrons were expected to be finished eating in 20 minutes.

The bottom dropped out of the silver market in 1893 when the government decided to stop buying a guaranteed minimum of silver for coinage. This might have spelled the end for Nederland if not for the discovery of another mineral abundant in the area. In 1900 Sam Conger, who discovered the first silver at Caribou, took some unfamiliar ore to Denver for analysis. The ore turned out to be tungsten, a rare metal. Tungsten had been a heavy black metallic nuisance to early miners, but at the turn of the century the potential for its use in incandescent lamps and to strengthen steel was realized. With the onset of World War I there was high demand for tungsten, which was used to harden the steel of gun barrels. Nederland shot into a new era and the people streamed in once again. In 1908 the world’s largest tungsten mill was built east of Nederland, in what became known as the town of Tungsten. Between 1913 and 1916 roughly $15 million worth of tungsten was mined from the area annually. The population of the Nederland/Tungsten area was around 5,000 people during those years. Soon the bottom dropped out of the tungsten market and by 1919 all of the mines had closed.

Nederland sits on the shores of Barker Reservoir created with the construction of Barker Dam, which began in 1908. The dam and reservoir were named for Mrs. Hannah Barker, who owned the ranch land at the site of the dam and reservoir. Mrs. Barker refused to sell her ranch holdings to the project developers, and eventually condemnation proceedings were necessary to acquire the dam and reservoir site.

Today, Nederland is a growing community that relies heavily on tourism. The town is proud of its rich history and strives to retain its charming rustic character. Located on the Peak-to-Peak Scenic Byway at the top of Boulder Canyon, Nederland is a gateway for recreational opportunities, with ample hiking and biking trails and a ski area nearby.


Established in 1896, the town originally named Eldorado Camp was changed to Eldora by the local post office to eliminate problems with misdelivery of the mail to a town of the same name in California. Eldora became a bustling gold camp with seven grocery stores, nine saloons, dance halls and gambling houses – all of the characteristics of a mining town. Eldora boasted a school with two teachers, a jail and good stage connections.

Most of the ore in Eldora was surface deep and the town was declining by 1904 and mining was over by 1917. In its struggle to survive, the town changed its focus and became a popular resort. Residents of Eldora disincorporated the town in the 1970s so that the area would fall under Boulder County’s Forestry zoning laws – no new houses on lots smaller than 35 acres and no condominiums. Residents were concerned that the nearby ski area would result in pressure for residential and commercial development, and they wanted to preserve the town as a cluster of small, mostly seasonal cabins, as it remains today.


Silver and lead ores were located in Jamestown in 1864, signaling the first influx of miners. By 1866, the town had a population of over 600 people. As with all mining towns of that era, Jamestown saw fluctuations in population that coincided with the boom and bust economy. Discovery of gold in Jamestown in 1882 sparked a second boom.

First called Elysian Park due to its scenic attractions, the name was later switched to Jamestown in honor of James Smith, one of the first to discover gold there. Local miners, however, insisted the correct name was Jimtown, a name still used by residents. The town had all the amenities expected of a mining community: hotels, businesses, a toll road, 33 saloons, a school and a church.


Although miners arrived at present-day Lyons in 1858, followed closely by homesteaders in the 1860s, the town of Lyons was not established until 1880, when Edward S. Lyon bought a ranch nearby. Lyon discovered extensive deposits of high quality tawny sandstone on his ranch. With the first shipment of sandstone delivered to Longmont, an industry was born.

The quarrying of sandstone quickly became Lyons' major industry and attracted miners from as far away as Europe. Lyons’ sandstone was used at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and again at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Most of the brownstone buildings in New York and Chicago were made from Lyons’ sandstone. The market for sandstone bottomed out in 1912 and quarrying subsided for some time, until the Works Progress Administration (WPA – part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal) revived quarrying between 1930 and World War II.

Lyons remains a primary resource for sandstone regionally. The red or tawny stone is still used widely in local construction and landscaping projects.


Calvin W. Ward discovered gold in Ward in 1860 and the town was established in 1865. Investors from the east and London were attracted there, and the town’s major mine bore the name of Tabor, named for one such eastern investor, Horace Tabor. Ward’s mines were among the most productive in Boulder County, but heartbreaking when those prospectors who bought high, sold low and lost thousands or millions when the new buyer soon struck it rich. A story is told of a man who traded the deed for his mine for a wool hat, and was “damned glad to get the hat.”

A massive fire destroyed most of the town of Ward January 24, 1900. The Ward Miner reported:

“When the sun rose Thursday morning the burned district looked like a miniature sea dotted with miniature icebergs, the water poured upon the debris having frozen and formed into beautiful encrustations…

Not a store, hotel, saloon, restaurant nor a business house of any sort escaped the flames… If the life of the town depended wholly upon the profits that are taken over counter and bar, its destruction would be complete and the little basin in which its business houses once stood might be abandoned for the home of the chipmunk and coyote…”

Ward’s population decreased dramatically after 1900. Ward had 1,000 residents in 1890 and only 129 residents by 1910. 1950 boasts Ward’s smallest population with just 10 residents, but the town bounced back with increased summer residence.

These days Ward is a small town of less than 200 residents. It is unique, composed of rustic cabins and offering a general store for basic supplies.

The Switzerland Trail

In 1883, the Switzerland Trail carried supplies and ore, extending from Boulder to present-day Sunset up Fourmile Canyon. Wagons had to complete the trip to Ward and Gold Hill. In 1898, however, an extended line opened up for passenger service and was dubbed the Switzerland Trail of America. Railroad ads touted, “One need not go to Switzerland for sublime mountain scenery.” The train carried an average of 250 passengers each day and a hundred tons of ore. The extended line traveled up Fourmile Canyon to Sunset, then north to Mount Alto Picnic Area, Gold Hill and Ward. The line continued from Ward to the south and west, stopping in Cardinal (between Caribou and Nederland) and Eldora then east to Sugarloaf and back to Sunset.

The steep 4.39% grades and heavy work of hauling ores on the Switzerland Trail required powerful locomotive engines. In 1898 Colorado & Northwestern (C&N) commissioned Brooks Locomotive Works of Dunkirk, NY, to build three engines, which would turn out to be the largest narrow-gauge locomotives the world had yet seen. One of these, the Number 30 resides today in Boulder’s Central Park, at the corner of Broadway and Canyon.

The C&N ran the rail line for about another decade when, in 1909, economic downturn forced it into receivership and bankruptcy. The Denver, Boulder, & Western Railroad (DB&W) was formed to succeed the C&N. The DB&W retained all of its predecessor’s equipment and began operations pinning its hopes on tourism as its key to survival. Countless excursions were run: wildflower excursions, holiday excursions, moonlight excursions, snowball outings, Sunday excursions and student excursions. Every conceivable event was cause to ride or charter a run over the fabled Switzerland Trail of America. A third rail was laid to Denver over the Colorado & Southern Railroad (C&S) to allow joint C&S-DB&W excursions from Union Station in Denver without having to change coaches.

Tourists flocked to take the trains (often loaded with kegs of beer packed in snow) to take part in these excursions and outings. The Mount Alto Picnic Area was a popular destination for community picnics, baseball games, lectures, dances, concerts and celebrations. In those days, there was a large wooden lodge at the site. Today, all that remains of the lodge is the large stone chimney; a cement and stone pillar is all that is left of the quartz-encrusted fountain that once greeted rail passengers.

Although every effort was made to make the line pay its way, hard times and a series of floods in lower Boulder Canyon proved too much for the line. In 1919, the line ceased all operations and sold the entire railroad to the Morse Brothers Machinery & Supply Co. in Denver in 1920.

The old rails are gone, but portions of the Switzerland Trail can be driven by passenger car, bicycled or hiked, still offering the same magnificent views that once made it famous.

The Moffat Line

A century ago, railroads ruled the west. Easy access to rail lines spelled success or failure for developing cities. That is why Denver’s leaders wanted the transcontinental railroad to pass through Denver, rather than have their fair city stuck on a spur off the main line.

David H. Moffat was a New York native who came to Denver in 1860 and opened a store that sold wallpaper, books and other items. He became president of First National Bank of Denver in 1880 and earned a fortune on mining investments in Leadville, Creede and Cripple Creek. His biggest interest, however, was in railroads.

In 1902, Moffat organized other investors and planned to build a direct rail line west from Denver to Salt Lake City via Granby, Kremmling, Steamboat Springs and Craig. The railroad was authorized under the name of the Denver Northwestern & Pacific Railway Company, but the line was immediately dubbed “The Moffat.” Construction began in April 1903 and in June 1905 “the hill route” over Rollins Pass was complete from Denver to Hot Sulphur Springs. Building the line meant boring 33 tunnels on a 2% grade up South Boulder Creek and on a 4% grade over Rollins Pass. A 4% grade was the maximum slope up a “standard adhesion locomotive” could pull a loaded train.

“The hill route” over Rollins Pass at 11,660 feet was the highest railroad pass in North America. Excursion trains carried passengers to “the top of the world” and delivered snow to Denver for the Fourth of July. Year-round use of the line was made difficult by frequent blizzards and 20 to 30 foot snow drifts, which necessitated the employment of huge rotary plows clearing the tracks every eight hours to keep the line open. Even then, sometimes the line would be closed for days at a time due to heavy snow.

When David Moffat died in 1911, he had sunk his personal fortune of $9 million into the high mountain railroad. The line was extended to Craig, Colorado in 1913, but never reached its final destination of Salt Lake City. Financial problems were alleviated some during World War I, when an increase demand for coal was met by a tremendous increase in hauling coal from Yampa Valley over Rollins Pass to Denver.

In 1923, construction began on the Moffat Tunnel, which would make the trip across the Continental Divide quicker and less expensive. The tunnel was completed in 1927, costing $18,000,000 and 19 lives. At its completion, it was the longest train tunnel in North America, and remains the second-longest train tunnel in the United States. The Moffat Tunnel made redundant 23 miles of track and shortened the two and a half hour trip over “the hill” to 12 minutes through the tunnel.