In 1859 fortune seekers flocked to Breckenridge, Colorado. The Gold Rush was on. By 1880, the mining boom was in full swing. Folks dreamed of striking it rich with finds like “Tom’s Baby,” a 13.5-pound gold nugget discovered in 1887. Mining communities like Preston were in their heyday. Like most mining towns, boom turned to bust. Once bustling towns turned into ghost towns in the early 1900s. In and around Breckenridge, you can still see the mines, mills, buildings, and other remnants of the mining boom days.
My friend Melissa, her Bernese Mountain Dog named Nora, and I headed out for a winter hike in the Swan River Valley. We took Gold Run Road up to where dead ends. From there we started hiking. We were going to snowshoe, but the trail was pretty packed down so we decided to just hike with our Yaktrax. On the nordic trails, you’ll find skiers, snowshoers, and hikers enjoying a quiet white world. Our plan was to just do a short hike, but the wonders of winter drew us in for an unplanned adventure in the snow.
About a half mile up the trail is the Jessie Mine and Mill (it’s about a mile from the Gold Run Nordic Center Clubhouse). From the late 1880s to the early 1900s, the Jessie buzzed with mining activity. The large wooden structure is the stamp mill. Miners would haul the blasted ore to the surface then transport it to the stamp mill by a gravity-powered cable tramway from the Glenwood tunnel, one of the seven mine openings to the underground network in the hillside. The stamp mill would crush the “run-of-mine” gold, silver, and lead ore into sand-sized particles. The Jessie is the only stamp mill still standing in Summit County.
Right after the Jessie, we decided to take the Overlook Shortcut snowshoe trail. It winds through the forest. This is where we did most of our elevation gain. We would have been much better off with snowshoes on, but this was an unplanned adventure. A little post-holing is humbling and an extra workout. As we hiked through the forest, the trees swayed in the breeze and at times you could hear the creaks and groans, which can be a little unnerving as you’re hiking through them. We only saw one person on the way up to the Jumbo Overlook.
The reward for this hike was the incredible view. You do have to be careful at the Jumbo Mine in winter as most of the mining buildings are covered in snow including a cabin and mining shaft housing. We took a few minutes to enjoy the view and of course take some great pics.
We decided to hike back on Peabody Placer Trail. It was 1.7 miles from the Jumbo Overlook. I stopped to read the sign about Preston. The founding date of Preston is uncertain, but it definitely existed by 1875 when its post office opened. By 1882 the town had 150 residents and had a produce shop, boardinghouse, and head offices of two mining companies. In the next few years it gained a dressmaking and millinery shop, offices of a third mining company, two stamp mills, a dairy, and the produce shop expanded into a general merchandise store. But, by 1888, the town’s population fell to 50 and then to only 10 by the early 1890s.
As I was reading the sign about the town of Preston, a guy who grew up in Breckenridge stopped to chat and share his knowledge. He told me the building with the tin roof was the post office. It was one of the highest post offices in America.
As we continued back down Peabody Placer Trail, we came upon a huge structure on our right. I couldn’t find a sign in the snow, but I think it’s what’s left of the Extension Mill. It was also a stamp mill and you can see the concrete stamp pads exposed in the crumbling pile of wood.
We stopped to enjoy the beauty of the Jessie one more time then continued on down the rest of the Peabody Placer Trail back to our car.
As we hiked back down the snow covered dirt road, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like to see stagecoaches going up and down the road, hear the sounds of the tramway and stamp mills, and how the folks survived the harsh winters. While to mining boom days are done, fortune seekers in winter are paid in the majestic beauty of the Gold Run Gulch in the Swan River Valley. I can’t wait to hike back up to Preston in the summer to explore the mining remnants when they’re not covered in snowy blanket.
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