Say Breckenridge and most think of skiing (or snowboarding), of a mountain town covered in snow with people drinking hot chocolates and hot toddies walking awkwardly in ski boots. But Breckenridge’s association with this popular wintertime activity is a recent incarnation having only opened for skiing in 1961. For the century before Breckenridge was a mining town where fortune seekers came as early as the 1850s to mine the hills where tourist now come to seek thrills.
Through the years mining shaped the mountain town not only attracting initial settlers but also sculpting the landscape as different mining techniques came into use. In the French Gulch area to the east of downtown Breckenridge (and the Breckenridge Ski Resort) visitors can see the progression and effects of the three main mining techniques utilized in the Breckenridge area: hard rock mining (mining underground), placer mining (mining in streams and rivers) and dredging (floating barges that minded river beds).
French Gulch was named for French Pete, the miner who first discovered gold in the gulch in 1860, and in the next hundred years the area produced tons of zinc, lead, silver and gold. In fact the largest gold mass ever found in Colorado, a 13 pound 7 ounce nugget named Tom’s Baby, was discovered in French Gulch in 1887 and contributions from the area’s numerous mines added to the approximately 1,000,000 ounces of gold that were mined in Summit County between 1859 and 1946.
Today the mines in French Gulch are mostly silent. The structures and remnants left over from their heyday still speckle the area, a reminder and a link to Breckenridge’s history. Visit one of these three mines in French Gulch for a hillside history lesson on Colorado mining.
Country Boy Mine
One of the oldest and longest running mines in French Gulch is the Country Boy Mine. Driving in on French Gulch Road the principle building and signage are easy to spot on the south side of the road. Opened in 1887 this once operational mine produced gold, silver, lead and zinc before closing in 1945. Nowadays the Country Boy Mine is a historical link to Breckenridge’s mining past as it’s one of the few area mines that has been restored and is open for tours. Learn a little more about the history of mining in Breckenridge, see preserved mining equipment and tools, and have a chance to strike it rich panning for gold after the tour.
Reiling Dredge Walk
The most dominant landscape feature in French Gulch is the enormous pile of rock that lines the south side of the valley floor. The massive piles of grey rocks are the discarded remains of one of the most destructive mining methods ever used in the valley, dredging. Nine dredges operated in the area during the first half of the twentieth century each capable of churning up huge amounts of riverbed in search of gold. One of the last dredges used, the Reiling Dredge sank in a pond in the eastern section of French Gulch. A moderate hike grants visitors access to its resting place with several vantage points.
Minnie Mine Trail
The Minnie Mine, like Breckenridge itself, went through a series of high and lows during the 1800s and 1900s as it struggled to sustain profitability. And although gold, silver, lead and zinc were successfully extracted the Minnie Mine today is a silent scar from the hard rock mining era. The Minnie Mine Trail is a moderate hike along the north side of French Gulch Road with linking trails and access to several ruins in the area including the Truax Mine, the Lucky Mine and the X10U8 Mine.
Directions to French Gulch in Breckenridge: Head north on Main Street out of downtown Breckenridge; turn right onto Wellington Road keep on for about 1 mile; veer right onto French Gulch Road. Look out for the Country Boy Mine and the dredging piles on the south side of the road and to the north the hillside is dotted with mine tailings and abandoned structures and several trailheads and parking lots along the left of the road link to the mines above.