Central City, Colorado – Boom & Bust

Pittsburg Mine, Central City, Colorado, 1890

Pittsburg Mine, Central City, Colorado, 1890

In 1871, a Republican Convention was held in Central City that almost turned into a disaster when the second floor of Washington Hall collapsed, depositing 200 men into the Recorder’s office on the first floor. Amazingly, no one was seriously injured.

In 1872, the Teller House Hotel was built and was said to be the finest hotel west of the Mississippi River.

In 1873 President Ulysses S. Grant came to see his friend Henry Teller (who became the first senator from Colorado and later, Secretary of the Interior under President Chester Arthur) and his new hotel. To impress the president, mine owners decided to lay 26 ingots of solid silver to make a path to the entrance to the Teller House so President Grant would not have to dirty his boots when he stepped from his carriage. However, legend has it that Grant became angry when he saw the silver bars and walked up the boardwalk instead. At that time, Congress was debating whether gold or silver should back the dollar, and Grant refused to show favoritism.

Central City, Colorado, 1870

Central City, Colorado, 1870

Before 1873, most buildings were constructed of wood. In January 1873, a fire destroyed sixteen buildings on Lawrence street, below Raynolds’ Court, before it was brought under control. Finally, aware of the potential danger from fire, the city began to prepare for such occurrences. An 1873 resolution of City Council prohibited any new construction of wood buildings in the business district. However, their efforts were a little too late.

On May 21, 1874, a fire started in Dostal Alley, behind Main Street. The fire destroyed about 150 buildings in the downtown area. The fireproof Teller House and Register Block on Eureka Street stopped the fire in that direction.

The Continental Fireproof and Raynolds’ Court on Lawrence Street blocked the fire to the East. Toward the South, the fire burned as far as the Seavey Building on Spring Street.

The fireproof Roworth Block was the only building on Main street that survived the fire. The loss was estimated to be about $500,000. Fire insurance policies paid $114,533 toward the loss. The town was rebuilt, this time of brick and stone; most of these stand today.

As a result of the fire’s destruction of the business district, the city was able to widen and straighten the streets. The community also planned for a more substantial city than the one that burned. Rebuilding began immediately. The first brick building (Morse Block) was completed just nine days after the fire. This rebuilding of the city resulted in the downtown business district that exists today.

Baby Doe Tabor

Baby Doe Tabor

In 1877, Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt Harvey, later to become known as Baby Doe Tabor, moved to Central City with her first husband Harvey Doe. It was in Central City that she gained the name “Baby Doe”, a nickname given to her by the area miners, who longingly looked upon her beauty. Baby Doe soon found that Harvey was a poor provider, being both lazy and a procrastinator. Their three-year marriage began to seriously falter when Harvey began to drift from camp to camp. Baby Doe stayed in Central City until 1880, when she moved to Leadville and met the legendary Horace Tabor.

The grand opening of the Opera House in 1878 started a tradition of community theatre, ranging from opera to vaudeville. Buffalo Bill performed there as well at P. T. Barnum’s circus. At about the same time population shifts began to occur with many entrepreneurs and businesses moving to Denver or Leadville.

During this time, there was an area of town known by the locals as the Red Light District, a place where children were told to avoid. The area was at the end of Central City’s Pine Street, past the Catholic Church, and below the Methodist Church perched upon the hill. Madam Wright was operating a “crib” in the vicinity and the newspaper believed she should relocate her business to a place less conspicuous.

In 1880, it was reported by the Census that four women resided at the address and were listed as “housekeepers.”  The 1900 Census showed a widow running a boarding house with two female boarders living there. However, by 1910, the Census showed the two girls who were “boarding” with Lou Bunch as being prostitutes. Lou Bunch was the last operating madam in town.

Nevertheless, Madam Lou Bunch and her girls became renowned when, during an epidemic, they provided much-needed nursing care to miners that were sick and dying. This generous behavior has left Madam Lou Bunch and her Shady Ladies alive forever in the history books and in the annual tribute to their good deeds. Every third Saturday in June the city of Central City honors Madam Lou Bunch as well as the town’s entire heritage, drawing visitors to the unique gambling town in the mountains of Gilpin County.

By 1880, Central City, with a population of 2,547, began a period of relative stability that lasted about twenty years. However, Colorado was also growing and the Little Kingdom of Gilpin was no longer as influential as it had been.  From the early 1880s until the early 1900s, Central City was merely a good mining town. Central’s “boom” days were over.

The first evidence of Central City’s decline was in 1881, when the Tabor Grand Opera House opened in Denver. This immediately displaced the Opera House in Central City as the leading show house in the state.

Sleepy Hollow Funeral, Central City, Colorado, 1895

Sleepy Hollow Funeral, Central City, Colorado, 1895

Central City was also the unfortunate victim of flooding — one major flood hitting the settlement in 1893 and another in 1895. If mining itself wasn’t dangerous enough, the flood of 1895 took the lives of 14 miners who drowned in the Sleepy Hollow and Americus Mines.

In 1896, violence returned to Central City, when Samuel Covington entered Judge Seright’s office to pay a $61 debt. Covington had his revolver aimed at Seright’s chest and Judge Seright knocked the gun to the side as it discharged through the floor into Goldman’s card room (Golden Rose). Covington again drew his gun on Seright and demanded a receipt.

As Marshall Kelleher opened the office door, Covington turned and fired at Kelleher striking him in the chest. Covington ran downstairs only to meet Dick Williams coming up.

Williams had borrowed a revolver and ran to the scene to provide help. Williams was struck in the breast at point blank just as he fired a shot, which struck the ceiling behind him. Covington then ran back up Main Street with two revolvers drawing on the crowd following him.

Henry Lehman confiscated a Winchester and hopped on Sherman Harvey’s wagon in pursuit of Covington. Covington was blazing away on Nevada Street when Lehman aimed and fired as he lept from the wagon, striking Covington. A mob gathered around shouting, “hang him”, but he died before a doctor could arrive. Marshall Kelleher recovered from his wound. Dick Williams died several days later. His funeral was the largest in the county requiring his service to be held at the Opera House.

1 thought on “Central City, Colorado – Boom & Bust”

  1. I have the front page of the Central City, Colorado Weekly Register-Call newspaper printed on Friday, December 29,1893. It is for sale on eBay this week. Someone may be interested in this historic paper.

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