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Played Out, a Journey to Central City, Colorado

Colorado is my home, sort of. I spent childhood summers on my grandmother’s ranch in the Front Range of the Rockies. My cousins and I ran in packs, unhindered by grown-ups all day long, riding horses, fishing, building forts, or hunting for buried gold bars and Indian treasure. There were only two rules: wear long pants and never tie a bridled horse. We drank freely from the creeks ( this was long before the giardia scare), we stayed out till all hours (before the cougar invasion), and there were plenty of fish to catch (this was pre-whirling trout). Grunge reigned. Only once or twice a summer did we cleanup — when our grandmother took us over the pass, up winding Clear Creek Canyon to Central City, into the old mining district and its beloved, make-believe past. There’d be a picnic at a mountain overlook, and the opera matinee, and we’d return, slightly cultured, to our grubby glories.

The coming of opera day prompted a lot of bathing, ironing and dubious fashion choices. Granny favored a blue silk dress with a jade brooch at the throat, Jack Purcell sneakers, and a tennis visor around her sparse top-knot. She looked pretty good for 85. The rest of us struggled along, ironing our hair and our dresses and feeling itchy. The big day also opened the floodgates of family folklore. Central City loomed large in our family history: a huge gold strike about 30 miles west of Denver, the camp had been puffed by Horace Greeley in 1859. For a decade, it was almost a metropolis, served by little Denver, and for a few years the diggings seethed with thousands of dissatisfied men and women, many of whom succumbed to cholera or typhus. Yet men grew rich enough to build sumptuous music halls and hotels.

My grandmother’s grandparents arrived in the 1860s on a civilizing mission, aiming to bring Methodism and education, law and railroads to the foothills. Or so the story goes. A different version reminds us that my great-great-grandfather was assigned by Lincoln to eradicate the Ute and Cheyenne, or at least move them out of the way a little bit. Civilization lurched toward genocide at Sand Creek, but I didn’t find out that part of family history until college, when I read Dee Brown’s BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. And there was great-great-gramps, prominently fingered in the account of the slaughter. I had always wondered why my great-Aunt Kay mumbled bitterly “None of it is true…” Now I knew what “it” was, and it was true.

Like every other hard rock mining town in the west, Central City was built on the grinding labor of immigrants and the ruination of land and water. Over the decades it boomed, crashed and boomed, and my family was involved, one way or another. Our ranch in the next basin over supplied mine timbers, potatoes, milk and hay for the town. By 1900, Central City and Blackhawk were nearly ghost towns. But every time the gold or silver seemed played out, an engineer found a better mode of extraction, until finally the deep mines became dangerously wet and too expensive to pump out. When a drainage and ore tunnel finally collapsed in 1943, with great loss of life, mining in Central ended completely.

But Central City and Blackhawk found another life, an imaginative life. They became fashionable. The writing of old West history — gambling men, painted women, six-gun law — was rendering the rotting shacks and toxic tailing piles interesting, even romantic. My great – aunt Anne, a civic minded, well-educated New Woman, worked with her wealthy friends to preserve Central’s beautiful old opera house, built in the Second Empire style. In the 1930s, they started an opera festival there that drew stars from Europe and the Metropolitan. The ghost town became Denver society’s playground, and it struggles to remain so. Anne is said to have pronounced that the stained tailings and abandoned ore breakers should be seen as beautiful, not ugly. What she meant was that the rubble of the dead industry told a story that deserved appreciation. But it’s hard not to think that the Central City Restoration was an odd kind of compensation — giving back high culture in exchange for blood and her father’s scandal. Meanwhile, my grandmother and grandfather, who did not believe there was such a thing as too much fun, drank and gambled there during Prohibition. My father and his sister worked there as opera stagehands. My parents courted there at dances. Thus, our childhood opera parties were encrusted with stories, part of a tradition of visiting our family past, a past that somehow left out crushed miners, brutalized Cheyenne, and the flow of all that gold back to English investors.

Call it multiple distortions. By the time I was a kid, Central was full of what we disdainfully called “tourist traps”, knickknack shops, rock hound stores, and bars that managed to be morally if not quite physically separate from the opera house. These two sides of town touched in the bar of the grand Teller House Hotel, which we were always allowed to visit to view a dark eyed and seductive “Face on the Bar Room Floor.” The woman was rumored to be Challis , “one of the Walker girls,” a friend who visited the family from back East in the 1930s.

Usually, Granny chose an opera she knew kids could endure. But not too light. She knew my taste, anyway. I was impressed by the babies switched at birth in il Trovatore, awed by the bloody mad scene in Lucia, and tickled by the lubricious Viceroy of Peru who offers La Perichole anything (“Jewels, carriage, a title?”) If she will surrender her virtue. The story of Don Giovanni had everything, I thought: Sprightly peasant lovemaking, aristocratic libertinism, grief, revenge, terror, Justice. When the statue dragged the Don off into the flames, I was transported. What could be more fun?

By the time I was in college, Central City Opera seemed stuffy and faded to me. Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way. The festival almost went under. Then the energy slump of the 1980s hit Denver hard, followed by a real estate bust. People lost their houses, while the rich scraped mountaintops for their palaces overlooking the plains. The small towns of the Front Range fell into ferocious competition for skiers and tourists, and following the logic of tourism development, in the late ’80s voters were urged to approve bonds for the new Denver International Airport. In 1991, a statewide referendum legalized low stakes gambling but limited it to three famous gold rush towns: Cripple Creek to the south, and tiny Blackhawk and Central City. My family’s reaction was predictable: “Thank God your grandmother didn’t live to see this!” As if we were not in large part responsible for the romance of the gambling towns!

And now my own mother was going to fill Granny’s role and take my daughter Lucy to see Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, in which Elizabeth I has her lover executed for the good of England and preservation of the dynasty. You can see this same plot on The Sopranos, but I went along. They needed a chauffeur to help negotiate Clear Creek Canyon, made more treacherous now by the traffic jams headed to the casinos. And I’d get to check out what gambling had done to Central City and Blackhawk.

On a blazing July day, we retraced the route used by more than a century of tourists: West on old Highway 40, paralleling Interstate 70, under Floyd Hill, scarred with weekend mansions, to the spot where Soda Creek crashes down into Clear Creek. We zagged back east on Route 6, between sharp hillsides lined with cottonwoods, boulder raspberry and willows at the bottom. Farther up the slopes cling jack pine and Douglas fir, and cedar facing west. (I remember a lot of fights about which road to take — Clear Creek, or the Virginia Canyon, also known as the “oh my God Road”: “Absolutely Not Virginia Canyon, not with the kids, Mom!”) I tell Lucy she can spot old diggings by looking for the yellow rubble that spills down into the Creek. Someone said there are fish in Clear Creek again — it looks unlikely.

When we pull into Blackhawk, it’s unrecognizable. My mother recalls it as a few shacks and a rusted smelter; but the casino companies have made the best of the deep gorge by building an enormous parking garage and vertical casinos up against the cliffs. With names like the Riviera, the Mardi Gras, and the Rich Man, strangely, they’ve been constructed to look like ore breakers.

Central City seems only a little less changed. It too has a vertical casino — Harvey’s Wagon Wheel — currently owned by Harrah’s — on top of the spot where Green Russell first found blossom rock. But the upper end of town has many of the old mercantile stores, foundries, and stables I remember, mostly shuttered and emptied. Tightly terraced on both sides, the streets hug the hillsides, held up by beautiful unmortared yellow granite walls built by the Cornish and Welsh miners. Tiny carpenter’s gothic houses are pushed right up under old mines and the ruins of other long gone buildings. Rhubarb gone to seed tumbles down the streets.

Up Eureka Street, past the Boodle Mill, and out-of-town, we drive to explore the four separate cemeteries on Negro Hill (Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Anglo, and Catholic), and make the traditional picnic on Bald Mountain, taking in the sweep of the Arapahoe Range. And then back down past what’s left of tiny Nevadaville and the Glory Hole, once the largest open pit gold mine in the world, to drop off the operagoers.

It’s a dismal moment when I realize that Gloriana is four hours long. But, it dawns on me, in that time I can hike the entire town from up and down, edge to edge, taking in not only the slot parlors and bars, but more inspiringly the wonderful riot of old houses, gardens gone wild, grand administrative buildings, and even the Gilpin County Art Association annual show. In the Gilpin County Museum, there are one or two good pieces of art by a miner named Angelo di Benedetti. A longtime Central resident, di Benedetti hauled old equipment out of the tunnels and breakers, and welded it into sculptures that look like rusted jails. Later, his sculpture became radically abstract, but in di Benedetti’s one painting on display, his vision of the mines as Hell keeps the hard history of Central City alive. A label says he produced murals of hard rock miners at work for Denver’s Administration of Justice Building, but I don’t have time during this trip to go look for them. No one in my family can remember having seen the murals, but then my family has usually managed to stay out of court and jail. Sort of.

Talking to bartenders, musing with museum docents, I relearn the old real estate story: Central’s casinos are on the ropes because location is everything in the gambling industry. When the big companies came to woo in 1991, they pitted the Blackhawk and Central residents, separated only by a mile of highway, against each other. Blackhawk, more pliant and already mostly owned by Chinese — Canadian investors, got the big corporate contracts. Central City’s voters split down the middle. A faction tied to old Denver wanted to preserve the Victorian character of the town and fought for growth restriction, keeping the giant multistory parking structures at bay. The local — or at least regional — business owners wanted gambling; they got casino permits and converted their gift shops, bars and restaurants into slot parlors. These are all exactly the same inside; I arouse suspicion by ordering a Coke and wanting to chat. A woman wearing hiking boots, who’s not drunk and not gambling — a true anomaly. One bartender proudly shows me an autographed photo of Connie Chung, but that’s about it for novelty.

With the advent of gambling, cash has flowed into Gilpin County and the gaming towns through a special state tax marked for improvements and preservation of what is now a national historic district. Today the giant casinos run buses daily from all points in Denver and beyond, from the nursing homes and senior centers — the main targets of low stakes gambling — as well as from downtown depots and parking lots. The buses won’t go the extra mile up to Central. And most car tourists stop abruptly at Blackhawk, too. Meanwhile Central’s Bobtail Mine and Glory Hole tours are closed, one local alleges because of tighter safety regulations, but really, I think, because they are obscured by the casinos.

Blackhawk gets the lion’s share of state revenue with Cripple Creek coming in second. Meanwhile, Central City’s casinos have dwindled from 23 in 1992 to 5 in the summer of 2001. Blackhawk and Central City are a tough new kind of ghost town. The town governments are rich, but few people live there. There are no viable businesses except casinos and the opera. And the Opera Association adds to this problem: it has acquired more than twenty of the oldest Central City houses, using them for rehearsal rooms and lodging for their first string artists. Beautifully kept up with the help of gaming taxes, they sit empty nine months a year, while casino workers, priced out of mountain housing, commute from all over, up and down the slick canyons. There are no decent hotels or motels (“no one wants to stay in the casino hotel,” one local tells me), no enticing restaurants, fancy or cheap, unless you like casino buffet. People drive twenty miles down to Golden to find a grocery store or pharmacy.

But entrepreneurial hopes spring eternal. The Central City casinos owners have become elected officials and formed a Business Improvement District. This allows them to recirculate tax revenues within their own four or five block area. They have lots of plans to get people past Blackhawk — an arts festival, a blue festival, a rhubarb festival. For the last six years they’ve tried to get the state to build a new highway, straight over Quartz Hill to Idaho Springs, another busted mining town that had the good luck to have I-70 slice through it. The city fathers and mothers floated bonds, acquired the land, and got the Department of Transportation to sign on, thus creating a literal end run around Blackhawk. Recently, fighting broke out anew, as the anti-casino faction tied to stop “The Road” by holding a recall election. The Mayor and City Council survived, but just barely. And then Blackhawk waded into the fight. Since any competition would be too much competition, Blackhawk’s officials bought up land essential for the new access road and secretly transferred it to anti-highway residents of Central — thus blocking the right-of-way. Such a quiet little historic district!

In spring 2001, a grand jury found Blackhawk officials had misused city funds and abused their authority in trying to block the road to Idaho Springs. Central City immediately sued Blackhawk for conspiracy to kill its economy. Although Central claims the road will go ahead, it has found it nearly impossible to sell bonds; any observant investor would see that Central is racked by internal dissension. Its government is now trying to use redevelopment authority to condemn the property standing in the way of the road. The recalcitrant are countersuing but refuse to discuss it, on or off record. Even the editor of the local newspaper, the Gilpin County Record-Call, refuses my phone calls. Blackhawk says that if Central builds the road over the mountain, they’ll drill their own connector tunnel under it, by God! Meanwhile, Clear Creek County thinks tiny Gilpin County is only adding to its serious problem. A crucial stretch of the state’s main East -West connector, I -70, becomes a treacherous parking lot from Loveland Pass to Denver during the summer and ski season weekends. All Clear Creek County needs is more traffic heading to and from the casinos at the Idaho Springs turn off.

Tourism is a devil’s bargain. A place markets its essential something, only to find the outside forces that control tourism must destroy that specialness of place. In Central City and Blackhawk, that placeness was a rich architectural history, and a vivid mythology of the old, wild West, laid down for more than a century by civic leaders, writers, artists and earlier tourism promoters. Blackhawk as anyone knew it even two decades ago is long gone, and Central City is in its death throes, access road or no access road. Gambling, that new Glory Hole, hollowed out what was left of an older life and then collapsed in on itself.

I found that I could rest and listen to the last act of Gloriana by sitting in an alley under the production shop’s loudspeaker, set up to let stagehands follow sound cues while they catch a smoke. The counselors had voted to execute Elizabeth’s lover, the Earl of Essex, for treachery: he tried to negotiate peace in Ireland. “Today is the assigned day….” It would take them about 20 minutes to whack Essex, so I still had time to hike up the other side of town to see the tour buses and condos parked on top of the buried railroad station, and to photograph the abandoned Coeur D’Alene shaft. One of Colorado’s perfect thunderheads reflected a peach light off the yellow rock walls. Once again, the tight little town with so many shuttered windows is best viewed from above.

It was time to pick up the opera goers. As they flooded out of the heavy wood doors, I saw my daughter and realized that at 13 she was the youngest person there by at least 50 years. My mother raved about “Gloriana” and Benjamin Britten and the perfect acoustics of the old opera house. Lucy twisted in her unaccustomed dress, as I had so many years before. Solicitously, my mother noticed. “Did it hurt your ears, dear?” “Only when she sang.”

A scent of roasted chicken wafted up from the Teller House Hotel, and I felt hungry and hopeful, but based on experience, I thought it best to let hope die. We swerved back down the canyon, avoiding the drunks and the accidents and bingo buses, in search of something nice and safe, at home.

Susan Davis teaches at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu

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