By Lisa Mercer.
I came for the winter but stayed for the summer. That’s how Breckenridge locals explain their decision to make this glorious ski town their permanent home. Unlike the skiers and riders, I first experienced Breckenridge in the summertime. My husband and I moved to the area from Boston, in order to open a sports conditioning studio. We lived in Dillon, a nearby low-rent town, home to many of the local ski resort employees.
I went to Breckenridge in July to see a play at the Breckenridge Theater. Located at 121 Ridge Street, its resident Backstage Theater Company has entertained Colorado residents since the 1970s. They present a mix of musical, comedy, drama, original plays and shows for kids. It was in Breckenridge that I discovered that the true magic of Colorado occurs beyond the ski slopes.
A Victorian Town
I arrived early to explore the area, but instead of arriving in a different town, I found myself in a different century. Breckenridge, like many other Colorado towns, began as a 19th century gold many towns. After the gold rush ended, Breckenridge almost became a classic Colorado ghost town. It was “white gold,” or snow, that saved it, yet unlike other ski town, Breckenridge remains faithful to historic integrity.
As I strolled the streets, large, ski-town condos were conspicuous in their absence. In fact, the town prohibits them. Tearing down even the most dilapidated historic building in Breckenridge is illegal. If you build a new dwelling, it must maintain the tone of the existing architecture. In maintaining the buildings, they maintain the history behind them.
Walking along Main Street, it seemed as if the shops were begging to tell me their stories. The Gold
Pan Saloon on 103 N Main St. wanted me to know that it has been documented as having the most continuously operating liquor license west of the Mississippi. If you go inside, you can toss a ring and win a free drink. Check out the totem pole and the authentic artifacts inside.
The photo galley at 107 Main Street was once Choy’s Chinese Laundry. Mr. Choy found that the laundering business was quite lucrative, for an unexpected reason. When he strained the wash water, he found pieces of gold that had been removed from the miner’s clothing during the rinsing process!
The Town Layout
My fascination with the Victorian culture of Breckenridge inspired me to become a museum and walking tour guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. I learned that Breckenridge was set up like a typical mining town. The shops, and the homes of the poorer people sat at the bottom of the hill, near the river and the now, non-existent railroad tracks. The upper classes lived higher on the hill, literally looking down on society. The area across the river and on the “other side of the tracks” posed a challenge to any tour guide conducting a walking tour that included children. The ladies of the night occupied this part of Breckenridge.
Breckenridge no longer has a Red Light district, but the area that surrounds the Blue River is one of the most lively sections of town. The Riverwalk Center, a concert hall, sits along its banks. Lacking the heat, humidity, mosquitoes and snakes of most popular summer destinations, it’s the perfect place for a summer gathering.
Of course, winter delivers its own Currier and Ives loveliness to the area, but as I would soon learn, the ice and wind make it difficult to appreciate the charm. The bruises on my butt serve as proof! The severity of the winter weather in this town nicknamed “Breckenwind” causes visitors to restrict their outdoor activity to the slopes, and miss out on the rest of the town. Summer allows you to explore the town while harmonizing– not battling – with nature.
I took advantage of these utopian weather conditions and watched as people congregated along the river banks, played with their kids, held hands with their lovers and walked their dogs – big emphasis on the dogs. Breckenridge people love their dogs, and are partial to enormous breeds. Expect to see Saint Bernards, German Shepherds, Newfoundlands and other big guys. Our greyhound Giselle was right at home.
There’s even a thrift shop called For Pet’s Sake, located on 203 North Main Street. One year latter, when, enchanted by the town’s Victorian ambiance, I decided to time travel to the 19th century to become a tour guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, “For Pet’s Sake” was my go-to place for two-dollar velvet dresses and hats. Of course, if I bought myself a dress, I was obligated to go over to the Breckenridge Barkery at 211 South Main Street for some home-baked dog biscuits for Giselle.
Speaking of biscuits, Clint’s, the local non-Starbucks coffee shop, serves homemade muffins, and has homemade biscuits for your canine companions. It’s a place to catch up on the local gossip, enjoy free Internet access or experiment with multi-flavored lattes and cappuccinos.
The Blue River Bistro also enjoys playing with flavors – flavored martinis! If you can’t decide whether you need a drink or a treat, I’d suggest a creamsicle or chocolate-mint martini. Nouveau cuisine best describes the menu, with an eclectic mix of vegetarian, beef and fish entrees. While fish is not a Colorado specialty, the sesame ahi puts a smile on your face.
Haunted or Not
Tour guides at the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance either loved or hated placement at the Briggle Home. It usually came down to gender. Female guides enjoyed the delicate Victorian furnishings, and the kitchen appliances typical of wealthy 19th century citizens. The male guides claimed it was haunted, and that they were afraid to be there by themselves. My husband has a theory. He believes that the men simply did not enjoy the feminine frivolity of the Briggle home, and wanted the “real guy” placements at the mines.
Fine with me! Once in the mines, never again! It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s claustrophobic and it’s scarier than the scariest of haunted houses. Don’t let me discourage you, though. Breckenridge has many mining tours, and most people totally enjoy them. One of our mining guides, however, was determined to prove that the Briggle home was haunted, even though nothing in its history indicates that it should be.
William Briggle, a banker, and his wife Kathleen, a piano teacher, purchased this home, situated at 104 North Harris Street, in 1896. Rumor has it that they painted their home green to represent money, and that they used devalued silver for the sidings of the house. Katie Briggle was a proper matron of Victorian society. As such, she followed all of the rules and social customs of the day. She frequently held afternoon tea parties, and invited guests to dinner. A typically benign, Victorian existence, right?
One afternoon, as I sat in the house, dressed in my black velvet Victorian dress and hat, Stephen and Gordon, two of the mining guides, make a frantic entrance. “Draw down the shades and lock the doors!” commands Stephen. “We’ve got orbs!” Gordon, meanwhile is trying to conceal his laughter.
Apparently, Stephen was assigned to photograph the Briggle home for the Breckenridge Heritage catalog. When he developed the pictures he found some spots that indicated (clue scary music) paranormal activity! He put down his camera, and looked around the house, checking out the oven, that had a built in waffle maker and ironing board, the hair art–collages made from the hair from the ladies hairbrushes– the root cellar, and the collection of calling cards that sat by the doorway.
As he inspected the rest of the house, Gordon pointed at the speck of dust embedded on the camera lens. He put his finger to his lips, advising me to keep his secret. Stephen picked up his camera and took more photos. When he finished, I opened the doors and let the waiting guests inside, explaining that these guys were ghost hunters, but it was now safe to enter the Briggle House.
Who Is Sylvia?
For reasons unknown, a belief in ghosts prevails mostly amongst the mail population of Breckenridge. Take the story of Sylvia. This miner’s widow lived at the Arcade Hotel, which for years served as the Prospector Restaurant. Apparently, she lived at the Arcade in hopes of finding a new, wealthy husband, but sadly, she died a widow.
Rumor has it that she continued her search after her death, naively targeting local skiers and riders, who are usually not known for their overwhelming wealth. A dude would be sitting at a table, minding his own business and enjoying his breakfast, when suddenly, he felt a female presence.
When the Prospector closed, everyone assumed that Sylvia would hang out across the street at the Gold Pan. One late afternoon, I brought a group of ladies into the pub. The local male patrons had already drank more than they should at 10,000 feet, and were feeling the effects.
When one of them saw my signature black dress, the same type of dress that Sylvia was rumored to wear, he yelled out “It’s Sylvia! She’s back, and she brought friends!”
Behold the Kingdom of Breckenridge
The Kingdom Days celebration was my favorite part of my job as a tour guide. Since I had close ties to the local theater community, I was in charge of assigning actors to take part in the Living History performances, which play a key role in this historic happening.
Kingdom Days dates back to the rather unfortunate mistake of a Colorado cartographer, who, in 1859 – the year of the founding of Breckenridge – inadvertently neglected to put the town on the United States map. Until the mistake was discovered and corrected in 1936, the townspeople called Breckenridge “Colorado’s Kingdom.” Years thereafter, the town would choose a weekend in mid to late June and turn upside down, in tribute to Breckenridge’s mining, saloon and brothel days. Come for a visit and watch the mock gunfights, pan for gold, take a free tour of the town or do something outrageous, like run in an outhouse race! Don’t forget to get some free birthday cake at the newly-renovated Edwin Carter House, or party like its 1859 at the town party!
Feats of Accomplishment
Open the Summit Daily, Summit County’s daily newspaper, and you’re bound to learn about someone’s extraordinary athletic achievement. Working as tour guide taught me that Breckenridge has a long history of impressive accomplishments. Evidence of their triumphs appears throughout the town. Take the summer walking tour, and expect to be impressed. Here’s what you’ll find.
The Father Dyer Church
In 1861, John Lewis Dyer , a man from Minnesota learned that he was suffering from a serious eye ailment. His ailment did not deter him of his lifelong dream of seeing Pikes Peak. Dyer jumped on his horse and headed west. Sadly, his horse died in Nebraska, so Dyer joined wagon train headed toward Breckenridge.
When he arrived, he found a typical mining town, filled with dancing, drinking courting ladies of the night. As a devout Methodist, Dyer was appalled. He embarked on a new mission. Since the town did not have a post office, the miners could not receive their mail. Dyer decided to travel from town to town on his skis, delivering the mail, along with the word of God.
The Father Dyer Church sits on Washington Street near Harris. As a tour guide, I had access to the Father Dyer cabin, located adjacent to the church The cabin’s interior features homemade furniture and an iron stove. As typical of log cabins of the period, the Dyer cabin has a bunk bed in one corner, which is attached to the wall. There’s a newspaper-lined shelf at the head of the bed that holds some matches, a candle, pipes, tobacco, a shaving mug and razor, and a homemade table. While the cabin looks tiny on the outside, it’s actually quite roomy inside.
The Barney Ford Museum sits across the street from the Welcome Center. Ford is unarguably the most fascinating. Check out his story:
Born as the son of a slave and a plantation owner—an unfortunate practice of the time– Barney Ford’s mother was determined to give her son a proper education. As such, she brought spelling guides into the slaves quarters; an act that could have earned her a beating.
When Ford’s mother died, his father sold him to a different owner, who rented him out to a steamship company. Ford allegedly escaped by jumping off the ship and faking his death. He arrived in Chicago, where he met Julia, the woman who would soon become his wife. News of the California Gold Rush inspired the couple to head west. Through a series of complex events, along with news that the California Gold Rush had already come to an end, they got sidetracked into coming to Breckenridge, where the Colorado Gold Rush was still going strong.
Then the Ford’s discovered that the local miners would not men of color into the mining fields. Ford was not perturbed. He convinced a local banker to lend him money to open a restaurant. Ford’s Chop House became the hottest joint in town, and the first local business to be owned by a man of colors.
He eventually went on to fight for the black man’s right to vote, and to get an education.
While the furnishings at the Barney Ford Home and Museum furnishings are not original to the home, but they are original to the area and the period., and provided me the perfect opportunity discuss typical Victorian furnishings and furniture.
The Edison phonograph in the parlor room is of particular interest. Thomas Edison first recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb on such a device. Sadly, he had formidable competitor by the
name of Victor, as in RCA Victor and Victrola. Apparently, Victor made a phonograph disc that far more user friendly than the discs made by Edison. As such, the Victrola was far more common than the Edison.
I hope you have enjoyed this vicarious, virtual journey through the town of Breckenridge, but trust me, it’s even more intriguing in the flesh! Come visit!