The first time Bryon and I ever happened upon the town of Nederland was in a strange way. We actually got lost on our way from western Colorado to Boulder after we first moved to Colorado in 2008. Because of traffic, we ended up on an old dirt mining road rising up in the mountains above Idaho Springs. It was dark, and when we didn’t see a single other car, we were sure we’d gotten lost on some old Forest Service Road. Imagine our surprise, when we turned onto the first paved road we encountered and arrived at what looked like a mini Las Vegas gambling town complete with blinking lights, high-rise hotels and the Lady Luck Casino. This is how we first became acquainted with the mountains towns of Black Hawk and Central City.
When you’re driving a winding mountain highway through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, there are many things you expect to see. Sweeping vistas, burbling creeks, craggy rock cliffs, forests of pine and fir trees are some of the things that come to mind. A gawdy, gambling town filled with blinking lights is not one of them. But nevertheless, just 30 minutes down the Peak to Peak Highway south of Nederland sits the town of Black Hawk at 8000 feet, home to numerous casinos and high stakes gambling. Just up the road from Black Hawk, five minutes away is Central City, Colorado, also a mecca for gambling. Just exactly how did two little towns nestled in a mountain valley become hot beds for gambling in Colorado?
This isn’t the first time Black Hawk has been a destination for those seeking to strike it rich. Black Hawk was developed as a gold rush town, when gold was found in nearby Gregory Gulch in 1859. Miners flooded into this high mountain valley, swelling the population to as many as 2000 people. When the mining boom died in the 1920s, Black Hawk fell into deterioration over the next 50 years with historic homes and buildings falling into disrepair. By the 1980s, there were just a few people living along the dirt main road, which was mainly populated by double-wide trailers. But Black Hawk’s inevitable demise was saved by legislation passed by the Colorado State legislature in 1991 allowing limited stakes gambling in three mountain towns near major metropolitan areas — Cripple Creek near Colorado Springs and Black Hawk and Central City, within 30-45 minute drive from nearby Denver.
The influx of gambling revenue resurrected Black Hawk, allowing them to channel money into converting dilapidated historic buildings into casinos, and putting funds into restoring the 65 or so historic residences in town. They then went on to develop hotels in conjunction with the casinos, marketing themselves as a destination gambling haven for those seeking respite from the busy city life. The challenges of developing Black Hawk are great, as the topography of the narrow mountain valley dictates the construction of new buildings into long and narrow footprints. Because the gambling industry is so lucrative, the town has actually been altered to accomodate the casinos, with large earth moving operations central to creating the appearance of the main street. Historic homes were carefully moved to terraces above the town to accomodate the commercial development of its main street.
I drive through Black Hawk many times during the course of the year, mainly because it’s along the way as I drive to various ski resorts in the winter. Though the town is still small with a population of only 118, it attracts thousands of people ever year, and generates millions in gaming revenue, with 4% of Colorado’s total gaming revenues coming from Black Hawk. Though some criticize the town, saying it sold its “historic soul” by allowing development of large casinos and hotels, I can’t help but marvel how a town which was initially founded by folks looking to strike it rich, was resurrected from the ashes on a similar premises by modern day gambling.