I’m working on putting together a temporary exhibit at work on Boulder County’s mining history, so have been reading a lot recently about the subject. The county actually manages the Nederland Mining Museum, a small museum filled with artifacts and stories of local mining. As I delve deeper into the subject, it’s amazing to realize how much of the entire state of Colorado developed around mining, including many of its towns and roads.
Nederland itself came to be because of mining, first putting itself on the map of because of silver found high in the mountains, the little town Caribou springing up at an elevation of 9800 feet. Mining was challenging, especially during the winters with the harsh winters, coining the description of Caribou, as “The place where winds were born.” The Caribou mine flourished until the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, producing around $8 million before closing in 1884 . The Sherman Act ensured the the price of silver would not drop below $1/ounce. Once the repeal occurred, the silver boom and the mining that went along with it went bust, leading to the demise of Caribou. But one thing that Nederland forever holds as a remnant of those silver mining is its name, which it got from the Dutch investors who had funded the Caribou silver mines. Nederland, is the Dutch name for Netherlands, which roughly translates to “low lands”.
Nederland enjoyed many more boom and busts during the years that ensued as it discovered “black iron” or tungsten. Tungsten was in great demand during WW1, as they used it to harden and strengthen steel, its ability to retain its strength at high temperatures making it invaluable. The demand for tungsten drove the price up from less than $9 per short ton to over $90 per short ton by 1916. At one point, Nederland’s mines and mills were producing over 60% of the tungsten used by the U.S. This led to Nederland’s greatest population in its history, boasting over 3000 people.
When most people think of mining, they don’t think of tungsten, they think of gold. Gold was found in the Rocky Mountains, not very far from Nederland near the town of Gold Hill. In part, the gold found in Gold Hill lead to Colorado’s own version of the Gold Rush, this one taking place in 1859 instead of 1849. It led many a man to move to the area in search of fortunes, and the influx of population eventually led to statehood in 1876. Gold was also found in nearby Eldora, but there was never enough gold found to make it profitable to mine in the long run.
Though eventually most of the mines went bust, the mining industry is in part responsible for Colorado’s main economic industry today — recreation and tourism. When the mining industry was at its heyday, many of the roads were built throughout the mountains, roads that allowed the mills to transport the ore to Denver. Boulder Canyon road was first built in 1871 when the Caribou mines were profitably mining silver. Many other roads were built throughout the state to support mining. These same roads are used today to transport thousands of people to ski resorts during the winter, and are driven by thousands of tourists visiting the mountain towns of Telluride, Estes Park, and Aspen.
So though mining as an industry no longer drives Colorado’s economy, the impact of mining and the infrastructure that came out of it lives on.