In 1859, the first American prospectors penetrated the rugged mountains along the headwaters of Colorado's Blue River in search of gold. Just west of the Continental Divide they found it in abundance. The mining camp that sprang up along the Blue River was christened "Breckinridge" in honor of the illustrious Vice-President, John C. Breckinridge. To the staunch Unionists in the mining camp, it seemed fitting to honor him so but when Breckinridge sided with the South in 1861, the indignant miners back in Colorado promptly changed the spelling of their town to "Breckenridge".
By 1880, the famous Breckenridge Mining District had established itself as one of Colorado's premier gold and silver-producing regions. Like a magnet, it drew prospectors and miners from all parts of the country. One of the many newcomers to the Breckenridge area was a young "tenderfoot" who was destined to find and then lose an incredibly rich deposit of gold in the mountains southeast of town. Although his name has been lost to posterity, the legend of his fabulous find has survived.
It was not the first time that a rich mine had been lost in the Breckenridge area. During the late 1850's, a deposit of gold-bearing fault gouge was worked by two Missouri prospectors. Consisting of a light-colored gold-bearing clay, the deposit was said to be located in a shear zone somewhere on or
near Big Baldy. During the early 1860's, a lone miner known only as "Trapper Sam" was reputed to have a rich mine located somewhere in the mountains overlooking Breckenridge. The Lost Bear Mountain gold mine and the Lost Huntsman Mine are both said to be in the vicinity of Breckenridge.
In any case, the novice prospector who ascended the mountain slopes above Breckenridge that summer of 1880 apparently stumbled on a small vein of wire gold similar to that found at the famous "Wire Patch" on Farncomb Hill. Located only 5 miles east of Breckenridge, Farncomb Hill turned out to be one of the richest pieces of real estate in Colorado mining history. The young tenderfoot had just made the discovery of a lifetime!
Although he was reeling with excitement, the novice prospector had the presence of mind to survey his surroundings and fix his location on the mountain. From his position he could see the Warrior's Mark Mine to the east and Breckenridge to the northwest. He then proceeded to dig out some 20 pounds of wire gold from the vein!
Finally, the young man made his way back to town where his bulging satchel of wire gold instantly produced a frenzy of excitement. The local miners went wild. But the tenderfoot prospector and the horde of gold-seekers who followed him into the mountains above Breckenridge just couldn't locate the vein of gold. They never did. From the description given by the young prospector, some researchers have placed the Lost Tenderfoot Mine on Bald Mountain, others on Red Mountain. To this day, the mine remains hidden.
Sitting directly astride the Colorado Mineral Belt, it is not surprising that Summit County, Colorado has a history founded in the mining industry. The county has produced more than 750,000 ounces of placer gold and more than 250,000 ounces of lode gold, most of this from one mining district. Located in a region revered by the Ute Indians and called by them " Nah-oon-kara" (which means "the place where the river of blue rises"), Breckenridge has produced the lion's share of Summit County's recorded gold output.
In 1859, a large party of gold-seekers led by Ruben Spalding penetrated the mountain barriers that surround the headwaters of the Blue River. Here they found gold in profusion. Other groups of prospectors followed the Spalding party, many of these hailing from South Park. By October of 1859, nearly 100 miners were camped along the Blue River. The burgeoning mining camp was named "Breckinridge" in honor of the Vice-President, John C. Breckinridge, but when that worthy official sided with the South, the name of the mining camp was changed to "Breckenridge".
Prospectors radiated outward from the mining camp in search of rich deposits of gold. Some worked their way up French Gulch and Illinois Gulch where they found gold on nearly every bend of the two streams. One of the first prospectors to ascend French Gulch was a man named Harry Farncomb. Farncomb was a meticulous prospector who carefully followed the rich gold float in French Gulch uphill to its source. On a hill that came to be called Farncomb Hill, Harry Farncomb discovered an extraordinary deposit of wire gold known today as the "Wire Patch".
The Wire Patch and surrounding deposits proved to be incredibly rich. A tangled mass of gold wire weighing 13½ pounds was taken from the Wire Patch while a $200,000 lump of nearly pure gold was dug up on a nearby hill! In 1869, a weathered 9½ ounce gold nugget was recovered from French Creek.
By 1863, the rich placer deposits of the Blue River and its tributaries were depleted of their easily won gold. As a result, the mining camps in the area dwindled and died. But Breckenridge proved to be more resilient than most. During the 1870's, new deposits of lode gold were discovered in the mountains on both sides of the Blue River valley. Some of these mines were extremely rich. (The Wellington Mine, for example, produced $32,000,000 worth of gold during its lifetime!) Then, during the late 1870's and early 1880's, multiple silver strikes were made in the area. These rich silver discoveries further rejuvenated the town.
In 1898, a third mining boom occurred in the Breckenridge area as dredging operations were begun on the Blue River and its tributaries. These dredging projects came to a halt during the 1940's, but by then nearly $35,000,000 worth of gold had been sifted out of the gravel beds.