Gilpin County in World War I at Gilpin History Museum

Colorado at the Columbian Exposition of 1893

by Patty Unruh

World War I lasted over four years, involved 32 countries, and killed nearly 9 million soldiers, with 10 million civilian casualties. The horrific conflict came to an end one hundred years ago this year, on November 11, 1918. In remembrance, the Gilpin History Museum has been presenting an exhibit this summer on our county’s participation.

At the time, it was called the Great War or the War to End All Wars and had been raging in Europe since 1914. The United States stayed out of the conflict until April 1917, after Germany sank seven U.S. merchant ships over a period of several months. Congress declared war on April 6, 1917.

In May 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for potential military service. This law established quotas for each state, based on population. Colorado’s quota was 4,753, and Gilpin was required to send 17. The draft proved to be Gilpin’s greatest impact from the war.

447 men from Gilpin County registered. Charles Schoenherr was the first of the 17 drafted men to leave Gilpin County. 16 saw action during the war, but none were killed in action. The draftees were sent off by large crowds, processions of school children to the Central City Train Depot, and a half holiday from businesses and mines.

On the Homefront, Gilpin residents did their part. Students planted home gardens. The Weekly Register-Call sponsored a Tobacco Box, so people could leave cigarettes, candy, and books for the soldiers to let them know they were not forgotten. Residents bought bonds during Liberty Loan campaigns to help fund the war. The local chapter of the Red Cross sponsored knitting drives to make socks and other items for the soldiers.

Gilpin was included in the operations of the Mountain Division of the Red Cross as part of the Denver chapter. Red Cross members made surgical dressings, sewed and knitted clothing, provided entertainment to soldiers on their way to training camps, and distributed more than 10,000 Christmas packages. The Mountain Division raised over $1.8 million to support the war effort. The Museum exhibits a flag and a Red Cross certificate of recognition signed by President Woodrow Wilson that was awarded to Gilpinite Mae Bond Bertagnolli for 800 hours of volunteering.

The Museum’s exhibit includes a soldier’s uniform, Red Cross uniform and memorabilia, combat helmet, canteen, dog tags, and gas masks obtained from Guy Axton, whose son Bill owned the Glory Hole Saloon in Central City for many years.

Other items include a U.S. Army mess kit, brass casings from a French cannon, photos of Gilpin servicemen, an ad for Liberty Bonds, and a service flag with two blue stars. The service flags originated in WWI; each blue star stood for a person who was serving. A gold star meant that a family member had died in service.

The Weekly Register-Call kept Gilpinites up to date throughout the war. Its April 6, 1917 issue ran the headline, “War to be Declared by President To-Day.”

The issue dated July 20, 1917 announced the news of official draft numbers being assigned to Gilpin County men. The names and official numbers of each man registered were published in that issue, including those from Central City, Apex, Tolland, Russell Gulch, Bald Mountain, and Black Hawk.

A prayer was expressed in the September 21, 1917 issue upon the departure of seven young men for Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kansas: “May God, in all his mercy, ever keep these young men, and the men that follow, and bring them back to us again.”

July 19, 1918 trumpeted the good news: “German Army Defeated.” “Victory for Allies – Germany has Surrendered and Peace Proclaimed” was the headline on November 15, 1918.

Everyone celebrated the war’s end, but the jubilation did not last. The war’s devastation was followed by the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, which killed 20 to 50 million worldwide – more than the war casualties. The pages of the Weekly Register-Call were filled with reports of residents who had fallen ill and of three who died. The Central City Opera House, in use as a movie theater at the time, nearly went bankrupt when people stopped attending for fear of catching the flu. “Do Not Spit on the Sidewalk” signs were part of the county’s efforts to prevent the flu from spreading.

World War I brought the development of plastic surgery, standardized prosthetic limbs, blood transfusions, and the spread of mass production. For the first time, telephone and wireless communications, machine guns, armored tanks, and aircraft were utilized in war. Women entered the workforce to replace the fighting men. The League of Nations was formed to help prevent future wars, but the U.S. did not join. World War II broke out 20 years later, and the United Nations replaced the League of Nations. We continue to live with such problems as issues in the Middle East, chemical weapons, and PTSD.

Colorado at the Columbian Exposition

The World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago from May 1 through October 31, 1893. Nearly 26 million people visited, and 46 countries took part. The Exposition honored the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World.

Colorado played a major role, with the Colorado State Building and thousands of exhibits throughout the grounds. Colorado residents who visited traveled by train. However, many Coloradans were unable to visit until that October, when the fair was nearly over. The financial panic of 1893 began in July after the federal government stopped buying silver for coinage, so most Coloradans couldn’t afford train tickets to Chicago. The railroads began offering discount rates in October, which didn’t allow much time to visit the Exposition.

Visitors to the fair toured 14 main buildings and many smaller buildings on 630 acres. Canals or wheeled chairs were modes of transportation from building to building. The Midway Plaisance, forerunner of today’s amusement park, housed the Ferris wheel and recreated native villages. The neoclassical architecture, extensive use of electric lighting, and huge number of exhibits were impressive.

Among the innovations displayed at the Exposition were the moving walkway, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Juicy Fruit gum, smashed pennies, the Ferris wheel, and the automatic dishwasher. There were International Dress and Costume Exhibits, models of St. Peter’s Church, the Eiffel Tower, and Donnegal Castle, village scenes from Ireland, Germany, Turkey, China, and many other countries.

A Weekly Register-Call reporter who attended the fair commented in his October 1893 articles that it would take “several years” to get through the numerous exhibits. He described many of the features for his readers, including the “exorbitant” price of meals (ranging from 25 cents to 50 cents).

He was especially impressed with the Ferris wheel. It was 264 feet in height, with 36 passenger coaches, each with a capacity of 40 persons. The entire structure had a capacity of 1440 people. The time required for one complete trip was 25 minutes.

“Let the readers of the Register-Call imagine the sensation of being carried up 250 feet on one side and being slowly lowered on the other side, and of gaining … a birdseye view of the whole of Chicago. Price of admission 50 cents – cheap at that; for one gets five times that amount of enjoyment.”

A model of Colorado gold mining – the Saratoga mine in the Russell district — proved to be the best advertisement for the mines of Gilpin County.

“Mr. William Keast, the inventor of this novel miniature mine and 10-stamp mill, has added many improvements since it was exhibited in Central City just before being brought here,” the Register-Call reporter noted. The mill was exhibited to the right of the mine, and an ore bucket tramway, similar to those used by the Gilpin tramway company, was added and proved to be “a big draw,” the article stated.

The reporter didn’t feel that enough literature about Colorado’s industries or Gilpin County mining had been made available to visitors. However, he reported that our state received first prize for forestry and stood high in agricultural and horticultural exhibits. Colorado’s mining production from 1876 to 1893 was shown as being nearly $460 million in silver, gold, lead, coal, and copper.

Colorado’s impressive display in the Mines and Mining Building covered almost 2,000 square feet. The railing around the display was faced with Colorado marble, and columns at the entrance were composed of Colorado granite and sandstone. Exhibits featured lead mining, smelting, wire gold, photographs of gold and silver ore from Gilpin, Clear Creek, and several other counties, and ore specimens.

Colorado also had an education exhibit, an agricultural exhibit including specimens of wheat, oats, barley, and rye, and a horticulture exhibit with over 1,000 plants, 80 exhibitors of fruits, and women creating jellies and preserves from state fruits.

Women played a major role in the Exposition and had their own building designed by a woman architect. Colorado’s women decorated the interior of the state building. Colorado appropriated $15,000 for women to create 3,393 exhibits, including an exhibit of the state’s flora, statistics of women’s work in the state, and the Indian alcove at the women’s building.

The Gilpin History Museum’s display of the Columbian Exposition included a glass plate with a silhouette of Christopher Columbus, adult’s and children’s tickets, flattened pennies, a souvenir fan with images of the Exposition grounds, and photos of the Ferris wheel, Colorado Building, Saratoga Mine model, a scale model of the Mesa Verde ruins, and a Colorado game exhibit.

The Gilpin History Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is located at 228 East 1st High Street in Central City. See

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