Was Gilpin’s 90’s financial boom different?

Or was it just a typical boom?

By Forrest Whitman

Much of the American west had a boom in the 1990s and Gilpin County was no different. I knew a few people who cashed in. One friend sold some property in Black Hawk for about six times what he’d paid for it. Even properties in remote gulches like Lump and Gamble saw double and triple gains. Casinos did well, real estate prices edged up, and the populations at least stabilized in that boom era.

Gold was big too. I remember getting a beer bought for me twice during that time by gold bug boomers. Gold started edging up in price. There were guys who were sure they had the inside track on when gold would reach $2,000 an ounce. They did have reason to be optimistic. Gold was hitting $800 an ounce during that decade. I guess I should have bought. Today gold is well over a thousand dollars an ounce. Gold seems to have leveled off just recently, but it may hit the fabled $2,000 mark yet. The 1980s and 1990s were boom times.

The Great Booms of Tabor and Stratton

  Our 1990s boom was nothing like that of the nineteenth century. In those days whole counties were created around booming mines. Mineral County in 1893 and Custer County in 1877 are examples. Gilpin County surely was created mainly because of the gold boom of the 1850s and 1860s. Sometimes mineral and resource booms were long lasting. The oil boom of western Pennsylvania lasted from 1859, when Edwin Drake rang in the first oil well, until at least 1872. Mostly booms lasted about a decade as did ours in the 1990s.

A few men did become super rich in those earlier booms. Horace Tabor collected on his Little Pittsburgh Mine in Leadville in 1878. Winfield Stratton literally pulled buckets of gold out of his Independence Mine above Victor in 1893. A few people made a killing selling properties around Gilpin to casino interests. But, it’s doubtful they cashed in like Stratton or Tabor. It is to be hoped no one did what Tabor and friends did when they sold the faltering Little Pittsburgh Mine. With the help of attorney Henry Teller, they sold out just in time to unsuspecting investors. Some of that may have happened with casino properties, of course. Not all casino properties paid out handsomely or even paid out at all. Some investors were left holding the bag.

Was ours a real boom?

  Our local boom was pretty typical of western booms. A few individuals did very well, but most Gilpin residents didn’t notice much affluence coming their way. Even during the height of the 90s boom there was some migration of population away from the mountains. That’s what happened with oil shale too. We all remember the oil shale boom. Crude oil was $38 or $40 a barrel, and real estate went through the roof. Migration into the oil parts of the state was huge. But, by 1983 oil was $12 if that. Whole cities, like Parachute, folded up. Oil has rebounded since, but that oil boom and bust was pretty dramatic in Colorado. The Gilpin real estate boom was nowhere near that big, but by local standards it was spectacular.

Republicans, Democrats and a “Gilpin Paper for Gilpin Interests”

For a couple of decades this very paper had on the masthead: “A Gilpin paper for Gilpin interests.” Traditionally Republicans and Democrats interpreted that masthead differently. Democrats traditionally liked easy credit and easy money, while Republicans liked tough credit and tight money. At least that was the stereotype. But, then came Ronald Reagan. He increased the national debt quickly and in big dollar amounts. His policies often favored easy money. The first hard money President we’ve had in recent history was Bill Clinton, a Democrat. He slashed at the national debt and kept a tight money supply. It’s not easy to see which political party represented which “Gilpin interests.” People who owed a lot of money should have liked the Democratizes and easy money. But, the Republicans opened the money spigot even wider. The first money “tightener” was saxophone playing Bill Clinton. It’s all a bit confusing. The political stereotypes didn’t hold after the Regan era.

Of course the Reagan Republicans weren’t that interested in “interests” anyway. They campaigned on “values.” They were after “values voters.” Values to them meant cutting services to the undeserving poor, criminalizing abortion, fighting same-sex marriage, and perhaps reading The Saturday Evening Post. They won plenty of elections by promoting those “values” and not much even discussing economic “interests.” The Democrats, on the other hand, kept talking about the economic interest issues, like tax rates, like the growing gap between the super-rich and the rest of us, and sales taxes. A bored electorate tended to wander away from all of that “interest” discussion.

Any more boom times coming?

The boom and bust cycle of the west hasn’t changed much, it’s just flattened out. We’ve seen some big up and down fluctuations, but no real booms lately. To some degree our economic ups and downs have followed California’s. California is the market for much of what we sell. Most of our agricultural product goes west, and most of our rail and truck traffic goes back and forth to California and eventually to China. Much of our migration influx has come from California too. We’re not exactly a suburb of the Golden State, but the “quality recreational experiences” we offer (check out the Colorado brochures for that phrase) are aimed that way.

We’ve done a pretty good job of marketing the “Old West.” Our governor, Mr. Hickenlooper, rightly points with pride to that. As I’ve written here, the spectacular Old Wild West with cowboys and gun fights and bank robberies was not all that common. Yes, there were cowboys and gun fights. But, in fact, places like Central City were pretty boring. Few people ever carried guns. Murders were rare. Mostly people went to church socials or hung out in pretty tame bars. Yes, there was legal prostitution, but the majority of the men went home to their wives. Even some of the single miners frequented the pleasure palaces to enjoy the cigar ritual or to get letters home written. Yes, there were some wild bars, but mostly they were not much different from today. It’s great that we’ve retailed the mythos of the Wild West, but it really was less wild than any of the retailing says. We’re not in for any boom from tourism, but the state tourism promoters have helped us all out.

Keeping an eye on the booms

  It’s interesting to keep an eye on the booms and busts. If only that would help me figure out which was which, I’d be rich. As it is, I’ll just have to keep writing columns.

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