John Calhoun's Silver Plume Overview

Written by the late John Calhoun - written in 1995 - (some details may have changed):

Town of Silver Plume, Colorado

Elevation: 9116         Population: 203* 
*Population figure may include dogs, drop-ins, and ground squirrels (quote it with caution).

Part of the Georgetown-Silver Plume National Historic Landmark District

Silver Plume is a Home Rule Municipality located in the Rocky Mountains on I-70, about twelve miles east of the Continental Divide and some thirty-five miles west of Metro Denver, in Clear Creek County, one of seventeen original Colorado counties.   A brief history of the town is recorded below.

Town Clerk: Jodi Candlin (303/569-2363)
  P.O. Drawer F, Silver Plume CO 80476

Period photos available at the "Digital Images" section of the Denver Public Library.

Silver Plume is a very small, old, rural mining town dating from the Colorado gold and silver rush of the last four decades of the 19th century. In 1859 gold was discovered at the confluence of Clear Creek and the Platte River near what is now Denver. Inspired by the 1849 California gold rush and by Horace Greeley’s immortal if misguided promotional admonition to “Go west, young man, go west,” literally thousands of fortune-seekers headed up Clear Creek into the Rocky Mountains, seeking the veins of ore that were the source of the nuggets and dust found in the waters of the Creek. The fortune hunters and miners came from several European countries as well as the east and midwest of the United States, and for a time Silver Plume was a very cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and multi-lingual town.

The sought-after veins of ore were (and are) part of the east-northeast Colorado ore belt running roughly from Boulder, Colorado southwest to the vicinity of Silverton and Telluride. The ore belt came into being millions of years ago when what may be the third version of the Rockies thrust upwards. See this USGS page for an interesting introduction to “orogeny,” the creation of mountains. Minerals including auriferous (gold-bearing) pyrites and argentiferous (silver-bearing) galena (lead sulfide) were dissolved in extremely hot water heated by the earth’s underlying mantle and forced into cracks in the metamorphic schists, gneisses and igneous granites of the mountains. When the water cooled, the deposited minerals solidified as veins of ore.

It is believed that originally some two miles of overburden covered the ore veins. Erosion caused by wind and water wore away the overburden down to the upper level of the ore--just in time for the mid-19th century prospectors to “strike it rich,” sell their claims to mining companies, and trigger the creation of towns like Silver Plume. Although gold was the original metal sought in the Silver Plume area, by about 1864 some bright soul recognized that the grayish rock everyone had been kicking around and cursing was in fact silver ore, and the boom era for Silver Plume began.

The principle buyer of the silver was the United States government. America’s money at the time was based on a “bimetal” standard of gold and silver. However, in the midst of the economic “Panic of 1893” the nation switched to the gold standard, and Congress revoked the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The price of silver tumbled, and Silver Plume’s boom era ended. American history buffs will remember William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech, reiterated countless times in Chautauqua assemblies across the country . For an interesting discussion of the gold standard and monetarism, click these links.

The social history of Silver Plume is largely the history of the lives of the early working class miners and their families and a few merchants and other entrepreneurs. Hard rock mining requires drilling and blasting underground, loading the rock to the surface, milling the extracted rock to eliminate as much waste as possible (in fact early milling was only about 50% efficient and tons of silver ore went into the tailings piles), and shipping the ore to smelters for refining. A promising website, one of many, can be found here. An excellent book detailing mining technology is Western Mining by Otis E. Young, available from

One fact is central to the early sociology of Silver Plume. Drilling holes by hand was called “Single Jacking” or “Double Jacking” depending on whether the miner worked alone or with a partner. The technique was named for the Cornish miners who moved here when the tin mining industry in Cornwall crashed. Among the Cornish, “Jack” was the commonest nickname. (You’ve just learned why we call jackhammers by that name.)

Hand drilling was soon replaced by steam and hydraulic drilling. These powered drills produced an enormous amount of silica dust. (A primary component of granite is silica—silicon dioxide—commonly called quartz.

When the miners had inhaled enough of the silica dust, oftentimes at a very young age, their lungs were in effect petrified—organic matter was replaced by rock—and they died of silicosis, the western miner’s version of the black lung disease of coal mining country. The attempt to regulate the “widow-maker” drills by legislation was one of the first, and largely futile, labor efforts in Colorado.

When silver mining declined after 1893, to be replaced briefly by lead mining to support the WWI war effort (galena is lead sulfide, recall), Silver Plume itself became moribund except for tourism inspired by the Argentine Central Railroad and by the first passenger tramway in the nation. The Sunrise Peak Aerial Tramway began operation in 1907 with twenty-six gondola cars that carried sightseers 2000 feet up Pendleton Mountain.

The town’s further recovery depended on commercial skiing after WWII (largely thanks to veterans of the 10th Mountain Division). From the 1960’s to the present the recovery has depended on the migration into the mountains of folks from urban and rural flatlands in Colorado and elsewhere around the nation.

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