Mythology surrounds the era of Colorado's gold rush: wagons painted with "Pikes Peak or Bust," lone prospectors panning for nuggets, fortunes made and lost overnight.
Not surprisingly, these images are unrealistic, and the newest exhibit at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, Going for the Gold: Pikes Peak or Bust, tells the real story of what brought the first wave of pioneers to the region in 1858. And, more importantly, what made them stay.
A bad economy initially lured nearly 50,000 travelers toward the territory (only half were to eventually make it and settle), according to museum director Matt Mayberry: "The rush happened in response to an economic crisis just like the one we're going through today."
Known as The Panic of 1857, it happened when banks throughout the Eastern states started to fail due to sums owed to creditors. When they called in their loans, investors farmers and businessmen lost everything. At the same time, rumors filtered in from the West of gold in the hills of what are now called the Tarryall and Wilkerson Pass areas of Colorado.
But those fantastic stories didn't mention the hard work involved in washing gold from sand and gravel, or the difficulty in finding the gold in the first place. As it turns out, supporting the miners often made for better business. This is why Colorado City (now Old Colorado City) was built: to sell supplies to miners traveling up Ute Pass to reach the claims.
"Mining needs all of this civilization in order to make it possible," says Mayberry. "That's the local part of the story."
To capture the era, the Pioneers Museum has collected costumes, tools of the mining trade and other artifacts. But Mayberry points out the exhibit isn't as much about mining as it is about the development of Colorado City.
"Colorado City exists not because gold was there," says Mayberry, "but because it was a place where people could mine the miners."