When Gary Hawley drives to Black Hawk and Central City, he usually skips the casinos.
Hawley said he’d rather go straight to North Clear Creek or make a pit stop at the ghost town Nevadaville.
Five buildings, including an antiques store and city hall building, still stand in the historic town, a once-thriving gold-mining community.
Dozens of mine-tailing mounds peek out from the evergreen trees. Grave markers from as early as 1796 dot the landscape.
During the 1800s, the area was literally a gold mine, bringing in millions of dollars worth of revenue from gold and silver. Today it continues to bring in revenue, in the form of cash from the casinos.
Hawley, president of the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies, and Jeff Mosteller, vice president of the nonprofit club based in Lakewood, promote the history of Colorado gold mining as it relates to their hobby — gold prospecting.
The men said they don’t build mines to look for gold, but they and hundreds of members of other gold-prospecting clubs across the nation take pride in panning for gold and teaching others the heritage and practice.
Gold mining really took off in Colorado in the mid-1800s, when John Gregory — for whom Gregory Street in Black Hawk is named — found gold in the nearby mountains. His first pan contained $4 worth of gold, or a fifth of an ounce. Back then, gold was worth $20 an ounce. Today, it is valued at $459.
When Gregory and his fellow miners dug 900 feet into the ground, they discovered 450,000 ounces of gold and 675,000 ounces of silver, netting them $212 million in 1859.
“This was the richest county in the nation (at the time),” Mosteller said about Gilpin County.
But gold mining was not easy work. The men and women who founded the Colorado mining towns had to deal with mountainous terrain, snow and little water. The miners earned about $2 a day and risked their lives when they worked.
“It took real hardy people,” Hawley said.
Nonetheless, the communities continued to grow and thrive.
Colorado’s mining history is only one reason people like Hawley and Mosteller developed an interest in gold to begin with.
Hawley, a retired police officer, began looking for a new hobby because he didn’t enjoy mountain climbing, as his wife did.
“I’d go and take my wife and her friend to the trailhead, then I’d go into town and look around. I saw mine tailings, and one day saw a guy from the Gold Prospectors Association of America on TV,” Hawley said. “The next thing I knew, I had pans and wore (this prospectors’) hat.”
Mosteller said that after he tried gold panning, he “got gold on his fingers, and the feeling never goes away.”
“There’s nothing better than sitting there with your feet in the water and a pan and not thinking about work,” Hawley said. “It’s a hobby to relieve your mind and exercise your body.”
Members of Gold Prospectors of the Rockies take gold-panning trips throughout Colorado and lead demonstrations at schools and historic Colorado mining towns. The organization also educates its members and local communities on how to prospect gold without harming the environment.
But finding the gold is no piece of cake. Mosteller said he and his wife will take 10 panning trips throughout the summer and find only between an eighth and a quarter of an ounce of gold.
Hawley said gold prospecting and panning is a relatively inexpensive hobby. A shovel, rubber boots and a pan cost about $50.
Mosteller takes the hobby more seriously and has spent $1,400 on dredging equipment that he uses like a vacuum to suck up the deposits from the creeks.
When prospectors find gold, they either put flecks in lockets of necklaces or melt them and create nuggets, Hawley said.
Mosteller taught Dan and Kristen Augustyn of Boston how to pan gold in North Clear Creek by Black Hawk when the couple recently visited Colorado.
“I didn’t realize how hard it is,” Kristen Augustyn said. “My lower back is killing me.”
Despite the slight aches, the couple said they had fun panning from 10:30 a.m. until 2:45 p.m. Sept. 18 and were excited to leave Colorado with the few gold flecks they found.
At the end of the day, Dan Augustyn asked the Mostellers if they did a good job panning for gold.
“You didn’t do good; you did damn good,” Donna Mosteller said.
Katherine Crowell can be reached at 303-684-5336 or email@example.com.