These days, Creede (population 257 as of the 2020 Census) may be best known for its theater, which was featured in the New York Times this past summer for both its financial and emotional importance to the southwest Colorado town.
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But, sitting at 8,900 feet in the San Juan Mountains in aptly named Mineral County, Creede also holds a place in history as Colorado’s last silver boom town in the 19th century.
Prospector Nicholas Creede discovered a high-grade silver vein in a tributary of the Rio Grande in 1890, and the population quickly grew to more than 10,000 people by the following year. At the same time, thanks to a backlash against vice in Denver (about a five-hour drive away these days), gambling clubs and saloons moved into the town’s business district, drawing infamous personalities such as Robert Ford (killer of Jesse James) and Bat Masterson.
However, Creede’s heyday was short-lived. The Panic of 1893, also known as the Silver Panic, started an economic depression that lasted for three years. A glut of silver led prices to plummet, hitting Colorado’s mining industry particularly hard and leading to the closure of most silver mines.
Creede survived into the 20th century by relying more on the lead and zinc it was able to unearth. But in 1985, when silver prices dropped again, the last mine in Creede finally closed permanently.
The town and county increasingly rely on tourism. But visitors, whether drawn to its arts scene, stunning landscapes, winter sports or hunting and fishing, among other outdoor pursuits, have opportunities to intimately explore the area’s rich mining heritage.
In 1990, Creede miners and the county began construction of the Underground Mining Museum and Community Center, both located completely underground. Blasted out of a solid rock cliff, the museum features 600 feet of underground passages, with 22 life-size authentic displays (explained via a professionally narrated audio tour) showing how mining progressed over the decades in Creede.
Open year-round (even though much of the business district shuts down for the fall and winter), the museum is well worth the visit if you’re in the area. It sheds light on an industry and people whose work is vital but often remains hidden from view.