A Brief History of Clear Creek and Golden

Originally published in July, 2019

Golden exists because of Clear Creek. During the gold rush of 1859, the Creek provided the pathway into the mountains for those prospecting for gold. Golden’s founders decided to stay here in the flatlands and sell supplies to the flood of prospectors. The presence of water–for drinking, irrigation, and waterpower–made this an obvious location for a town.

Water Quality
During the 19th and early 20th century, mining and smelting polluted Clear Creek to the point where it was undrinkable and killed crops when it was used for irrigation. The Argo Tunnel, built in 1893, allowed water to drain out of the mines of Central City and Blackhawk into Clear Creek at Idaho Springs. Golden itself had several smelters, conveniently built along Clear Creek for ease of waste disposal.

The common practice of dumping raw sewage into the Creek didn’t help water quality. Rather than pumping water from Clear Creek, Golden used groundwater and piped water from increasing remote mountain streams.

In the 1950s, the Federal government began to take steps to prohibit dumping sewage into public waterways. Golden began treating its sewage in 1956.

Clear Creek in 1997, across from Lions Park. The Colorado School of Mines Research Institute (CSMRI) was demolished shortly after this photo was taken.

In 1983, Central City, Clear Creek, and Idaho Springs were declared a Superfund site. Clean up began in 1987 and a water treatment plant for the Argo Tunnel went online in 1998.

Recreation (and Water Rights)
That same year (1998), Golden opened the Clear Creek Whitewater Park. Golden had purchased new water rights to ensure that we could keep enough water rushing through Golden to support a kayak park. Other Colorado communities challenged that use of water. For the first 140 years of Colorado’s water law, the only “valid” uses of water were agriculture, industry, and domestic. The case went to the State Supreme Court, which eventually decided that recreation was a valid use for water rights in Colorado.

In 2009, Trout Unlimited decided that the Creek had recovered sufficiently to support trout. They did a stream restoration project to improve trout habitat in a section called the Clear Creek Golden Mile.

July 4th, 2012 – Hot temperatures, shallow water, and big crowds!

Perils of Popularity
2012 was a startling year for Golden. Temperatures were exceptionally high, water flow was exceptionally low, and the Denver metro area suddenly discovered that Golden was a great place for wading, tubing, and picnicking. Hordes of people descended on Clear Creek, causing erosion of the banks, trail and road congestion, and parking problems. Residents were dismayed at suddenly becoming a regional attraction. The City responded by fencing off parts of the bank, posting rules of conduct, and hiring seasonal rangers to patrol the Creek.

This year’s 4th of July will be quite different from that same day in 2012–at least with regard to Creek usage. The mountains received a tremendous amount of snow this winter, which is now melting into the streams and rivers. Clear Creek is currently running very high, and the City and County have placed restrictions on recreational use of the stream. Kayakers with safety equipment are still permitted, but tubers, waders, and swimmers definitely are not.

This history was compiled by reading historic Colorado Transcripts and Golden Transcripts. Many thanks to the Golden History Museum for putting the Transcripts online, and many thanks to the Golden Transcript for documenting our history since 1866!

Return to Random Finds from the Golden Transcript.