Black Hawk at 150 years is a boom town with a view

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On April 12, 1864, Black Hawk became the second city in Colorado to be incorporated -- three years behind Denver and just a few hours ahead of Central City, the booming mining town up Gregory Gulch. But Black Hawk is the boom town today -- thanks not just to its location a mile below the slumping Central City, but also to some savvy positioning two decades ago, after Coloradans approved a constitutional amendment allowing limited-stakes gaming in Central City, Black Hawk and Cripple Creek. While Central City took things slowly, all bets were off in Black Hawk.

In the town that had been known as the City of Mills in the Gold Rush days, developers literally moved mountains in order to create bigger and better casinos. And by the time Central City got back in the game, there was no catching up with Black Hawk.

Black Hawk's "sesquicentennial anniversary celebration" last Saturday started outside the First Presbyterian Church that was just a year old when Black Hawk became a city; perched on the top of the hill, it offers stunning vistas of the mountains, and even more stunning looks at what has happened to the streets below. The old Black Forest restaurant-cum-casino was recently dismantled; this part of Gregory Street will become an "entertainment center." Down Colorado 119, a casino will add a 500-room expansion on property once occupied by the sewage treatment center.

There are also plans to open shops and restaurants in the storefronts that are too small for casinos, to help further Black Hawk's goal of becoming a "world-class destination resort city." And Black Hawk has used some of its take from gaming to renovate the church itself into city offices and council chambers. "Through gaming, Black Hawk is experiencing our second gold rush and a renaissance of the city," said Mayor David Spellman, a fifth-generation resident of the town who also serves as publisher of the Register-Call, which became Colorado's oldest continually operating newspaper after the Rocky Mountain News died. Black Hawk bought the paper when its last owner, former Central City mayor Bill Russell, passed away.

After the proclamations and distribution of plaques (Black Hawk city councilmembers gave Spellman a cane with the head of a hawk), the celebration moved inside, to the second-floor council chambers, for a skit featuring members of the Gilpin History Society recreating great moments in Black Hawk history as told by city councilmembers. For example, in order to maintain a "family friendly city," members approved prohibiting gambling in 1865. And in 1876, they squelched a move to repeal ordinances banning gambling. In 1877, they did the same. And on and on through the decades...until Colorado voters finally approved limited-stakes gaming.

As skits go, it was about as entertaining as the average actual city council meeting in any town in the country. But the real action in Black Hawk provides entertainment enough. Black Hawk saw unlimited opportunity in gambling and "we took full advantage," said Spellman. "We make no apologies for doing so.... We will most assuredly make history."

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