Blake Like Me

Gramma Blake is not alive to see the drunken woman staggering up Gregory Street, her slot-machine earnings clinking in her fanny pack. Gramma Blake never did like this sort of thing. In the 1930s she would stomp down from her house on Blake Hill and into a Black Hawk bar called Jenny's, where her husband, Harry, would likely be having a few. Her aim was to break every whiskey bottle in the place. Often she succeeded.

The drunk woman wends her way past Crook's Palace, a bar well-known to the Blake family for the past 120 years or so. Unable to locate the right shuttle, she continues on toward Otto's Casino, named for one of two Otto Blakes who lived in Black Hawk. Every Blake knows the story of how one Otto and his brother were driving their horse and wagon along a Gilpin County road and found a bushel basket of Mason jars under a bridge. The Mason jars were full of moonshine. The moonshine was either very good or very bad--depending on which sex of Blake is telling the story. Either way, Otto and his brother confiscated it.

Gramma Blake was not advised of the moonshine incident. She would not have approved. Unable to read or write throughout her long life--she died in her late eighties in 1973--she was a matriarch with a heart of gold and fists of iron. When her son Melvin--"Leaky," as he was known--died in 1986, his remains were taken to the Catholic cemetery outside Central City and laid to rest within earshot of his mother. It didn't matter that Leaky's wife, who had preceded him in death by nearly twenty years, was buried miles away at Dory Hill Cemetery.

"It's funny," admits Delores Spellman, Leaky's niece, "but I think everyone just figured it would be better to put him with Gramma."

Although the cemeteries that serve Black Hawk continue to welcome Blakes and their descendants, there are still plenty of them alive and well and living in Gilpin County. Local historians claim that from the day the Black Hawk elementary school opened in 1870 until it closed down in 1960, there was never a year in which at least one Blake was not enrolled. For the past century, and maybe longer, people who know have called the town Blake Hawk.

What was historic Blake Hawk? Roger Baker has been trying to figure that out since this spring, when Black Hawk, now rolling in dough after five years of limited-stakes gaming, decided to hire a full-time publications and information specialist. Born out of the 1859 Gregory Gulch gold strike, Black Hawk's destiny was dictated by what Roger calls "an accident of geography." Unlike Central City, Nevadaville and other towns farther up the hill, Black Hawk had water, in the form of the soon-to-be-polluted Clear Creek, and a bit of flat land along its banks, where ore-processing mills could be built.

If the miners wanted culture--opera, a fancy dinner or a fancy woman--they went up the gulch to Central City. Black Hawk, "well, this was more of a working-class town," Roger muses. "By all accounts, it was an unpleasant place to live, with terrible noise from the stamp mills. When the smelters were here, they were putting out sulfur dioxide, which smells like rotten eggs."

Bayard Taylor, a writer who visited Black Hawk in 1866, was moved to describe Gregory Street as "a rough, winding, dusty road, lined with crowded wooden buildings; hotels with pompous names and limited accommodations; drinking saloons...piles of rusty and useless machinery tumbled by the wayside. There was also a brewery."

And Taylor's description was kind compared to those of his contemporaries, who "regarded Black Hawk as universally ugly," Roger says. "When people lament how gambling has changed the quaint little towns, they should realize that the quaint part is very recent."

Black Hawk's population peaked in the mid-1870s at about 1,800 and declined precipitously thereafter. The mines petered out by the turn of the century, and by 1925 the town was down to 300 residents. Despite the small summer tourist boom that began with the resurrection of the Central City Opera in 1932, the remaining townspeople eked out no more than an unspectacular living.

"Before gambling, you didn't need a whole lot of money to live here," Roger recalls. "And the folks who lived here had very little money to begin with. A lot of people moved away. Who stayed?"

He answers his own question as anyone else in town would:
"The Blakes."

In 1859 Edward Blake was just one of thousands of would-be mining moguls who converged on the area around Black Hawk and Central City, then known collectively as Mountain City. Gold had been discovered a few months earlier by a fellow Georgian, John H. Gregory, and Blake had followed his own father's advice to go west and make something of himself. But like most of the other men drawn to the gold fields, Edward did menial work in the mines without ever striking it rich. To make ends meet, he worked on the toll road to Denver, then began hauling ore from the mines to the stamp mills--huge buildings that had been thrown up in a hurry and crowded the streets of Black Hawk.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff