Below the Surface: How mining altered Colorado's social and cultural landscape
Exhibit Dates: July 14, 2023 – October 27, 2024
Mining for precious metals and other resources exploded in the Colorado Territory in the 1860s. There are rather romanticized notions of people braving the Wild West to seek out fortunes, striking gold and making a rich and fruitful life for themselves. While there are certainly success stories, there are many examples of struggles and failures, and the reality is more nuanced. The people that came to the region in search of gold and silver did not arrive to an empty and unutilized setting. The region had a rich geological and cultural landscape, with beautiful and diverse flora and fauna. There were Indigenous people living both permanently and seasonally in the region who were connected to the land, utilizing it for food, shelter, and to support their culture.
Encounters between settler fortune-seekers and Native Americans did not immediately result in conflict. There was a period of co-existence while concessions were made to allow for both groups to access the land for their respective needs and desires. Ultimately, the greed for more land and greater access led to increasing hostility, followed by battles, treaties, and eventually the restriction of Native lands and the relocation of Indigenous tribes.
The instances of individual miners “staking a claim and making it rich” began to thin as investors from the East bought up smaller mines and corporate conglomeration of the mining industry began. New technology and modes of transportation facilitated an expansion of the industry, and it became a dangerous and exploited business with those who risked the most earning the least, and those that never set foot in a mine reaping the rewards. Tensions escalated between laborers and mine owners, resulting in strikes and a fight for better working conditions and higher wages.
Below the Surface is an exhibit that aims to dig deeper and tell the real historical stories of the gold, silver, and coal mining rushes in Colorado. Visitors will find that the development of the mining industry in this region altered the course of its history, creating opportunity for some and difficulty for others. Despite the challenges, failures, and deaths, mining provided a chance for people to make a new life, and for new businesses to emerge. The direct result wasn’t always positive, but some wonderful things came to be, in one way or another, because of mining. It is important that we tell the sad stories to honor and mourn that which was lost. This exhibit also celebrates the perseverance of those who did not strike it rich, or who suffered at the expense of mining, but whose grit allowed them to forge on, becoming a part of the evolving social and cultural landscape that is Colorado.
Visitors to this exhibit will learn about the geology of the region and different types of mining. They will experience artifacts from some of the Indigenous cultures that originally inhabited the area. Moreover, they will follow the progression of the mining industry from small, one-off claims to large corporate expansion, and the cause-and-effect relationships that occurred throughout mining’s development. Lastly, they will learn about individuals with lesser-known stories who came to the region in search of riches and found their unique version of success. In addition to artifacts, maps, and timelines, visitors can watch short films that present the story of mining in several towns in Colorado. There are many interesting and educational things to see in this family-friendly exhibit.