Central City’s frontier history is spelled out all over the city.
The telltale signs of the past are all here: the saloon storefronts with their creaky, swinging doors; the sidewalks made of cracked, wooden slats; the picturesque peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the background. With its brick façade and wooden balcony, the opera house on Eureka Street gives off an antique elegance befitting the frontier. Even the grizzled and bearded characters lolling on corner benches speak to a rugged Wild West scene. Combined with the old-timey font on the street signs and the metal plaques at the end of Main Street detailing the local history of gold mining in the mid-1800s, Central City has the convincing feel of the past.
But the present is never far away.
The bings and chimes of slot machines leak out of the saloon doors on a walk down Main Street. Century Casino looms in the center of this town with an official population of less than 600. There’s the constant, frenetic energy of a tourist attraction, a vibe that can cancel out the mood of cowboys and frontiersmen.
That duality is part of the charm of Central City, as well as neighboring Black Hawk. The two former gold mining camps a short drive from Interstate 70 make up the Central City/Black Hawk Historic District, and both places offer a surreal mix of old and new. Since Colorado legalized gambling in these two towns (as well as Cripple Creek) in 1991, they’ve become tourist destinations for busloads of hopeful gamblers looking to get lucky. They come in groups of dozens from all over the state; grizzled retirees who set up in front of slot machines for an entire afternoon.
The influence of these tourists is impossible to miss in Central City. The Reserve, the oldest and largest of the town’s casinos, sprawls along Gregory Street off the town’s main drag. The Century takes up a good chunk of Main Street, and the city’s other four casinos are within walking distance of each other. The industry helped spawn the construction of the 8.5-mile parkway off I-70 that leads directly to the town (the previous route ran through Black Hawk and potential gamblers were stopping early).
The mood definitely isn’t the same as Las Vegas. Sure, gambling has given another meaning to the tagline “The Richest Square Mile on Earth,” a nickname coined in the heady days of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in the 1850s. There’s a feel of excess and abandon here, but the city’s history and old West ambience keep it grounded in Colorado culture.
Restaurants like Dostal Alley Brewpub and (of course) Casino, an unassuming joint off Eureka Street that offers tasty slices and homemade beer, are part of the charm. There’s even a separate dining room from the casino for kids and families. Stella’s Café, a humbly sized eatery located in the upper level of the Famous Bonanza Casino, is another good place to get away from the chaos of the gambling floor. With great deals on burgers and sandwiches, the small restaurant is a quiet place to catch your breath.
The restaurants aren’t the only places in the city to rejuvenate. The Central City Opera is an unlikely cultural jewel, a company that rivals the best theater, music and art based in metro Denver. Built in 1877 by the Cornish and Welsh miners who did the toughest kind of work, the opera house started as a meeting ground for Central City’s commoners. This 550-seat theater wasn’t the refuge of hoity-toity opera lovers in tuxes sipping champagne; the venue kicked off as a place to share in a love of singing and culture.
Since then, the opera house has morphed into one of the signature opera companies in the state and beyond. Singers, directors, musicians and staff travel from across the country to stage productions in the summer. From standard fare like “Carmen” and “The Barber of Seville” to more modern works like “Showboat” and contemporary Chinese operas, the CCO has built a program that, like the city itself, fuses old and new.
The opera has become an integral part of the city—the historic houses and bungalows that surround the two-story theater are the summer residences of the opera company.
Next door on Eureka Street, the Teller House offers other colorful relics of Central City’s boom-and-bust past. Henry Teller opened the house in 1872 and he billed it as one of the most luxurious hotels west of the Mississippi.
More than a century later, the Teller House has retained that sense of opulence and class. Now a hotel/casino, the Teller House houses the most iconic image from Central City: an enigmatic female face painted on the barroom floor. Painted in 1936 by Herndon Davis, the expression is hard to read. The painting offers a peek into the past. Like Central City’s saloons, hotels and opera houses, the woman offers the mood and feel of another era.
But 2013 has a way of creeping in on that illusion.