Gregory Gulch is the name given to the roughly mile-long ravine that runs between the towns of Black Hawk and Central City, Colorado. It was here, in May of 1859, that John H. Gregory and Wilkes De Frees struck gold. Simultaneously Horace and Augusta Tabor, with their newborn Maxcy and two friends, were trudging across the prairie from their home in eastern Kansas, drawn by the news of the riches to be found in the Rockies. Eventually, more than One Hundred Million dollars worth of gold would be extracted from the mines in the Central City area. But Horace's wealth was to come from another mineral--silver--and another locale--Leadville.
Nevertheless, Central City plays two important roles in the story of the Tabors: the real Baby Doe spent roughly three years there between 1877 and 1880, just prior to meeting Horace, and the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe was given its world premiere there in 1956.
Intriguingly, the Central City Opera House inhabits both moments. It provided the stage on which John Latouche and Douglas Moore introduced their unique take on the Baby Doe story to the world. And it was also the focus of much civic celebration when, in early March of 1878, it was itself dedicated, with a series of performances that most certainly saw Baby Doe in the audience, accompanied by either her husband Harvey or her good friend Jacob Sandolowski, (aka Jake Sands), or both.
The Opera House still stands, proudly hosting summer performances by the Central City Opera Company, including the 50th anniversary production of The Ballad of Baby Doe in 2006. Indeed the town's epicenter, near the intersection of Eureka and Main Streets, has changed very little in a century and a quarter. Treeless hills and tailings piles still dominate the surrounding landscape. The four-story Teller House, though no longer accepting overnight guests, remains the most identifiable structure. And no 20th-century architectural anomalies intrude along entire blocks of Victorian storefronts, thanks largely to the arrival, in 1991, of casino gambling, the trade-off for which was the preservation of the town's original structures.
The benefits of such an awkward attempt at urban planning have been mixed, and not unlike the 19th-century boom days that were responsible for the town (and the opera house) in the first place. For a while in the 1990s, speculation in land prices forced some long-time residents and merchants, who could no longer afford to stay, to leave town. The influx of new visitors also strained the municipality's capacity to provide adequate infrastructure. Some of the pressure on the town's 19th-century core has lately been alleviated by a spate of massive new casinos that have been built further downstream toward Black Hawk.
But, in the end, Central City today personifies the classic Colorado dilemma: urban development outcomes imposed on an extreme and sensitive rural environment, mixed with the clash of high and low culture in a setting straddling three centuries. Who knows what the future holds for such a place!