Preserving Gilpin’s past

Lynn Hirshman
Central City

Gilpin County’s Clerk & Recorder, Colleen Stewart, is working hard to preserve the County’s — and the State’s — earliest records.
Stewart asked the County Commissioners at their recent meeting for support for the grant proposal she was writing to preserve the old property records kept in the vault at the Old Courthouse in Central City.  The leather-bound books begin with a deed dated December 9, 1861. The last book in the vault is dated November 17, 1966. These books contain every property transaction during that time.
The books, which are consulted and copied regularly, are used to research property in the County for numerous reasons. They hold the deeds to every historic house and every mining claim, including the patents.
These books are suffering serious degradation. A recent condition assessment showed that the earliest books had mold present in the binding margins, while at the same time the bindings were failing and sheets were falling out. Many of the sheets are brittle and torn; most show signs of contact with “natural oils of human hands and standard grime.” The old pages were bleached, and as a result have become acidic, resulting in yellowing and browning. Inks can either “eat” their way through the paper, or fade to near-obscurity.
The grant Stewart is requesting from the State Historical Fund for Historic Preservation, would allow for digitizing these books so that the public will be able to access the information without causing further deterioration of the precious books themselves.
Stewart explained that the books were photographed and stored on reel film in 1966. The grant, for $35,000, would cover the cost of copying the films and converting those images to ones that could be accessed on computer. Some of those reels are missing, and the grant would also cover scanning the actual books where film is missing in order to add that information to the computerized files.
Once that task is completed, Stewart hoped to move on — eventually — to Phase 2 of the project. Files dating later than 1966  are presently kept on microfiche, which are in good condition. She hopes to raise the funds at a later date to digitize those files.
Phase 3 is at this point only a dream: to index all of these files. The computer files, like the films and microfiche, are not indexed. To find a particular file, one must know the book and page on which the file is recorded. Indexing is labor-intensive and, therefore, quite expensive. Stewart is hoping for interns, perhaps, to perform this task at some later date.
Community members recognize these books as the treasures that they are. In a letter of support for the grant, one person stated “These records are of great importance for historians and for the development of early Colorado territory….Many of the property records in the county date back to the original gold claims in the earliest years of the Gold Rush, before the formation of Colorado Territory.”
Another supporter wrote “In spite of its small size, the historic importance of Gilpin County, not only in Colorado’s history, but in the westward expansion of the United States, cannot be overstated….I am continually surprised…by the…significance of the historic properties found in the county — ranging from the earliest extant church building in Colorado to the only African American resort west of the Mississippi River, Lincoln Hills.”
One more noted the importance of this grant, because “with a total population of a little over 5,000 residents and a struggling economy we cannot hope to accomplish this task without help.”
The grant application was due on April 1. Stewart will let everyone in the County know when she hears the response.