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How this special district helped create Colorado

Posted by Chris Ryan | April 15, 2022

Special districts are carved into the foundation of Colorado. As early settlers moved west, they found themselves well beyond the reach of the government back east, and needed a way to organize themselves. John Gregory formed the first special district out west to help provide services to the ever-growing settlements that popped up around the gold mines.

Just like the districts of today, independent-minded people got together to create an organization that was responsive to their local needs. And this is the intriguing story of how the first special district, and the state of Colorado, came to be.

John H. Gregory, one of the “makers of Colorado,” created the state’s first special district in 1859, a mining colony named Gregory Diggings. Though few today have heard of him, his mining discoveries inaugurated the permanent settlement of the state – and the Western US – as we know it today. 

Gregory himself is regarded by historians as a “man of mystery” – before coming to Colorado he was a modestly successful Georgia gold miner. He was a married gentleman of fortune, albeit one with a rap sheet following an arrest in 1885 for gambling. After his run-in with the law, the miner began looking elsewhere for the next “motherlode." In 1859, Gregory learned of compelling discoveries in Colorado and, like many others, quickly made his way to western territory. 


Gregory finally discovered his strike in May of 1859, panning $4 worth of gold (about $180 in today’s dollars) from a single spot. This spot, and the district surrounding it, would go on to produce $65,000,000 worth of gold for over a century. When the site had been surveyed and the true extent of Gregory’s fortune had been revealed to him, he solemnly stated “My wife will be a lady, and my children will be educated.”

What John found in those mountains altered the course of American history, by popularizing the use of special districts to manage communities and interests.

The discovery set the nation on fire: it was hailed by the Silver Standard newspaper as the “most important event that had at that time happened in the history of the country.” The mountains were rich in gold, copper, silver, and quartz, and the riches they promised created a national sensation. Within 2 months, 10,000 people would make their way to Gilpin County, and the migration westward was just beginning.

It’s no wonder that John turned to the most independent and local form of government by creating the state’s first special district, Gregory Diggings, to help administer and provide services to the ever-growing settlement. The state’s first special district met regularly to protect the rights of local miners and even had the minutes of their meetings published in the local newspaper.

The District was such a successful model that it became the foundation for how Coloradans managed agricultural, mineral, and other resources throughout the territory, and continues in the legacy of the state’s 2,300 special districts serving Colorado today. 

“The Gregory's Diggings masonry monument is of granite and has a granite foundation. The brass marker in the center reads "On This ground later known as Gregory's Diggings John H. Gregory of Georgia discovered the first gold lode in Colorado on May 6, 1859 This discovery inaugurated the permanent development of Colorado The district has produced $65,000,000 in gold Erected by the State Historical Society of Colorado and by the Mrs. J.N. Hall Foundation and by State Civil Service Employees of Colorado 1932.”.



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