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By Elisabeth Monaghan

It’s unlikely anyone can live in Wheat Ridge for more than a year and not know about its agricultural roots, but some may be less familiar with the city’s significance in the history of the gold rush in Colorado.

Before there was Denver, there was Montana City, which was located just east of Evans Avenue and Santa Fe Drive. (Today that site is a the Grant-Frontier Park.) In response to rumors that gold was plentiful in Montana City,  a group of prospectors flocked to the area. Upon discovering there was no abundance of gold, the prospectors abandoned the site, hoping to have better luck farther downstream. Among the next locations where prospectors sought gold were the area that is now the Auraria Campus and the Arapahoe Bar (now the Arapahoe Gold Panning Park), which is located at 44th Avenue and Youngfield Street.

This is just one of the lessons about the Colorado Gold Rush members of the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies learn as they discover the history of gold in the Denver area. Not only does the prospecting group’s president, Jim Long, teach members about how to find and pan for gold, he also passes along the history of Colorado’s part in the gold rush boom that began in 1859.

When he was young, Long accompanied his father, who was a prospector mining uranium around the San Luis Valley in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s.

“I was into sports and girls at the time, but I loved the outdoors, so I’d go with him,” explained Long.

While he claims not to have paid attention to his father’s prospecting efforts as a youngster, he considered prospecting for gold as a way to spend his time when he retired from his job in law enforcement.

“In the mid-‘80s, I knew I was coming up on retirement and thought ‘Well, maybe I ought to see what this is all about,’ so I got involved with the Gold Prospecting Association of America and became a member in the late 1980s.”

Starting out dabbling in gold prospecting, Long decided to get into it full time after he retired in 2007. Initially, Long joined a gold prospector club based in Colorado Springs, but the drive from north of Denver to the meetings grew tiresome.

In 1995, Long learned of the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies, which is in Lakewood and contacted its president about membership. At the club president’s invitation, Long attended his first meeting as a guest and enjoyed the group so much, he joined it that evening. Immediately, Long became an active volunteer for the club, first as a member of its board, and then as the organization’s president.

Long describes the gold prospectors’ group as an organization dedicated to the amateur prospector and family-oriented groups that want to learn about mining. According to Long, the organization has roughly 175 family memberships, which breaks down to about 350 members, total. The annual fee to belong to the organization is $30, and members range from as young as 7 to individuals in their 90s, and reside in locations as far as South Carolina and Texas, to nearby states like Nebraska and Wyoming.

Although he didn’t become interested in gold prospecting until later in his professional career, Long, who has a minor in geology, knows a lot about rock formations and minerals – especially those in Colorado.

“Colorado is unique when it comes to our minerals,” said Long. There is a mineral belt that runs from Gold Hill in Jamestown all the way down to Leadville, and then to other areas around Cripple Creek, Victor, the San Juan Region, Steamboat Lake and the Great Divide.”

His familiarity with geology makes it easier for Long to tell which formations along the mineral belt contain gold and which do not. As a result, every time the club goes prospecting, someone always finds gold.

Granted, small-scale prospectors are not going to get rich with their findings, but that fact doesn’t lessen the thrill of finding the shiny yellow nuggets. Long says his best prospecting day turned up 3/16ths of an ounce, which he estimates would be worth $250. The club collectively found seven ounces, which today is worth a little over $8,000.

Since stepping in as president, Long has increased the club’s excursions from three or four outings a year to at least 20. A day of prospecting generally begins at 9 a.m., but it can go as late as 6 p.m. Long takes the group to pan at sites like Cripple Creek, Idaho Springs and Central City, but the Arapahoe Bar Panning Park is a closer spot that is popular among club members.

In 1858, after their disappointing experience with Montana City, some prospectors went on to found Arapahoe City, named after the Arapaho native tribe. Although that city is long-gone, Arapahoe Bar Gold Panning Park remains a local area that is open to the public. There was a time when the City of Wheat Ridge considered shutting down mining at Arapahoe Bar. Fortunately, Long, who had already developed rules and regulations for the Clear Creek Open Spaces area in Jefferson County, was able to work with the City of Wheat Ridge to create a set of rules and regulations for gold panning at Arapahoe Bar.

As part of his effort on behalf of the prospector organization, Long conducts a small-scale mining demonstration twice a year. He also presents a program about gold and where it comes from to 1,500 elementary-aged school children in Aurora, along with a three-day program for 2,000 school-aged children in Highlands Ranch. In both, he talks about how planets were formed and how minerals like gold were deposited.

For anyone curious about small-scale gold mining, Long recommends joining a prospector club to learn where and how to pan for gold legally, safely and in a way that does not harm the environment. Of course, Long is partial to the Gold Prospectors Club of the Rockies, emphasizing his group is the largest prospector organization in the Denver area, while also being the cheapest, easiest and “probably the friendliest” to join. He also points out that guests are always welcome to check out the monthly meetings.

“Sometime it may take two or three meetings, but rarely do we have a visitor who does not join the club after the first meeting,” says Long.

As a draw and to remind members why they are in the club, Long always gives away 10 gold nuggets at each meeting. With an average of 80 people attending the meetings, chances are pretty good a visitor may come away with some shiny gold of their own.

To learn more about Jim Long or the Gold Prospectors of the Rockies, visit www.goldprospectorsoftherockies.com.