Florence in Fremont County, Colorado — The American Mountains (Southwest)
From Apple Orchards to Oil Fields
A historic Colorado oil town
Enjoy your visit
In 1859, Jesse Frazer fashioned a plow from a large cottonwood branch and planted his fields in the broad fertile bottom besides the Arkansas River. Twenty years later, "Uncle Jesse's" orchards held thousands of apple trees. While Florence's roots started in the fertile river bottom, its future growth depended on what lay beneath the soil.
Early settlers discover coal and oil
In 1860, Jesse Frazer filed the first coal claim in the foothills south of the Arkansas River. Soon, many others followed suit — at first, mining the coal to heat homes, and later to power locomotives and fire smelter furnaces. Meanwhile, oil seeps north of Florence attracted the attention of Alexander M. Cassidy. He believed a large "oil pool" fed the seeps. Cassidy and several others set out to find it. For nearly twenty years, the oil seekers drilled dry hole after dry hole. Finally, their efforts paid off. The first oil strike in 1881 marked the beginning of fifty years of oil production
James A. McCandless, Founding Father of Florence
In 1870, James A. McCandless purchased a 160-acre homestead just south of the Arkansas River. Soon after, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks to the Arkansas Valley's coal mines. The McCandless homestead adjoined the railroad's line to the coal mines. Anxious to share in the prosperity that the railroad would bring, McCandless platted part of his farm as a town site. He named the town Florence in honor of his three-year-old daughter.
"In the fall of 1891, McCandless and two other men rode horseback to the Cripple Creek District, passing through a defile known as Eight Mile Cañon...they envisioned a road from Florence to the gold mines..."
— Tivis E., Wilkins, A History of the Florence & Cripple Creek and Golden Circle Railroads, 1978
Florence cashes in on Cripple Creek gold
The Cripple Creek gold boom began in earnest in 1891. Businessmen in the Arkansas Valley wanted to share in the wealth. The Arkansas Valley possessed plentiful land, water and fuel — all scarce in the mining district. Florence's founder, James A. McCandless, joined forces with several other prominent citizens and built the Florence Free Road up Eight Mile Canyon. Traffic on the new road was heavy yet the entrepreneurs knew that
The Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad brings a fortune to Florence
By 1900, Florence's prosperity reflected the immense wealth flowing from the Cripple Creek Mining District. Now, Florence's population numbered seven thousand. Each day, several trains carried coal, lumber, merchandise, machinery and food into the mining district and returned heavy with gold ore. Florence's eight mills processed more than 1,300 tons of gold ore daily. The heavy traffic on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad meant huge profits for investors. According to railroad lore, the little narrow-gauge line was paying for itself every three weeks.
"...It is doubtful that any short railway operated more trains per day."
— Morris Cafky, Rails Around Gold Hill, 1965
Changing fortunes for Florence and the railroad
The heyday of the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad lasted for more than a decade. Competition
Despite the loss of the railroad and gold processing mills, Florence's oil and coal continued to fuel the economy of the Arkansas Valley for years to come. Colorado history reflects the many contributions of Florence's coal mines, oil fields, refineries and mills — and the people who labored there. Visit the Pioneer Museum and historic downtown district to learn more about Florence's history.
Top: (James A. McCandless) Colorado Historical Society
Middle left: Early road to Cripple Creek. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Middle right: Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad. L.C. McClure photo, Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Bottom: Florence circa 1910. Colorado Historical Society
Travel the road to riches: The Gold Belt Tour National Scenic Byway
Beginning in the 1890s, the Cripple Creek Milling District enjoyed the greatest gold boom in Colorado
1. In the early days of the gold boom, fortune seekers, freight wagons and stagecoaches traveled the route between Florissant and Cripple Creek. Today, this road is known as Teller County Road One.
2. Phantom Canyon Road follows the route of the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad (1894 to 1912), once the busiest narrow-gauge railroad in the West.
3. Blasted out of the steep walls of Fourmile Canyon, Shelf Road retraces the toll road used by stagecoaches and freight wagons bound for Cripple Creek from the Arkansas Valley.
4. High Park Road, once used by prospectors bound for the Cripple Creek Mining District from points south, passes through cattle ranching country.
Route: Florence to Victor and Cripple Creek via Colorado 67 and Phantom Canyon Road • Driving time: 2 to 2½ hours • Road information: Phantom Canyon Road is unpaved, narrow and winding with steep drop-offs. No vehicle over 25 feet.
Route: Florence to Cripple Creek via Cañon City and Shelf Road • Driving time: 2 hours • Road information: Sections of Shelf Road are unpaved, narrow and winding with steep drop-offs. Not recommended for motor homes or vehicles towing trailers. Four-wheel drive
Route: Florence to Cripple Creek via Cañon City: U.S. 50, Colorado 9 and High Park Road • Driving time: 1½ hours • Road information: Paved.
Route: Cripple Creek to Florissant via Teller County Road One • Driving time: ½ hour • Road information: Paved.
Tips for travelers
• Phantom Canyon Road and the upper portion of Shelf Road are winding and narrow with steep drop-offs. Do not attempt these roads in a motor home or while towing a trailer.
• As the terrain and elevation changes along the Gold Belt Tour, weather and road conditions may change. Be prepared!
• Avoid abandoned mine sites — loose rocks, rotting timbers, and deep shafts make these areas very dangerous.
• Active mining is still going on in the area. Slow down at truck crossings in the Cripple Creek and Victor area.
For more information about the Gold Belt Tour, visit the local Chamber of Commerce.
Captions, Top to bottom
• Canon Black Diamond Coal, Yellico & Sons, circa 1935. Lump of Coal=18,800 lbs
• Diebert Funeral Home & Funeral before 1915; 100 block of South Pike Peak; cars forming a circle in the street.
• Florence Depot, 1917
• Interior of McCandless store, 124 West Main Street, circa 1900
• Fourth of July parade on Main Street, circa 1902
• Oil storage tanks & refineries looking north; current Pearlite plant on the right
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Agriculture • Railroads & Streetcars • Settlements & Settlers.
Location. 38° 23.408′ N, 105° 7.079′ W. Marker is in Florence, Colorado, in Fremont County. Marker is at the intersection of West Main Street (State Highway 115) and North Pikes Peak Avenue (State Highway 67), on the right when traveling west on West Main Street. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 106 West Main Street, Florence CO 81226, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 6 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. Early Agriculture & Ranching (here, next to this marker); James A. McCandless House (within shouting distance of this marker); Lt. Zebulon Pike's Southwestern Expedition (approx. 0.2 miles away); Corrections Capital (approx. 3.2 miles away); Arkansas River Valley (approx. 3.2 miles away); Arkansas Valley Country (approx. 3.2 miles away); The Royal Gorge (approx. 3.2 miles away); Cañon City / The Gold Belt Tour (approx. 5.7 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Florence.
Credits. This page was last revised on July 20, 2020. It was originally submitted on July 19, 2020, by Duane Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This page has been viewed 97 times since then and 44 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on July 19, 2020, by Duane Marsteller of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. • Andrew Ruppenstein was the editor who published this page.