A centruy and a half ago, the promise of riches lured settlers West. After prospectors discovered gold, silver and other metals in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, mining camps grew into real towns.
Sadly, their fortunes crashed sooner rather than later, and many of these settlements went bust. Others survived and their economies evolved to support meetings over mining, including Breckenridge, Colorado; Butte, Montana; and Sonora, California.
Miners struck gold in the area in 1859, and Breckenridge relied on precious metal mining for the better part of a century.
The industry gave birth to Tom’s Baby, a 13.5-pound nugget that is the largest piece of gold ever unearthed in Colorado and was named for Tom Groves, who found it in 1887 and subsequently swaddled it in a blanket and trotted it around town like a newborn.
The economy morphed into a resort town in the 20th century. Breckenridge Ski Area opened in 1961, and it matured into one of the best and busiest ski areas in the country.
That makes for the best of both worlds: a quaint downtown with historic cachet, surrounded by plenty of modern ski lodges and condo complexes.
There are several historic event venues, including multiple old mines: Country Boy, Lomax Placer, and the Washington mines. Country Boy can accommodate groups of 40 indoors or 100 outdoors; the latter two are operated by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance and have outdoor spaces with capacity for 100 and 50, respectively.
On the more contemporary side of things, Breckenridge’s largest venue is Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center, with capacity for meetings and events of 10 to about 1,000 people.
That’s nearly the same size as the largest groups the entire town can host. “You can do up to 1,000 people if you do it townwide,” says Stacy Long, director of sales at Breckenridge Tourism Office. “If you have about 200, you have multiple options.”
One of Breckenridge’s strengths is team-building, Long says, citing Discover Breckenridge as a scavenger hunt activity organized by the tourism office that costs less than $2 per person. “It’s something we offer to bring groups in. We put a spin on the historical side.”
Michelle Matsumoto, administrative assistant at American Honda Motor Company in Englewood, has planned several events for dealers in Breckenridge over the past two years. The walkable downtown and ease of access from Denver are two of the town’s biggest assets, she says.
In 2017, Matsumoto organized a Breckenridge trip for a group of 20 dealers from Dallas. One night involved dinners at different restaurants such as Brian Rose and Hearthstone. Activities included zip lining at Top of the Rockies near Leadville, fly-fishing on the Blue River with Breckenridge Outfitters and ATV tours with Nova Guides. “We wanted to bring in our Dallas group and show them a good time in the mountains,” she notes.
Known for copper mines that produced billions of dollars of ore, Butte was the biggest city between Chicago and San Francisco for a time in the 1800s. The “Richest Hill on Earth” is no more, but quirky Butte offers an intriguing meeting destination in central Montana.
Historic Uptown Butte, built on the slope of the Rocky Mountain foothills, is rough around the edges but full of fantastic nooks and crannies. “There’s a lot of things to do between meetings,” says George Everett, executive director of Mainstreet Uptown Butte.
When the district hosted the 200-attendee Montana Downtown Conference in 2016, groups went white-water rafting and hiking on a “well-developed trail system” and took historic tours of “one of the largest landmark districts in the county,” says Everett.
Butte also has proven a good fit for big summer events. The community hosted the National Folk Festival from 2008 to 2010, and that morphed into the annual Montana Folk Festival that drew 165,000 people over three days in July 2017.
The festival’s main venue is an amphitheater at the Original Mine Headframe just above Uptown, which has a capacity of up to 10,000 people. “The Original has become a venue for not only the Montana Folk Festival, but weddings and other events as well,” says Everett.
Julia Olin, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts in Silver Spring, Maryland, was involved in the original decision to award the National Folk Festival to Butte a decade ago.
The city’s rich history was a big allure. “Butte’s got a million stories,” says Olin. “It’s full of characters, rags-to-riches stories, the improbable, the amazing. It’s the quintessential urban-industrial Western town.”
Olin describes the Original amphithe - ater as “absolutely unique.” She says, “You’re looking out over the entire valley, ringed in by mountains. It’s iconically Butte and works really well as the largest venue.”
The Finlen Hotel has one of the biggest indoor event spaces in Uptown, with a capacity of 200 in its most spacious room, but Everett says the neighborhood can accommodate 500-person events if plan - ners “split up things into different venues.” He mentions Front Street Station, a restored depot with capacity for 300, as an option.
Beyond Uptown, the Copper King Hotel & Convention Center is Butte’s largest event facility, with 92 rooms and capacity for groups of 30-500.
The founding miners named the town for their native Sonora, Mexico, and it emerged as a hotbed of activity during the California gold rush in the 1800s.
Sheala Wilkinson, special programs coordinator for the City of Sonora, con - firms that the history remains largely intact. “The downtown is like it originally was,” she says. “Most of the buildings are from the 1800s. Not too much has changed. We lasted through the gold rush because we’re the county seat.”
Built in 1879, Sonora’s Opera Hall is a relic of the boom days and today serves as one of the city’s top event venues with a capacity of 400.
Ron Kopf, executive director of the Tuolumne County Business Council, has organized numerous activities at the hall. “The Opera Hall’s a great venue, and it’s an old historic building,” he says. “It’s had a number of uses over the years. It just has great bones. It’s in downtown Sonora, so it’s centrally located. It’s got a big open area with a stage in the front.”
But it’s not only about what’s inside city limits. Sonora is in easy striking distance of several other historic towns, including Columbia and Jamestown, and Yosemite National Park. “We’re the center for everything,” says Wilkinson.
Kopf highlights other regional venues for larger events such as Dodge Ridge Ski Area and Black Oak Resort Casino, which is located 10 miles east in Tuolumne and featuring 148 rooms and event space for up to 250 guests.
“Dodge Ridge is a great little ski hill,” he emphasizes.
However, he ultimately likes holding events in Sonora proper because of its vibrant downtown. “There’s a lot of restaurants,” Kopf says. “Sonora offers a lot of character if you’re walking up and down the street.”
While the boom days might be over, these historic mining towns have evolved into terrific meeting destinations with a wide range of venues and activities and some authentic Western history to boot.