Central City and Fraternal Organizations

By Deborah Morrow

Because there are Masonic references in The Magic Flute (Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder were Masons), and knowing that the first Masonic temple in Colorado was in Gilpin County, we thought it might be interesting to learn a bit more about Masonic and other fraternal orders in Central City’s history.

Fraternal orders were widespread in America in the 1800s and 1900s. Some, like Freemasonry, were based on ancient professional guilds – masonry workers and foresters, for example. Others aimed to edify their members and set moral examples – like the Odd Fellows and the Elks. More importantly, they provided a social safety net for the working class long before the existence of unions or disability insurance. Life Insurance was generally one of the benefits of belonging to a fraternal organization.

It was common for lodges to spring up in the western territories as men migrated here in search of gold. Within months of the 1859 discovery of gold in Russell Creek just below Central City’s current location, a group of Masons built a log cabin “temple” near the site of that first gold strike. A variety of lodges soon followed. If a lodge brother became ill or injured, he was provided care or nursing by his fellow brethren. If a brother died, he was given a decent burial.  If he was a family man, his widow and children would receive death benefits and be given assistance in finding jobs. Five Central City Lodges maintained their own cemeteries in the area – The Independent Order of Foresters, Improved Order of Red Men, Knights of Pythias, International Order of Odd Fellows, and Masons.

Most orders were fully segregated by gender (men only), race, and religious affiliation (most were Christian, but Catholics were excluded from many orders, while Protestants were excluded by Catholic organizations). For example, the Improved Order of Red Men, whose rituals were based on Native American traditions, was for white men only; the Knights of Pythias (and others) excluded the maimed or disabled. As women and a wider racial array of settlers came west, they formed their own societies. For women they were mostly charitable organizations to help the needy, but some were auxiliary organizations to the men’s fraternal lodges like Eastern Star (Masonic) and Women of Woodcraft (Woodmen of the World). Non-white men formed parallel lodges, such as the Prince Hall Masons, named after African American founder, Prince Hall.

Gilpin County was home to at least 23 fraternal organizations with around 50 lodges over the years. Other orders (besides those already mentioned) included: Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, Knights of the Golden Eagle, Knights of the Maccabees, Sons of St. George, Ancient Order of Hibernians, Catholic Knights of America, Knights of Honor, Fraternal Union of America, Ancient Order of United Workmen, Knights of St. John, Kings Daughters and Woodmen of the World.

We know that the Central City Opera House was the center of entertainment and many social events in the community in its earlier days, but it is interesting to learn how important fraternal organizations also were to the area’s societal structure.


Photo Reference:

Benevolent Protective Order of Elks building on Main Street

Masonic Lodge on Eureka Street (Building)

International Order of Odd Fellows building on Main Street

Ancient Order of United Workmen building on Main Street

Masonic Lodge on Eureka Street (Sign)

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