Downtown Leadville, Colorado
Photo by Danette Ulrich
A special nod: Recently, this high-elevation mountain town was named on USA TODAY’s 2020 10Best Historic Small Town list.
We are offering a two day class for graduate credit through Colorado School of Mines in June. If you are interested please click on this link
It’s undeniable that you will experience Leadville, Colorado has an attitude with altitude as it rises to 10,430 feet. Thus making it the highest incorporated city in the United States.
Leadville, Colorado, has a unique attitude combined with its high altitude. It goes without saying, these add to its charm. As a matter of fact, Leadville is also known as “Cloud City” and “two-mile high city,” is a well preserved, Victorian-era mining town once home to over 30,000 residents. Additionally, It was also referred to as “the wickedest place on earth” by some. Thus, adding another reflection of its perceived nature and notoriety. That aside, in its heyday, its population was second only to Denver. Yet, today because of its popularity, 2900 hardy folks are living here.
Most Colorado “boom towns” that sprang up during the gold and silver rush left only remnants of their heydays. Their rich histories and identities remain through rubble and decay. However, there are fascinating ghost towns and interesting folklore for us to enjoy today, leaving a testament to an earlier glory.
On April 26, 1860, Abe Lee discovered a rich load of placer gold in California Gulch, one mile east of Leadville. And so, a settlement known as Oro City was established here as thousands of minors arrived seeking personal bonanzas. Consequently, by July, the gold rush to the Colorado mountains was in full force, impacting the State’s landscape. So much so that we still see remnants of this frenzied race for riches today.
The founding of Leadville, Colorado
As a matter of fact, Leadville wasn’t founded until after silver was discovered in the area in 1876. One would think that Leadville’s high altitude would have been discouraging to many. However, during the mining boom, the lure of riches ensured that the town was flush with saloons, dance and gambling halls, and brothels. These industries lead to another boom of vice and questionable lifestyles, cementing the “Wild West” idea. As a result, Leadville became one of the largest and most notorious mining camps in Colorado.
The Railroad comes to Leadville, Colorado
In 1880 the Railroad reached Leadville and further expanded its population. In fact, over 100 miles of railroad tracks linked the hundreds of mines in the district. Even more, the gold and silver discoveries were generating great wealth among its citizens. Thus, this encouraged others to come to the Colorado mountains. Moreover, the mineral riches in the area and its inhabitants’ success led to the construction of hotels, Victorian mansions, and the Tabor Opera House, a cultural center of the town.
Leadville as a Historic Landmark
Without a doubt, Leadville was a typical “Boom Town” created by gold and silver fever. And yet, it has remained a viable community to this day. In fact, 70 square blocks of Leadville’s downtown were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Additionally, since this designation, the citizens have embarked on extensive preservation efforts to revive and maintain the town’s rich history.
Take a self-guided walking tour of downtown Leadville where you will see and visit important buildings such as the Healy House, the Heritage Museum, the Delaware Hotel, and Horace (the first Mayor of Leadville) Baby Doe Tabors’ home.
To be sure, Colorado’s historic mining districts tell of a State rich in precious minerals. Colorado is known for its mineral diversity, from silver and gold to large quantities of industrial minerals and coal. As a result, geologists and miners defined a broad area throughout central Colorado that contained many precious minerals. Thus, this area has been dubbed the Colorado Mineral Belt. Consequently, this particular region has produced much of Colorado’s mineral wealth since the 1800s.
Colorado’s Boom and Bust History
This being the case, prospectors came from all over the world to seek their fortune in the mountains of Colorado. Initially, when prices of minerals were high, mining hit “boom times.” As a result, the “boom times” created large communities like Leadville. However, more often than not, towns were abandoned after mineral prices fell or mineral deposits were depleted, leaving behind “Ghost Towns.” This resulted in a “bust” economy. Subsequently, these two terms, “boom” and “bust,” have been a familiar phrase throughout Colorado history.
Leadville’s many natural resources
Without a doubt, when you refer to Leadville, Colorado’s attitude, you are including thousands of miles of national forests and public lands that surround the town. Understandably, today’s residents are avid outdoor enthusiasts. Thus, Leadville’s charm comes from the authenticity of its citizens and its location. Indeed, it has the same popular draw as other vibrant Colorado mountain communities. However, I see it as more down to earth. Leadville doesn’t need the glamorous celebrity of some of the large ski towns and over-priced mountain resorts.
This is a list of some of the many Leadville Colorado activities that you can enjoy today
- Take a trip to Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad.
- Hike a 14er
- Fly-fish the Arkansas River
- Fish and boat at Turquoise lake or Twin Lakes
- Drive the Top of the Rockies National Scenic Byway over Tennessee Pass
- Roam miles of Leadville’s East Side Mining District, taking in its fascinating mining ruins. Map go Leadville’s County Roads.
- Mountain Bike it’s many trails.
- Off-road travel in a 4X4
- Come for the burro races.
- Race 100 miles
- Attend Octoberfest
- For unique fun, come for Leadville’s Ski Joring & Crystal Carnival Weekend.
- Visit historic buildings in town.
- Go to the mining museum.
- Take a walking tour
Directions to Trails: Leave directly from Leadville’s east side on 5th Street or 7th Street or find parking areas as you work your way up the mountain.
Who are the locals?
Without a doubt, people play hard here, and the great outdoors are part of their DNA. They seem as genuine and proud of their community as the early settlers and miners of California Gulch must have been. That said, they are a hardy stock of individuals. For example, they run above the timberline; they bike Colorado’s highest trails. As well, they enjoy Nordic skiing and driving snowmobiles through abandoned mining sites and Ghost Towns. To say nothing of driving 4WD vehicles over treacherous roads and passes. Perhaps, well known, 13,185 foot Mosquito Pass, nicknamed “The Highway of Frozen Death.” Whatever the season, you will find them in their backyard hiking, camping, fishing, and boating in pristine wilderness and historic areas.
Notorious and well-known Citizens of Leadville
Historically, the opportunity for great wealth in Leadville attracted many colorful characters. In fact, some of the famous people known to have visited or lived in Leadville include Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, “Chicken Bill” Lovell, Soapy Smith, Frank, and Jesse James, The Dalton Gang, Poker Alice, Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack, Unsinkable Molly Brown, Oscar Wilde, and Teddy Roosevelt.
Grant was intensely popular with the citizens of Colorado. He had visited several mining towns and operations further down the Arkansas Valley and those in the foothills close to Denver. And so, in1880 he arrived on the first train to Leadville. In fact, he was greeted by five bands and a 100-gun salute. He gave a short speech on a platform erected in front of the Clarendon Hotel built by Horace Tabor.
Of significance today: We can thank President Grant for the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. This gave former slaves the right to vote. He wrote: “The adoption of the 15th amendment constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life.” He viewed it as his most outstanding achievement as President.
Leadville’s developing wealthy class
As well, during this time, an upper class started developing alongside these other colorful personalities. Leadville played a significant role in many financial success stories of the day. Of those who made or expanded their wealth were Horace Tabor, Charles Boettcher, David May, Marshall Field, The Guggenheims, W. B. Daniel, Jesse McDonald, James V. Dexter, J.J. and Margaret “Molly” Brown and others. These people added to Leadville’s heyday as a modern, sophisticated city.
The “Unsinkable” Molly Brown
In 1886, a young girl named Margaret (Molly) Tobin followed an older sister and brother to Leadville, Colorado. Although she was 19 years old at the time, she quickly settled in as a seamstress. Molly came from humble beginnings working in a tobacco factory in Hannibal, Missouri. While in Leadville, she met and married James Joseph J.J. Brown. As fortune would have it, they became extremely wealthy from the success of the silver and gold boom in Leadville. As a result, Molly rose to celebrity status as a well-known and famously generous benefactor to others.
The Browns’ generous civic efforts
Molly became active in the early feminist movement. In fact, she helped establish the Colorado Chapter of the North American Women’s Suffrage Association. Her husband, James, turned from silver mining to gold mining as the U.S silver standard changed. Above all, he hoped to help combat the 90% unemployment rate that hit Leadville after the Silver Crash of 1893. While James Browns’ mining efforts were successful, in 1894, the Browns moved to Denver, where their lavish home can be toured today as Molly Brown House Museum.
Molly as a passenger on the Titanic
In 1912, Molly famously boarded the Titanic. Remarkably, she was one of the few survivors of the famous shipwreck. Afterward, she tirelessly helped others who had been rescued from the sinking ship and those who had helped to save others. In fact, she later established the Survivor’s Committee.
On a further note, Benjamin Guggenheim, a son of one of Americas wealthiest individuals, Meyer Guggenheim, a silver mine investor, and smelting operation magnate in Leadville, died April 15, 1912 (aged 46) aboard the RMS Titanic
By using her new fame, Molly continued promoting women’s rights, and she became the first woman to run for congress in 1914.
I am a daughter of adventure.Margaret Brown
Post Titanic Philanthropy
Subsequently, Molly helped erect the Titanic Memorial in Washington DC. Then, through her generosity, she established a WWI relief station for soldiers. Next, she was awarded the French Legion of Honor. Above all, Molly Brown became one of the most philanthropic socialites of her time. However, In the end, in 1932, at the age of 67, The “Unsinkable” Molly Brown died of a brain tumor. Still, she has been memorialized thanks to the stories and movies that help us remember a remarkable woman.