Leadville: With all this history, who needs gondolas and Gucci bags?
August 4, 2005
Leadville wears its mining heritage and pioneer past like a badge on its sleeve – faded, but emblematic.
It hasn’t always been this way – at 10,200 feet above sea level, the highest town in the United States has been a draw for hard-core athletes. The two highest peaks in the state, Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, are just outside Leadville’s front door, and a number of summertime foot and biking races give athletes a chance to prove their worth in the thin mountain air.But things are gradually changing for tourism in Leadville, located a scenic 90-minute or so drive east of Aspen, over Independence Pass.”If visitors stop in here and aren’t asking for mountain biking or snowmobiling maps, recommending the history side of things is a good way to get them to stay in town a little longer than for lunch,” said Heather Latvala at the visitor center. “Once people finally get here, there’s so much to see and do that keeping them here for a day isn’t a problem.”Leadville’s historic downtown, centered around Harrison Avenue, is lined with buildings from the mining boom of the late 1800s. The town is home to the wildly informative National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum, the Tabor Opera House, which has been restored and looks much like it did in 1879, and a two-hour scenic train trip to the Climax Mine .
Leadville’s history isn’t unique among the mountain mining towns of Colorado’s Western Slope, including Aspen. But its commitment to the past is a tangible, almost patriotic one.”I think in America there’s a nostalgic, going-back-into-history push lately,” said Patricia Maher, publicist for Leadville, Twin Lakes and Lake County. “It’s a sort of fascination with our history – going back in time reassures people during a rough time in this country.”
“Everything begins with mining. Everything!!!” say signs hanging in Leadville’s National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum. This might as well be the town motto. Glance around and mining heritage abounds, from the rusty mining implements used as front-yard decorations to the huge tailings piles in the foothills of the Mosquito Range, northeast of town.To understand the heart of Leadville’s existence, it’s important to get a quick history lesson. Gold was found nearby in 1860 and prospectors flocked to the area, but most of Leadville’s notoriety came in 1877 with an enormous silver boom.In 1878 “Cloud City” renamed itself Leadville and a year later silver mining entrepreneur Horace Tabor built the local opera house, once billed as the finest theater between St. Louis and San Francisco. Doc Holliday, Susan B. Anthony and Oscar Wilde were some of the town’s visiting notables.But when the Sherman Silver Act of 1893 passed and silver was no longer the basis of the U.S. economy, prices plummeted and the town fell quiet. Leadville’s next mining boom wouldn’t come until 1918, when the nearby Climax Mine began producing molybdenum, a mineral used to strengthen steel.But Leadville’s soul, formed before silver went bust, is firmly intact. The town is a designated National Historic Landmark District, including 70 square blocks of original architecture.
Victorian homes rest on tiny lots surrounding the main street, some leaning and weathered by age, others meticulously cared for and layered with vibrant shades of paint. In a peaceful corner of town, stone gates mark the entrance into a historic cemetery, where miners and their families lie side by side with modern-day residents.An in-depth look at the industry that drew people to the mountains can be had at the museum that’s been called “the Smithsonian of the Rockies.”The National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum isn’t just for history buffs or mining enthusiasts – it’s a family-friendly walk through the treasures found underground. Its enormous edifice was originally an 1899 school, but now features a diorama room portraying miners rolling into the West and setting up the first sluices and camps.Families can wander their way into an authentic blacksmith shop and “hard rock mine” that weaves through the building with sound effects and mannequins along the way. The museum has everything from miners’ lamps to lunch pails and wooden boxes of dynamite.But the museum isn’t the only place to get a picture of Leadville’s mining past. In fact, it’s all around.
Amanda Good is a waitress at the Tennessee Pass cafe, one of a number of newer businesses located in historic buildings on Harrison Avenue. She also teaches art at the local elementary school, and likes living in Leadville specifically because it’s not a resort like Aspen or Vail.A core group of Leadville locals own businesses and form a tightknit community, she said, and the tourists don’t flock to town in droves until July and August, primarily during road trips around Colorado or for the early August “Boom Days” celebration. Boom Days includes a parade and a quirky, well-known burro race up 13,186-foot Mosquito Pass, events that echo the prosperous Old West. August’s 100-mile bike and running races in Leadville also draw an athletic crowd.
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In 1994, a community effort began to link Leadville’s historic and athletic sides, and the Mineral Belt Trail was born. The 12-foot-wide paved pathway loops 11.6 miles around and through the town, and opened to the public in 2000. The scenic trail attracts tourists, but it’s also handy for locals like Good as a link between Colorado Mountain College, the public schools, the library, the mining museum and multiple churches.Northeast of town in the mining district, the trail weaves through mounds of mine tailings, where rickety structures loom and the acrid smell of sulfur lingers in the air. Pools of water in the area are blood-red around the edges from leaching minerals – they’re fenced off to keep dogs from taking a dip.The trail is dotted with interpretive signs about mining claims and activities in the area, including a stop at the Matchless Mine. Horace Tabor made his silver fortune there, and the small cabin still stands where his wife “Baby Doe” Tabor was found dead in the 1930s, long after their fortune was gone.”When I started doing publicity for Leadville, I thought ‘Oh God, old mining sites,'” Maher said. “But when I finally saw that area, it was so fascinating that I’ve taken people back there six, seven times now. And there are killer views of the mountains.”
For more views, the Leadville, Colorado & Southern Railroad Company takes visitors on a two-and-a-half-hour, 26-mile rumble from Leadville to the Climax Mine and back on a portion of a track originally built in 1884. Back then, the trip from Leadville to Denver took 12 to 15 hours, said Liz Herron, who has been conducting on the train for the past 14 years.In her black conductor’s cap and vest, Herron wanders among the mostly open-air cars explaining the history of the area to passengers. Views of tall evergreens give way to a ride along a cliff edge with Mt. Massive in the distance and the East Fork of the Arkansas River below, as the train heads toward the Climax Mine.The cost of molybdenum was $3 a pound when the mine closed in 1986 – now that price is up to $38 a pound, Herron said, and a study is under way to determine if it’s economically viable to reopen the mine.The train is populated with young families and retired travelers – Amy Bannec of Bloomington, Ind., said her family was visiting Breckenridge and knew the train ride would be the perfect activity for her young children, who ran through the passenger cars with delight.
Leadville’s shops lure tourists with everything from fudge to minerals and gemstones, but the town’s most famous shop is practically a museum of antiques and collectibles. Western Hardware Antiques & Variety stands alone in its original 1881 building.Owners Bruce and Hillery McCalister note that the store’s original hardware fixtures – tiny wooden drawers towering to the ceiling and filled (presumably) with doorknobs, brackets and everything else – still adorn the walls, as do faded wallpaper, thick wooden flooring and a curious row of 19th-century bathroom stalls on the second floor. The rooms of antiques upstairs were once used for poker, Bruce said, adding that he’s also the president of the local historical society.”We really love it here, and when we moved here we dug in deep,” he said. Some locals say that Leadville is an inexpensive place to live and commute to Vail or Summit County for work; others seem intent building their own town’s notoriety.”We used to market Leadville by just trying to get people to stop on their way to Denver or Aspen,” Maher said. “Now everything I do promotes Leadville as a destination.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is email@example.com