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Legends & Legacies: Aspen and Leadville … rivals or partners?

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
One of Leadville’s smelters in 1928.
Library of Congress photo

There were many mining towns. Aspen and Leadville were two of the largest in Colorado. A short distance apart as the crow flies. Were they rivals loathing each other, or were they partners? The following evidence leans toward the latter.

Local newspapers championed their communities and their mines. Here is what the Leadville Weekly Democrat said about the new town of Aspen in 1880: “For its size and population, this is the liveliest and certainly one of the most promising mining camps of the state.” 

It may be that Leadville did not see Aspen as a rival then because Leadville was booming, on its second mining spurt. The first was for gold in the 1860s. In 1880, it was just a few years ahead of Aspen striking silver in the same geologic formations that were in Aspen. However, both towns needed investment capital and were competing for it.



The Leadville Weekly Democrat added, “Game is by no means scarce, elk and deer forms the only fresh meat used in the camp.” That could be read as positive, or maybe, compared to Leadville, a snide remark.

Aspen did not have a newspaper in 1880, but in 1881 much of The Aspen Daily Times’ advertising came from Leadville businesses. Likely, it would not have survived at that time without them.  Aspen was also dependent on the Leadville Stage that provided transportation to and from Aspen each day. It did reprint a story about Leadville from a Denver paper that described Leadville’s California Gulch as, “the site of the most wonderful mining region on the globe in comparable carbonate fields and the magnificent city of Leadville.”




By 1890, both cities were thriving, producing vast quantities of silver. Both papers extolled individual mines and their collective results. They detailed new discoveries and periodically noted total town tonnage of ore produced. The mining exchanges listed mines from both locations, their sales, and rise and fall spoke for each town. Aspen was the “Silver Queen.” Leadville produced gold as well as silver, but it was making its name as the state’s major ore smelting center.

They had more in common than they showed differences. Both, however, had to compete with other mining districts for investors and attention because a new mineral was competing: copper.

The Herald Democrat of Leadville in 1890 reported that Aspen was beginning to produce vast quantities of low-grade ore with 25 ounces of silver/ton showing a profit of $7. ($190 in today’s dollars) a ton after extraction and transportation, and 40 ounce /ton showing a $22 profit ($595 in today’s dollars) for each ton. It was maybe a compliment to Aspen, but the context of their statement adds another way of looking at it: “If the movement (of ore) towards the railroads (taking it to Leadville to smelt) should result as is expected, Aspen’s output will no doubt reach the figure for which it has long been contending.”

In 1920, both cities were enjoying expansion of mining activity. Citizens of both locations lived in both communities and went back and forth to do business and visit with family and friends. The Leadville paper advertised to its readers that they could get copies of the Herald Democrat in Aspen at Cooper Book and Stationary. It also reported that, locally, “four furnaces are now working full blast.” One-hundred-thirty cars of ore a day were being processed including, “heavy shipments from Aspen.”

The Aspen Times reported the silver-lead strike in the Matchless Mine, one of Leadville’s oldest, famous for its owners Horace and “Baby Doe” Tabor. Horace Tabor was an early investor in Ashcroft mines.

Both towns reported the basketball rivalry. The last games of the season were in Aspen, with Leadville winning the girls’ game 15 to 7, and Aspen boys winning 20-8. Since teams came by train and spent the night, it was not just a game. This was maybe more like today’s rugby, with fierce competition in the game but friendly camaraderie at the banquet after the game. The Leadville boys’ team captain conceded that Aspen, with its victory, had sealed the championship of the Western Slope, noting that they and Aspen would not recognize Glenwood, not a mining town, as champions.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net

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