Paul Andersen: Leadville is Aspen’s true ‘sister city’
Walking the streets of Leadville recently was like walking through a museum diorama. Quaint Victorian homes cover a grid of streets on the hilly townscape where exists a palpable sense of history.
Aspen was once like this, as were Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Telluride and other resort towns that share humble origins as workingman’s communities and industrial centers in the high mountains of Colorado.
Aspen chooses its Sister Cities based on other merits than authentic connections through common origins. Chamonix, Bariloche, Garmisch-Partenkirchen — these are beautiful places, exotic and richly endowed. They fulfil the Sister Cities mission with an international exchange of cultures.
Leadville might as well be a foreign city for all its current dissimilarities to Aspen, and a Sister City exchange could go a long way in furthering a domestic melding of cultures and economies that were once communal.
Leadville is an impressive sight at 10,200 feet, the highest incorporated city in North America. Even more impressive are the Himalaya-like peaks surrounding the high valley of the upper Arkansas River — the tallest peaks in Colorado.
In “The High Road to Aspen — a History of Independence Pass,” the book I wrote with photos by David Hiser, Leadville figures prominently as Aspen’s progenitor. Independence Pass served as Aspen’s birth canal — across which men, animals, machinery, supplies and, most important, capital — were transfused over the Continental Divide starting in 1879.
Today, Leadville is considered by many to be a poor cousin to Aspen, but its Sister City status rings true to the century-plus-old relationship between these silver mining meccas of the 19th century.
Where today’s Aspen is polished and plush, Leadville is a bit rough around the edges — and even a bit rough in the middle. That’s because Leadville still has deep roots in mining whereas Aspen evolved far beyond its mining heritage into a loftier, perhaps haughty, center of culture and the arts, with a highly inflated resort image and economy.
A Sister City relationship with Leadville would add a much-needed dose of humility to Aspen by reminding us of the fluctuating fortunes of both cities. Leadville began in the 1870s as one of the most thriving mining centers in the United States, going full bore 24/7/365. It was even a candidate as the Centennial State’s capital.
Silver was the currency and Eastern capital was the engine for vast mining enterprises that are clearly visible today in railroad grades, glory holes and vast tailings ponds surrounding the old Climax Mine on the carved out face of Mount Bartlett, which held an enormous lode of molybdenum ore.
The Silver Crash of 1893 altered the trajectory of both cities, pushing Aspen into culture and resort while miring Leadville in a long downturn. The 10th Mountain Division troops who trained near Leadville flocked to Aspen after the war because skiing was already in ascendance here.
Leadville has skiing, too, at Ski Cooper, a modest but attractive little resort that features snowcat powder tours, cross-country skiing and a backcountry yurt system. And now that the 10th Mountain Hut system has built its new base of operations in Leadville, the hut system revolves far more on that side of the Great Divide than it does in Aspen.
Climate change, proximity to the Front Range and a growing outdoor economy are foreshadowing a promising future for Leadville, at least for those who don’t mind thin air and the long shadow of winter in the high sweep of that vast subalpine valley.
Even as the whims of history nudged Aspen away from its progenitor across the range, some links are indelible. Many of Aspen’s oldest names originated in Leadville — Clapper, Marolt, Deane, Stapleton, Anderson, Roberts.
Like a handful of today’s Aspen natives, Millie Carroll Roberts recalled that her forebears migrated from Leadville to settle on ranches in the Roaring Fork Valley, where she was born and raised.
Her grandmother, Anna McKenzie, was just 7 weeks old when she was carried across Independence Pass from Leadville in 1885. Family stories like these remind Aspen of its Leadville origins.
Aspen and Leadville have a long and enduring relationship that spans generations and historic epochs. They remain very different communities, but they’re closer sisters than they might appear.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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